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Trick or Treat
An unconventional cake captures the spirit of Mexican chocolate
With a glaze that suggests a spider web, Mexican Chocolate Cake makes a good dessert for Halloween, the American version of Mexico's Day of the Dead celebration.
TORN BETWEEN a respect for authenticity and a longing for culinary liberty, I sometimes feel a little culpable about serving a dish that has no roots in any traditional cuisine. When I asked my friend Marilyn Tausend what she thought of Mexican chocolate cake, she laughed. "Well, there is no such thing, of course."

As a nationally recognized author of several books on Mexican cuisine, and the leader of numerous culinary tours to the country, she ought to know.

"In Mexico, chocolate is very seldom used for anything other than drinking, or for mole," she said. "But things are changing all the time, and in the cities you'll see chocolate desserts."

Well, maybe there is no such thing, but I have been making something I call Mexican Chocolate Cake for more than a decade. Unperturbed by the lack of authenticity, I got it into my head some years back to make a cake that captured the strange spicy glow of Mexican chocolate. Sold in octagonal tablets in specialty stores and well-stocked supermarkets, Mexican chocolate combines rough chocolate, ground almonds, sugar and spices to be whisked into hot water or milk for a breakfast beverage. I like the beverage OK, but I also like to nibble at the hard, octagonal chunks like candy, and I wanted to make something that had the same flavor but was at once more refined than those tablets and more substantial than the beverage.

 Mexican Chocolate Cake
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Instead of trying to bake with the chocolate made for drinking, I decided to try capturing its character with conventional North American ingredients. I ground some almonds with some semi-sweet chocolate and allspice. Then I used the mixture to replace most of the flour in my basic recipe for sponge cake. I glazed the cake with chocolate, piped on some lines of white frosting, then ran a knife through the two glazes to create a kind of spider-web effect. I took the thing to a Mexican-themed potluck, where it joined a host of other non-authentic Mexican dishes and prompted several requests for the recipe. So I wrote it down, tried it again, and made it part of my standard repertoire.

Bakers have been doing this sort of thing for a long, long time. Perusing a 1966 copy of "Modern French Culinary Art" by Henri-Paul Pellaprat, I stumbled across a picture of a "Mexican Cake" that looked startlingly similar to mine. But when I examined the recipe, I found that under the glaze there were no almonds or spices, just a standard cocoa sponge cake with chocolate butter cream. I could not tell from the recipe what was supposed to make it Mexican. It was no more Mexican than a French poodle, but it looked delicious.

What makes my Mexican Chocolate Cake Mexican is not an authentic foothold in culinary tradition but a simple allegiance to the taste of Mexican chocolate. Take a bite and you'll immediately get it. And, for this Norte Americano, it makes a great dessert for the Day of the Dead, aka Halloween.

So who cares if it's not authentic?

Greg Atkinson is a Bainbridge Island writer and author of "The Northwest Essentials Cookbook" (Sasquatch Books, 1999). Betty Udesen is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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