triple chocolate mousse cake.

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.”


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

for garnish:

  • 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.

Garnish time!

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.

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  • Reply Faygie Moorvitch November 29, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    I remember once trying unsweetened chocolate as a kid, after not believing it when my mother told me it doesn’t taste good. I mean, it smells like chocolate. So why wouldn’t it taste like chocolate? Ugh. So, so gross.

    Your cake look sincredible, though!

    • Reply Faygie Moorvitch November 29, 2012 at 5:40 pm

      Make thst “looks incredible”.

    • Reply shannon November 30, 2012 at 3:33 pm

      me too! for me, i tasted cocoa powder, thinking it would be just like, a powdered Hershey bar or something. Obviously, i was extremely wrong. TOTALLY gross. A super unfortunate kid mistake, for sure.

      *chuckle* it was “sincredible”, for sure. 🙂

      • Reply Faygie Moorvitch November 30, 2012 at 3:40 pm

        I’m pretty sure I also once tried making chocolate milk with cocoa powder. Blech!

        • Reply shannon December 3, 2012 at 8:00 am

          (i’m feeling your pain right now. yeeeech!) 🙂

  • Reply natalie November 30, 2012 at 8:17 am

    this looks INCREDIBLE!!! and yes… i have WAY TOO MANY of “those days”…. and I totally made the same chocolate mistake just last week for a pie I was making… luckily I noticed JUST IN TIME…. i didn’t go back to the store though, instead I just chopped up some “extra dark” chocolate and prayed for the best… lol

  • Reply natalie November 30, 2012 at 8:17 am

    also, @Faygi, I think “SIN”-credible is a pretty accurate description! 🙂 SINFULLY-INCREDIBLE

  • Reply Sue/the view from great island November 30, 2012 at 9:19 am

    That is one involved recipe, I can’t believe you tackled it twice! You’re a braver woman than I, but it was clearly worth it…the layers look luscious!

    • Reply shannon November 30, 2012 at 3:28 pm

      Sue, i didn’t want to do it twice, believe me. 🙂 had it not been for The Power of The Surprise Birthday Cake (and because i felt compelled to finish what i started) this may never have made it to the blog. It was worth every second of time i spent on it, and when i make it again, it should only take me half the day (and not a full one). so that’s something to look forward to, because i’ll definitely make it again!

  • Reply Ashley November 30, 2012 at 9:26 am

    Oh no, the horror and the pain of incorrect chocolate! That such a thing as “incorrect chocolate” is even possible (it is chocolate, after all) is truly terrible. And it’s something I’ve done before, or tried to skirt around when I’m out of the correct chocolate, though it never works. Grrr! But I love your story of redemption. You know I’m a sucker for victory in the kitchen, having fought many battles against recipes in my career. And I also love your gentle reminder that all is not lost should a mistake occur, because it most certainly will. Thank you, O wise buddha of the kitchen!
    Your cake really does look amazing, and I bet Mr. Table was quite happy!

    • Reply shannon November 30, 2012 at 3:24 pm

      i know, right? i could have picked up any other chocolate and used it, and it would have probably turned out different, yet still edible. Except, of course, for bittersweet chocolate.
      ashley, it was as much a reminder to myself as it was to everyone else; when i fail, i take it personal, and i’ve really had to get past that in my own cooking! i know you’ve had your trials/errors as well, and it’s always nice to know we’re all not along in our mistakes. 🙂 probably one of the best things about blogging is knowing that no one is above disaster, and that it’s okay.
      he was SO happy. as was I; mistakes-turned-successes are sort of the BEST things to eat.

  • Reply Amy @ ElephantEats November 30, 2012 at 8:50 pm

    So glad your cake finally turned out right, Shannon! And how BEAUTIFUL it is…I can only imagine how amazing it tasted. That’s awesome that you persevered. I’m like you I think…I’m just NOT ok with failing at or being bad at something and would definitely attempt it again to prove to myself (and others?) that I can do it. I’m going to bake 8 different kinds of cookies tomorrow, several of which I’ve never made before, so I know there’s at least one failure in the making there 😉

    • Reply shannon December 3, 2012 at 8:04 am

      thanks! I can relate…failure is just not an option most of the time for me, either. Sure, there are things i’ll never be great at. Like snowboarding, for instance. But when you just KNOW you can do something, and it’s still not coming out right, it does get to where i just need to know i can do it and prove it to myself. I want to know how your cookies turned out! Love cookie-baking weekends…from reading blog posts/other comments, it sounds like it was Official Worldwide Cookie Weekend, so i’m thinking good thoughts for everyone who attempted new recipes in mass quanitity. 🙂

  • Reply movita beaucoup December 1, 2012 at 5:38 am

    You have basically described my entire first term at baking school.

    (Ain’t victory sa-weet?)

    • Reply shannon December 3, 2012 at 8:06 am

      I actually thought about your early-in-the-semester baking school debacles when this happened: just because failure sucks it, and your experience was like a lengthy version of my day-long one. my heart goes out even more now.

      and victory? TOTALLY sa-weet. Agreed.

  • Reply Brianne December 1, 2012 at 8:35 am

    I am such a crier when things start to go bad…which means that I cry basically every day. Graduate school does that to a kid. I get downright maleficent when something goes wrong in the kitchen. It’s a character flaw, I suppose. Mad props for perseverance, lady! This cake looks amazing!

    • Reply shannon December 3, 2012 at 8:11 am

      Ditto: i cry when i’m sad, but crying when i’m angry/frustrated/defeated happens all the time too. I think i’m just highly emotional or something, and it’s not always a bad thing, but when you’re crying over a cake…well. 🙂
      you just got bonus points for using the word “maleficent.” it reminds me of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (because wasn’t the evil witch named Maleficent? I think so). That’s some wicked grammar skills.

  • Reply Katherine @ eggton December 1, 2012 at 11:14 am

    I love love love the message in this post. I guarantee you I’m going to think about it several times this month and feel comforted by it when everything seems to be going wrong (say, 3 lbs. of kale gets stuck in my garbage disposal again and it costs $182 to get it removed? OH NO THAT WOULD NEVER HAPPEN.)

    • Reply shannon December 3, 2012 at 8:14 am

      I still can’t believe that KALE destroyed your garbage disposal. We’ve been told numerous times (ahem, oops) what NOT to put in there, but kale never made the list. Guess the repair dude wasn’t up on his hip greens, because he only warned me about things like celery and egg shells. OH, and repeatedly whizzing my measuring spoons around in it.
      failure = happens all the time. I suppose it’s nice to know we all do it, albeit behind the scenes.

  • Reply Carol Anne @ Rock Salt December 1, 2012 at 11:56 am

    Oh now, this looks very special. A fancy Christmas Day dessert? Could be, my friend. Could very well be… I could probably make layers one and two the day before, right? The bonus being, they’d definitely be cool by the time I stacked them up.

    • Reply shannon December 3, 2012 at 8:17 am

      It was VERY special, and i’ve considered making it again as a christmas day/new years-treat, because it’s so schmancy. You know how I feel about spreading out work over a day or two if you can, so i think it’s a great idea; it may actually work better that way. Had i not started it the day of the birthday, i would have done layers 1 and 2 the night before.

  • Reply Willow December 1, 2012 at 4:10 pm

    Shannon, I LOVE this post! Your writing is just incredible, and I love that you likened throwing away the cake to having to kill your husband if he were a zombie – pure brilliance! I literally busted out laughing when I read that.

    You also made me feel a million times more confident about all the cooking and baking I have piling up on my to-do list… because you’re right, there’s always at least one of those mess-up moments, sometimes even an entire mess-up day… but it’s good to remember that we can get through those times, make the best of them, and sometimes turn them around all together. I can definitely relate to your story about this cake. Thank you so much for sharing it!

    Also… that looks like some seriously. Tasty. Cake. Mmmmmm!

    • Reply shannon December 3, 2012 at 8:39 am

      Willow, that’s so sweet of you to say. My writing is honestly just me talking, and it makes me happy to share “me” through my writing…just like if i was hanging out with you in the kitchen. I love the opportunity to talk with all of you in a super informal way (and to ‘hang out’ with you on your blog/in your kitchen). And Mr. Table enjoyed that zombie reference as well; at least he knows now what the outcome would be if he were to morph into a zombie. No secrets, right?

      I’m all about wishing everyone a good baking month this month; we could all use some encouragement, i think. Before i started blogging, i really thought i was the only one who destroyed recipes, so it’s been so nice this past year or so to realize that we all get stressy about baking, and we all make mistakes. and that it’s okay. I’ve had entire mess-up WEEKS and it sucks, for sure, but it sucks less knowing everyone else boffs things up too. 🙂 I bet your holiday baking will be epic, and i’m excited to see what you do, and hear what turns out awesome.

  • Reply Jen @JuanitasCocina December 1, 2012 at 6:42 pm

    Girl, that’s not failure. That’s exercise for chocolate calories. Boom. Eat more cake.

    • Reply shannon December 3, 2012 at 8:40 am

      honey, i would have had to fail at 789 mousse cakes to balance out the calories i consumed on this cake. I’m eternally grateful this particular recipe didn’t list the fat and cals per serving. And i’m NEVER. going. to try. and find out.


  • Reply sara December 2, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    This looks so delicious…glad you finally got it right, ’cause WOW yum! 🙂

    • Reply shannon December 3, 2012 at 8:30 am

      Sara, thanks! and me too…because yes: WOW yum is an accurate statement. 🙂 I’m not even a huge mousse cake fan, and it blew me away with its deliciousness. I’ll never say how much i ate.

  • Reply Emma December 4, 2012 at 8:00 am

    Ohhh boy. So glad it turned out well in the end. Although after reading earlier comments, I’m wondering what’s wrong with me. I have a strange love for cocoa powder (raw), as well as unsweetened chocolate. And also, pure vanilla. Ooh, and uncooked potatoes, although that’s completely unrelated.

    Most of my baking fails these days involve me throwing things onto the floor. Last week, I was grinding up almonds for cookies (the last of my almonds, I should add), and the nut grinder teetered off the counter and there were half-ground almonds EVERYWHERE. And I had to use them, because they were all I had. Ooh, and I was only making the cookies because I was stress baking.

    They turned out okay though:)

    • Reply shannon December 8, 2012 at 9:00 am

      absolutely nothing is wrong with you: i think of it as sort of an ongoing challenge to see what it is you like and don’t like. I’m learning – slowly, but still learning. You have distinct tastes, clearly, but i don’t see that as a bad thing.

      ugh, I HAVE DONE THAT! not with almonds, but with other foods, and inevitably with things which are difficult to retrieve from the floor. stress baking + accidents = crying in this house. 🙂 i’m happy to hear they turned out okay…i hate to see any sort of ground almond cookies go wrong, because they are one of my favorites.

  • Reply Jennie @themessybakerblog December 5, 2012 at 11:57 am

    I had an epic failure just this week with a new pumpkin lava cake recipe I was trying to make. I trashed it, said my goodbyes, and pushed forward. It happens.

    The second cake looks gorgeous! Lucky Mr. Table.

    • Reply shannon December 8, 2012 at 9:15 am

      pumpkin lava cake! interesting! although i can see how that would be tricky to do. but you’re right: it happens. sometimes it’s worth redoing, sometimes…so not.

      thank you! he thought he was pretty lucky as well.

  • Reply ec January 16, 2013 at 1:39 pm


  • Reply Carol Anne @ Rock Salt December 23, 2013 at 9:06 am

    Just wanted to come back and say that I made this last Christmas, and it’s back by popular demand this year. It is SO GOOD, and your method is so clear, that I breezed through it. Also my sister and I had some for breakfast on Boxing Day. No biggie.

    • Reply shannon January 9, 2014 at 11:20 am

      Carol Anne, i am thrilled you made and enjoyed this over the holidays: you really do make me want to attempt it all over again, and i shall, when i get a little time and a break in our weather. Do i fault you and your sister for eating it for breakfast? No way: chocolate is good for you. No one would scoff at hot chocolate for breakfast, right? chocolate chip muffins? surely not. And mousse cake is basically the same thing.

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