The Chocolate Cake That Saved My Vacation

I don’t see how it’s possible to rack up frequent-flier points without racking up mishaps too. There will inevitably be delayed flights, bad meals, drivers who take the long way around town, lost scarves or hours spent wandering in a jet-lagged daze because your room’s not ready. Despite these annoyances — all of which I know well (I still miss the hand-knit gloves I bought in Copenhagen and left on the flight to Stockholm) — I’d always thought of myself as a lucky traveler. Until Lisbon. That’s where, earlier this year, I was felled by hubris, the tragic flaw of Macbeth and many of us who were raised in New York City.

I paid no heed to the concierge when she implored my husband, Michael, and me to take the sleek black tour bus across the street and steer clear of the No. 28 tram, a trolley that goes through the center of the city, passes a clutch of monuments, curves around, so that the shoreline comes into view periodically and majestically, and then stops on a hill with a vista. Mentioned in many guides as the ideal way to get a quick lay of the land as well as to be pickpocketed, I thought I could beat the odds. I’m sure it was the good-looking guy in the porkpie hat, the one turned toward me when everyone else on the tram was facing front, who got all my credit cards and my spunk too. I sat on a bench at the end of the line and cried.

Michael says that the first full sentence I uttered after I discovered the theft was: “Don’t tell the concierge!” I really didn’t want to hear her say, “I told you so.”

Over the hours that it took to call emergency centers on two continents, I went through all the stages of shock, anger and shame. I would never come to acceptance, and I hadn’t reached resignation, but was I ever hungry. Famished, actually, and craving the comfort I can usually draw from food. Armed with the must-taste list we’d spent days preparing, we headed out, each of us knowing that it would take something extraordinary to turn me around. That I didn’t go directly to the nearest chocolate store just shows how off my instincts were.

I regret that we had those huge gambas in sizzling garlic butter soon after what I came to call “the distraction,” because it was midbite that I realized that the missing case also had my driver’s license and a copy of my passport. I can barely remember the taste of those shrimp. Nothing unfortunate happened when I ate pastéis de nata, Portugal’s most famous dessert, a small flaky tart filled with custard and baked at a temperature so high the cream blackens and buckles; I ate a few of them daily, even taking a class to learn how to make them. Under other circumstances, the tartlets would have been everything I’d need to be happy; clearly I wasn’t ready for happiness.

It wasn’t until our last morning in Lisbon, when we visited the LX Factory, an abandoned cluster of buildings turned into spaces for artists, designers, craftspeople and cooks, that I knew I’d come to. It was the cake at Landeau Chocolate that brought me to my senses.

An airy cafe in the center of the clamorous complex, Landeau Chocolate is decorated with a mix of industrial lighting, flea-market finds and gorgeously photographed indie magazines, but the center of anyone’s attention is that chocolate cake, the only offering on Landeau’s menu. It sits on the counter, a model of elegance and restraint; it looks beautiful, but not uncommon. It’s only after a bite or two that its brilliance is revealed.

The cake part of the dessert is dark and dense, and has, as wine people often say, a long finish: The flavor holds on, playing bass to the cake’s softer and lighter notes. It’s topped with a chocolate cream — a mousse, perhaps, or a ganache, or something a magician conjures. And it’s covered with cocoa, so much cocoa that it can’t be thought of as decoration; it’s really a third component. Each forkful is a complete composition: The textures go from firm to feathery, the flavors building in intensity.

I bought a slice to have on the return flight to Paris, and a day later I tried to recreate it at home. What I finally made was a flourless chocolate cake with body, a whipped ganache with a texture like velour and a dessert that was, as all my favorites are, beautiful in its simplicity. Best of all, it achieved what the original had, that almost miraculous feat of being rich and bold, but not heavy. It’s true that every time I make it I think of the 28 tram, but the unpleasantness is momentary — chocolate heals.

Recipe: Lisbon Chocolate Cake

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