Some people prefer birthday cake, some birthday pie. I once knew a fellow who, in lieu of a birthday cake, asked for nothing more than a bowl of birthday cake frosting. My favorite birthday dessert, were I forced to choose, would be the birthday combo-pack, wherein one gets to have a dessert that is very conveniently comprised of several different desserts, like a cornucopia, only filled with baked goods instead of the fruits of one’s harvest. When I recently offered to make someone a birthday cake of his choice and was informed of his decision (carrot cake with cream cheese frosting), my first response was, “Really? Just carrot cake? What about a chocolate marble cake, because it has two kinds of cake in one? Or a black bottom cake, because it’s a cake with a cheesecake filling? Or how about two cakes? Wouldn’t you like to have two cakes for your birthday?”
To most people, this unstoppable desire to make more work for oneself would be viewed as nothing less than ludicrous. While I can’t argue with that assessment, I can at least justify my actions a little bit by explaining that when I am done making whatever cake or pie that someone has requested for a birthday celebration, I am, most of the time, also invited to eat whatever I have made, and therefore benefiting from our dessert negotiations more than one might initially realize.
So when it came time to prepare a birthday dessert for a beloved auntie who made the very simple request of having something that contained both chocolate and whipped cream, how could I resist the urge to fulfill her birthday cake wish many times over?
It started with the chocolate cloud cake from Nigella Lawson’s Nigella Bites. The chocolate cloud is a flourless cake, made sturdy with stiffly whipped egg whites gently folded into a rich and chocolaty batter.
The cake rises wonderfully in the oven, then delicately deflates as it cools, leaving a perfect indentation on top in which to place whatever one chooses. In this case, a creamy, bittersweet chocolate mousse is smoothed into the crater.
A simple dollop of whipped cream would, of course, accompany this cake very nicely, but, at this point, why limit the cake to one type of whipped cream? With just a few more ingredients and in almost no time at all, three flavors of whipped cream can be coaxed into soft peaks and then piled high into individual bowls, inviting the cake to be interpreted three different ways.
The whipped cream variations that made company with this particular cake were flavored with espresso, peppermint, and classic vanilla, and, while they were perfectly acceptable accompaniments, I see no reason to stop at those flavors. I almost tried out a ginger whipped cream, but the peppermint won out at the last minute. If you have any Frangelico on hand, a little glug into the chilled cream, pre-whipping, would produce a fantastic hazelnut whipped cream (the same goes for adding a bit of Framboise to make a raspberry whipped cream, or just adding a bit of bourbon if you’re looking for a great kick of flavor with a bit less sweetness).
Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of this dessert, however, comes not in its final form. When you’re cooking with such vast quantities of chocolate, including a simple mousse that skips the standard addition of raw eggs, you are left with several cooking tools that are amenable to being cleaned off with the help of others, and not necessarily by way of the sink. In particular, when it comes to cleaning chocolate anything off of mostly anything, in my house at least, you don’t have to go far to find yourself an assistant who is willing to help out in any way he can.
Chocolate Cloud Cake
From Nigella Bites
9 0z bittersweet chocolate
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
6 eggs: 2 whole, 4 separated
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon of sugar
9-inch springform cake pan
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line the bottom of the cake pan with baking parchment.
Melt the chocolate in either a double boiler or in the microwave, and then let the butter melt in the warm chocolate.
Beat the 2 whole eggs and 4 egg yolks with 1/3 cup of the sugar, then gently add in the chocolate/butter mixture.
In another bowl, whisk the 4 egg whites until foamy, then gradually add the remaining sugar and whisk until the whites hold their shape but are not too stiff. Lighten the chocolate mixture with a dollop of egg whites, and then fold in the rest of the whites. Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the cake is risen and cracked and the center is no longer wobbly. Cool the cake in its pan on a wire rack. The middle will sink as it cools.
Adapted from The America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 & 1/4 cups heavy cream, chilled
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons Dutch-processed cocoa powder
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled
In a small saucepan, slowly whisk together the cornstarch and 1/4 cup of heavy cream over very low heat. When the cornstarch has mostly dissolved (this should take under 1 minute), slowly whisk in another 1/4 cup of cream, the sugar, cocoa, vanilla extract, espresso, and salt. Stir constantly until the sugar dissolves (about 1 minute).
Transfer the mixture to a medium bowl and stir in the melted chocolate. Place the bowl in the refrigerator or freezer, stirring every minute or so, until the filling cools to room temperature and is slightly thickened, about 5 minutes.
Whip the remaining 3/4 cup of cream with an electric mixer on medium low speed until frothy, about 1 minute. Increase the mixer speed to high and continue to whip until the cream forms soft peaks, 1 to 3 minutes. Gently fold the whipped cream into the cooled chocolate filling until just combined.
Assembling the Cake
When the cake has cooled, gently pour the chocolate mousse into the crater that has formed in the center of the cake. Smooth the mousse as much as possible, then set chocolate mousse cake in the refrigerator until the entire thing has set, anywhere from 2-3 hours (the cake can, of course, be left in the refrigerator overnight, though after the top of the mousse has set it would be a good idea to cover the top of the cake with a sheet of plastic wrap).
Before serving, run a thin knife around the edge of the cake, gently separating it from the sides of the springform pan. If, when unlocking and removing the springform’s sides, the cake loses a few crumbs and appears a bit crackly, do not despair. One of the many charms of this cake is its rustic appearance, as it belies the incredible smoothness held within.
Top cake with whipped cream of your choice, by the slice or in the cake’s entirety.
You can make all three of the following whipped creams by buying one pint of heavy whipping cream and dividing it into thirds.
Vanilla Whipped Cream
2/3 cup heavy cream
scant 1 teaspoon vanilla extraxt
2 tablespoons confectioners’ cugar
Mocha Whipped Cream
2/3 cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons espresso powder
2 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar
2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder
Peppermint Whipped Cream
2/3 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons confectioners sugar
1/4 teaspoon peppermint extract
Whip cream in a mixing bowl with an electric mixer or whisk until cream begins to thicken. Add the sugar and flavorings and continue to whip until stiff peaks just begin to form.