Now seems like a good time for a little pre-holiday baking story. A story about trying to do something for someone else, failing miserably, and then sucking it up and kicking defeat to the curb. It’s almost December, which means it’s almost time for large quantities of cookie-burning, pie-dropping, and the sort of hurried multitasking that results in not just one thing done poorly, but many things, all at once. Something you do will be a failure this month. It’s okay; we all do it. This is my story of disaster and subsequent triumph.
It all started with a birthday present cake. I thought it would be nice to surprise Mr. Table with a cake I knew he had seen on America’s Test Kitchen quite a while ago. I remembered it for its gorgeous structure and pristine, clean lines. It was perfect, and Chris Kimball made it look oh so easy to put together. That’s what ATK prides itself on, right? They take recipes, break them down, and reform them to be the tastiest, most successful versions of themselves. I own the cookbook this particular dessert is housed in, so it was simply a matter of buying a few ingredients, following directions, and voila: birthday mousse cake.
Wrong. Because my fatal flaw kicked in the day I was to make the cake. Everyone has one of those: it’s the thing you do, and you hate that you do it, and it gets you every time. Mine? On a scattered day, my brain turns to mush around instruction. it simply cannot process information given to me in black and white. It’s actually quite stunning the lengths to which my mind will go to make me screw things up.
On cake day, I happily made my list, went to the market, and got to work. You make the cake in three stages (obviously), and on the first layer, I noticed it wasn’t coming together as smoothly as I’d hoped. It seemed…something. Dark. Heavy. But I hadn’t left anything out, and for once I followed the directions exactly. Into the oven, out of the oven…and I had an odd, incredibly dark (yet not burned) bottom layer. Which smelled like straight cocoa powder. Undeterred, I focused on the second layer, the chocolate mousse part. I got to the folding part and noticed that nothing was really coming together; like, at all. I kept folding, the almost-mousse kept resisting, and finally, I had to stop. So I tasted it, just to see if at least that was good.
I choked on it. It was horrible. It tasted like bitter, angry chocolate. I was frantic; what had I done? I ticked off every single ingredient and step and I saw nothing amiss. And then I happened to glance again at the ingredients and knew; I had written down “unsweetened chocolate” when the book said “bittersweet chocolate.”
DO YOU KNOW HOW MASSIVE THE DIFFERENCE IS BETWEEN USING UNSWEETENED CHOCOLATE AND BITTERSWEET CHOCOLATE IN A RECIPE WHICH IS DOMINATED BY CHOCOLATE??!?
It’s a gap as expansive as the ocean, my friends. Never make that mistake, or this is where whatever you are making will end up.
The garbage. It’s not fun to throw hard work in the trash, but sometimes it’s easier than you think. It’s like how if your husband turned into a zombie, and you had to kill him to save your own life and that of your loved ones; it would still be difficult, sure, but he isn’t the person you loved any longer. This cake basically turned into a zombie, so killing it was something I felt obligated to do. It was for the good (and the safety) of humanity.
I thought about quitting. I thought about sitting on my kitchen floor and crying. After all, my first layer was obviously revolting, I didn’t need to taste it. The second layer was so bad it wouldn’t even incorporate itself properly, probably due to shame. I had no chocolate left. I would have to go to the store again. Each layer had to chill before the next could be added, it was noon, and I had a baby due for a nap very, very soon. So did I sit on the kitchen floor and cry? Yeah, a little bit, okay. But after I cried, I got up, put some non-yoga pants on, and went to the store for more chocolate. I was going to make. this. cake.
I got the correct chocolate. I redid the first layer, and it looked fantastic; completely different from the first time. Even though it’s the baked layer, it somehow has all the qualities of a mousse, only it provides a stable surface for the actual mousse to perch on. I made the second layer, and it was a lot of work in the folding department, but it came together this time and tasted like a chocolate cloud. I hadn’t even made it to the white chocolate layer, the first time, but it was light, airy, and the perfect complement to the first two layers.
The cake? It was worth all the money spend on extra chocolate, the extra trip to the store, and the incredible amount of my day it used up. It was phenomenal. Like a cake you’d never normally order at the restaurant you wouldn’t normally get to go to, but you went for something special, so you ordered it to top off your night. It’s fancy. It’s superb. It’s rich, so you’d better invite other people to whatever you’re making this for. But above all, it’s something I had fun doing. Even though I completely failed halfway through.
The moral of my story is this: You will fail at something this month. It’s statistically impossible, with everything we all have going on in December, not to fail with at least one thing. You may fail at more than one thing. It may even be something critical. Don’t cry on your kitchen floor. Or do, if it makes you feel better. But just know that you can fix it. It’s probably not as life-altering as it feels like, and last I checked, butter, flour, and sugar exist in seemingly limitless supplies at your grocery store. The holidays should be fun, and sometimes that takes some work, but don’t let mistake suck the life out of your joy this season. Who knows? Redoing a failure may even end up being fun.
Happy pre-holidays. I can’t wait to celebrate with you again this year.
Adapted from the always-solid The Complete America’s Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook 2001-2011 (I linked you to the most recent version of this, which includes both the 2012 and 2013 seasons) by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated.
Triple Chocolate Mousse Cake
for the base layer:
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon-sized pieces
- 7 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped (I used Ghirardelli bittersweet baking chocolate)
- 1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 4 large eggs, separated
- 1/8 teaspoon table salt (like, the one time I use regular salt versus kosher or sea)
- 1/3 cup tightly packed brown sugar, lumps squished out (thank me later, but you will want to do that with this recipe)
for the middle layer:
- 2 tablespoons good-quality cocoa powder
- 5 tablespoons hot water
- 7 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped (again, I used Ghirardelli bittersweet baking chocolate)
- 1 1/2 cups chilled heavy cream
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 1/8 tablespoon table salt
for the top layer:
- 3/4 teaspoon powdered gelatin
- 1 tablespoon water
- 6 ounces white chocolate (I use Ghirardelli white baking chocolate, not the chips)
- 1 1/2 cups chilled heavy cream
- chocolate curls (which I purchased at my grocery store, who lovingly curls chocolate for me and places it in a to-go container. Mad respect, Dierbergs. Thank you.)
a note before we begin: You’ll notice a theme here. That theme is melt, whisk, and painstakingly fold until your arm wants to fall off. It’s really not all that bad, but it is going to involve patience, attention, and you not having anything better to do with your time for a few hours. Be gentle, don’t rush, and you’ll have a gorgeous, very impressive finished product. We’re talking oohs and aahs here, so be worthy of the praise.
the base layer:
Preheat your oven to 325˚F and generously butter the bottom and sides of 9-inch springform pan.
In a large heatproof bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water (the bowl should not touch the water), Melt butter, chocolate, and espresso powder, stirring occasionally until smooth. Remove from heat and cool mixture slightly, about 5-10 minutes. Whisk in vanilla and egg yolks slowly, pouring them in as you whisk and not stopping until everything is completely incorporated. Set aside.
In stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment (or in a large bowl using an electric mixer), beat egg whites and salt at medium speed until frothy, about 30 seconds. Add half of the brown sugar and beat for about 10 seconds, then add remaining brown sugar and beat at high speed until soft peaks form, about a minute or so longer. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold in 1 cup (approximate here, just scoop) of beaten egg whites into chocolate mixture to lighten. Fold in remaining egg whites until no white streaks remain. This will take a good bit of time; remember to be patient and keep folding, using a bottom-to-top-and-over motion until everything is evenly distributed. Carefully pour batter into prepared springform pan, gently smoothing top with your spatula.
Bake until cake has risen, is firm around edges, and center has just set but is still soft (center of cake will spring back after pressing gently with finger), 13 to 18 minutes. The sides may have pulled away from the pan; this is perfectly fine. Gently transfer cake to wire rack to cool completely, about 2 hours. You really do want it completely cool, so don’t rush things. Do not remove cake from pan.
and now, the middle layer:
Whisk cocoa powder and hot water together in small bowl with a fork, being sure to press out all the cocoa lumps, until the mixture is relatively smooth; set aside. Melt chocolate in large heatproof bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water (as before, don’t let the water hit the bowl directly), stirring occasionally until smooth. Remove from heat and cool slightly, 5 minutes.
In clean bowl of stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment, whip cream, granulated sugar, and salt at medium speed until mixture begins to thicken, about 30 seconds. Increase speed to high and whip until soft peaks form when whisk is lifted, 30 to 60 seconds, being careful not to overwhip.
Whisk cocoa powder mixture into melted chocolate until smooth, looking for any lumps and pressing them against your bowl to dissolve. Using a rubber spatula just like before, fold about a cup of the whipped cream mixture into chocolate mixture to lighten. Fold in remaining whipped cream gently with your spatula until no white streaks remain. Patience, my friend; white streaks here mean uneven mousse, so go slowly and make it all even. Carefully spoon mousse into springform pan over (completely!) cooled cake, working from the center and spreading outward to avoid getting any excess up the sides. Gently tap pan on counter a few to remove any large air bubbles; smooth top lightly with your spatula. Refrigerate cake at least 30-45 minutes while preparing top layer.
the summit! time for the top layer:
In small bowl, sprinkle gelatin over water; let stand 5-10 minutes until gelatin has set up (bloomed). Place white chocolate in medium bowl. In small saucepan over medium-high heat, bring ½ cup cream to a low simmer. Remove from heat and add gelatin mixture, whisking until fully dissolved. Pour cream mixture over white chocolate and whisk briskly until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth, about 1 minute. Cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally, 5 to 8 minutes (mixture will thicken slightly).
In clean bowl of stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment, whip your remaining cream at medium-high speed until it begins to thicken, about 30 seconds. Increase speed to high and whip until soft peaks form, another 30 seconds or so. Use your best judgement: it should look like a soft whipped cream, similar to Cool Whip. Using whisk, fold about a cup of whipped cream into white chocolate mixture to lighten. Do I sound like a broken record? You’ve basically made three pies by now. Using rubber spatula, fold remaining whipped cream into white chocolate mixture until no streaks remain and everything is homogenous. Just as you did with the middle layer, spoon white chocolate mousse into pan over the chocolate layer, working from the inside and spreading out. Gently smooth the top with your spatula.
I get excited about garnish time, as it does not involve any folding. If you’re using chocolate shavings to garnish, sprinkle those in the manner you see fit over top your cake. I like a 1 1/2-inch little ring around the perimeter, but go about it how you want to. Return cake to refrigerator and chill until set, at least 4 hours.
Think lemon bar meets cheesecake here: You’re wanting a thin, sharp, clean knife to cut these pieces, with as little hesitation as possible. Just go for it: Slice one side, wipe your knife on a damp towel, then slice again. You’ll end up with beautiful cake slices, and they won’t have chocolate lines in the white part.