The 80s dessert “Death by chocolate” by chef Marcel Desaulniers

The layered cake known as Death by Chocolate debuted as a special in 1982 at Trellis, a fine American restaurant in Williamsburg, Virginia, and built a cult following long before a dessert could achieve fame instant on social networks.

It’s worth noting that it was a pretty strange time for chocolate. Her pleasure was distorted, often presented in the culture as a monstrous, feminine temptation to be punished by the maniacal repentance of a “Cathy” cartoon. But chef Marcel Desaulniers, who died last month at age 78, was less interested in guilt than in the pure joy of extravagance.

That was his mission with Death by Chocolate, which he developed with pastry chef Donald Mack. It was an architectural marvel that stood 10 inches tall and weighed over 10 pounds. At a time when every serious restaurant had its sumptuous layered chocolate dessert, this one stood out. Slice by slice, word spread, and the kitchen was quickly assembling up to 16 cakes a day to meet demand.

A few months after its debut, people calling the Trellis to make reservations were checking with the host to see if Death by Chocolate would definitely be available because, look, some of them were traveling very far to get a taste of this thing . Diners asked for the recipe, changing their minds when they realized it was actually several sub-recipes thrown together in a multi-day process. This was the definition of a special occasion cake. He received fan mail.

Death by Chocolate made Mr. Desaulniers famous, but he went on to create many other chocolate desserts, cakes and cookies.Credit…Bill Tiernan for the Virginian pilot

The success of Death by Chocolate brought Mr. Desaulniers national attention, and he met the moment, giving himself the wacky nickname “ganache guru.” He has written 10 cookbooks (eight of which are chocolate-themed), starred in two cooking shows (including one about chocolate), taught cooking classes, and made countless appearances on national television.

The phrase Death by Chocolate quickly entered the American vernacular as shorthand for all things over-the-top, winking-faced, better-than-sex, and chocolate-flavored. Bennigan’s registered the trademark in 1986.

Mr. Desaulniers said the name came from an article in Gourmet magazine, in which the author described a dense, single-layer French chocolate cake called “die de chocolat”, or die of chocolate. I imagine Mr. Desaulniers raising his eyebrows: Do you call it death by chocolate? Ha! I’ll show you Death by Chocolate!

Growing up in a second-generation French-Canadian family in Woonsocket, R.I., Mr. Desaulniers enjoyed few treats beyond an occasional chocolate bar and his mother’s homemade cookies. His father, who died when Mr. Desaulniers was about 10, operated a dry cleaning business.

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1965, Mr. Desaulniers was recruited. Stationed in Vietnam as a Marine, subsisting on cold canned ham and turkey bread, he spent his time daydreaming about food, especially sweets. “I would fantasize about Rabelaisian romps through puddles of hot chocolate sauce,” he wrote in his 1992 cookbook “Death by Chocolate.”

The book chapters and dishes with titles like “chocolate madness” and “chocolate phantasmagoria” were already a bit exaggerated, but they were also the expression of a man who never underestimated the powerful happiness, albeit ephemeral, of a candy at the right time. At Trellis, one of Mr. Desaulniers’ favorite moves was what he called “the panoply,” surprising a table with a large tray containing one of each dessert on the menu.

At age 12, I lived in rural France and had never been to the United States, but Mr. Desaulniers’ book “Desserts to Die For” was a gift from a family friend who knew that I loved studying out of my league. recipes. I made her 90s “chocolate resurrection”: individual fondant cakes topped with caramel baskets containing fresh raspberries. The caramel was too cold when I flaked it, which meant it was too thick, and I overcooked the cakes by a minute, which dried them out, but the recipe had been a great guide, even teaching me how to remove the caramel from the pan. . (Add water, boil it.)

Death by Chocolate was more intimidating and the recipe in “The Trellis Cookbook” (1988) did not have a picture. “It must be warned that this is a recipe that takes time and money,” Mr. Desaulniers writes in the postscript, which also gives a suggestion on how to divide the steps into three days manageable cooking times.

Why go to all this trouble? Before opening Trellis, Mr. Desaulniers had spent years selling industrial cake mixes and pie fillings to institutions; cooking from scratch, often with regional Virginia ingredients, was a point of pride.

Death by Chocolate involved baking a disc of cocoa meringue; chocolate mousse ; a second chocolate mousse, a little different and infused with coffee; a chocolate and butter ganache; a layer of brownie to slice horizontally; and a chocolate-rum sauce.

Temperatures and textures had to be just right for the cake to have structural integrity. Two different nozzles were needed for the piping. The instructions were long but precise, down to how to cut the cake with a serrated knife run under hot water. You had the impression that Mr. Desaulniers really wanted you to do things right.

I’ve never tried Death by Chocolate, but re-reading the recipe, I felt a deep appreciation for its intensity and commitment – particularly now, when pastry kitchens are often considered non-essential expenses, even in “good” restaurants, where a dessert menu may contain little more than an overly gelatinized panna cotta and a scoop of mediocre ice cream.

I also wondered if this chocolate cake that made the most could now break the algorithm of our collective food obsessions. If it debuted in 2024, would it be just another special, here one week, gone the next? After all, Death by Chocolate was not designed for the camera, but for the eye.

Knowing this, in 1982, Mr. Desaulniers employed an infallible strategy. He simply paraded a cake around the dining room, hoping the diners would notice.

Of course they noticed. Everyone turned to see him, glamorous and brilliant, under a shield of rosettes. Ooh, what is it, they asked their servers. The name drama must have helped. Mr. Desaulniers had nothing else to do: Death By Chocolate demanded to be decided.

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