I hope you’ll bear with me. I have no camera, or rather, I brought my point and shoot, but of course, since I neglected it so badly after the arrival of my wonderful DSLR, the point and shoot is stubbornly refusing to work now. The picture of the cake I took with my phone is nothing short of awful, however this cake is so good it makes up for an ugly picture; in real life, it was also very pretty, almost professional looking.
I don’t want to forget about this cake. The primary purpose of this blog is for my own reference. I like to have all my favourite recipes here, tried and tested, and go back to it when I need them. Besides, not only is this cake fantastic as is, it contains no less than four distinct elements that turned out perfect, useful building blocks for future dessert projects.
It gives me great pleasure to have all the special things I cook gathered here, a sort of diary: I do now and again remember that awesome something I did on that occasion before I started with this blog, and of course I don’t recall the recipe details. Being with my parents when they turned sixty is definitely a moment I want here. I also want to celebrate the exciting news about one of my closest friends being pregnant – I can’t be with her chatting and spoiling her with cake, but she’s in my mind so much these days.
The recipe itself comes from an idea of Laduree’s book, a chestnut and chocolate delight called duchesse. I changed the recipe completely, using it as a starting point, because of two reasons: I did not have the equipment to try the original meringues (and the guts! meringues have always been my biggest kitchen failures), and the recipe called for four different chestnut based components without explaining what they were supposed to be, and what ratio chestnut to sugar they were supposed to have. That was so annoying, I decided to ditch chestnuts in favour of another autumn treat, pears; I replaced the meringues with chopped praline on the sides of the cake. The result was a beautiful layered mousse cake that was rich and festive without being overwhelming, a rewarding project easy to adapt to a busy schedule, since it is made of several steps, but none of them takes very long. A make-ahead dream.
For the pear mousse, I chose a traditional cooking variety from Piedmont, pere madernassa, which has a fantastic bite when cooked and a rich flavour. The mousse was creamy but not overly rich and quite fresh, the pear bites were pulpy and juicy, adding both flavour and texture. If you prefer soft mousse use 2 gelatine leaves instead of three: I wanted to err on the side of firm since I had to cover it with icing, but it was probably not needed.
I did keep the walnut sponge recipe, which turned out great: I believe this type of sponge is called a daquoise, it is made just with egg whites. It has a neutral taste that showcases the walnut bits, and it is comfortingly soft without getting soggy at all even after two days sitting between mousse layers in the fridge. It had enough contrast with the mousse to make for an interesting counterpoint. It is quite easy to make, but you need to chop the walnuts by hand if you want to achieve the right texture for them. The sponge keeps its shape perfectly when cooking, so when piping make sure you are precise, and you’ll be rewarded with a very regular disk.
I dialled the walnut flavour up by decorating the sides of the cake with walnut and almond praline – it was delicious, my family was fighting over every little crumb of it. Praline is one of the ingredients with the most satisfying stress to yield ratio. It literally takes minutes to make and everybody loves it. The only caveat is to be very careful with the hot caramel: even if you are used to cooking and now and again touch boiling food with your fingers with no adverse effects, caramel is way hotter than that and will always produce nasty burns. Let’s say I learned it the hard way. So: make praline, it is dead easy, but keep your fingers and arms and children very far away from it until it is cold.
The smooth chocolate icing, milk chocolate in the original, and 50% cocoa solid dark chocolate for us, was a bit of a disappointment. It was very easy to work with, it looked very smooth and glossy immediately after applying, that’s why I think the recipe is a good one. It lost its gloss after a few hours in the fridge, but the biggest problem with it was the flavour. It is quite sweet even with dark chocolate, and not very intense. I could probably have obtained better results had I used a better, and darker, chocolate to start with. I was a bit naive: I bought an expensive chocolate that was very good when I was a child, but now, over the years, has considerably lowered its quality. I tasted the plain chocolate afterwards and it did just taste of sugar. What a disappointment!
Equipment is always a key point in this type of project: I improvised, and it worked. The only things you really need is a flat surface to cook the sponge, a whisk, hopefully electrical, parchment paper and a 20 cm diameter ring. I used a 20 cm spring form round tin, using the side ring to build the cake. I think you need a decent height here, around 10 cm. If you have a piping bag, great, if you don’t, use a freezing bag with a corner cut off. A flexible spatula is a great help with the icing, but you can make do with a large knife. Apart from that, that’s it. I know there is a part of me that desperately wants to be an engineer. I enjoy so much building tools, making them work, and finding inventive practical solutions. I had more fun making this cake than eating it, and it was really good.
60 Year Birthday Cake
Serves about 6-8 not very greedy eaters
4 egg whites
30 g all-purpose flour
pinch of salt
80 g walnuts
35 g almonds, peeled
65 g icing sugar (or caster)
50 g castor sugar
150 g dark chocolate, good quality
15 g sugar
15 g butter
60 g cream
30 g milk
1Kg cooking pears (make sure the flesh is firm)
35 cl whipping cream
3 gelatine leaves
50 g sugar
10 g butter
about 100 g sugar
about 50 g each walnuts and almonds
For the daquoise: Preheat the oven to 170 Celsius. Line 2 baking trays with parchment paper, and draw a 20 cm disk on their back using a pencil. If you have them you can also use two 20 cm spring forms, lining the bottom with parchment paper. I did one and one and both worked pretty well.
Chop walnuts coarsely. You want to make sure they are big enough but they can go through the hole in your piping bag, so I think around 5 mm max width is ok. Grind almonds finely with icing sugar (if you don’t have icing sugar, just whizz quickly some normal sugar, then add the almonds to it until everything is a fine powder). Whisk egg whites until stiff, then fold in the remaining (castor) sugar and whisk for a couple more minutes until well incorporated. Mix the flour with the ground almonds, the walnuts and a pinch of salt. Add one tablespoon at a time to the whipped egg whites, mixing gently in order not to lose too much air. When the meringue is uniform, put it in a piping bag (or use a freezer bag with a corner cut off) and spread it on the prepared circles at about 1.5 cm thickness. Make sure the disks are quite uniform as they will keep their shape. Cook for about 20 minutes until the outside is golden and they are soft but dried. Leave to cool.
For the mousse: peel, core and chop the pears in 1.5×1/5 cm cubes. Add sugar and butter to a wide pan, and when they are melted and caramelized add the pears. The caramel will first solidify and then melt with the water released from the pears. Let cook until they are soft but still retain their shape. That took almost half an hour for my perfect cooking pears. Also, make sure they don’t burn: if they are particularly unripe, you may need to add a few tablespoons of water. Let cool slightly, meanwhile soak gelatine in cold water for about 10 minutes. Process about 3/4 of the pear cubes together with all their juices to a smooth pure. Set the remaining pear cubes aside. Put processed pears back to the pan and add the gelatine leaves, well squeezed. Mix until the gelatine has dissolved, then let it cool off completely. When the pear puree is cold, whip the cream, then gently combine until uniform.
Assemble the cake: line a 20 cm ring with foil. Cut a cardboard round of 20 cm diameter and wrap also this one with foil. You can buy a pre made one, or you can make it double if your cardboard is on the thin side. Put the cardboard on the bottom of the ring. Insert one layer of cake sponge, cover with a little less than half of the mousse, then arrange the remaining pear cubes on it. Cover with the other sponge, pressing slightly, the finish off with the remaining pear mousse, making sure it is perfectly level and as smooth as you can. Leave to cool in the fridge for at least 2 hours, or possibly overnight.
Make the praline: choose a heavy bottomed pot, with high borders but is quite wide. I like to use my pressure cooker for this. Cover the bottom with sugar, the exact amount will depend on the size of your pot. The layer should be a couple of mm thick. Put on high heat and let the sugar dissolve. You can swirl the pan to help even dissolving but don’t mix it with a spoon now. Have almonds and walnuts ready nearby, as well as a layer of parchment paper. Keep watching the caramel because it goes from perfect to burned in a blink of an eye. When the caramel is dark golden, but not black, take it off the heat and add the dried fruit to it. Now use a wooden spoon to toss around the fruit to cover it well with caramel on all sides. When all the fruit is covered, tip the contents of the pot to the parchment paper. Make sure you don’t touch them, they are still very hot. Leave to cool completely, then chop into praline. I prefer to do this by hand because I liked the uneven texture, but you can do that with a good processor, if you are careful. It should not turn into a powder. Keep in an airtight container until ready to use, otherwise the caramel will melt with the air humidity.
Make icing and assemble the cake: make sure you can take the cake out of the ring with some gentle encouragement (slip a knife around the border if you have trouble with this). Put the ring back on for protection and put in the freezer for around half an hour: the cake must be very cold, but not frozen. This will ensure the icing will set well on it.
Chop the chocolate (it helps if you have kept this in the freezer for ten minutes). warm milk, sugar and cream until boiling, then add to chocolate and butter and stir until melted. Let cool and thicken slightly. When it is a bit thicker, put the cake with its cardboard base on a cake rack, then spread the icing uniformly on its top. The icing will go down the sides. Spread it with a palette knife or a flexible spatula so that also the sides are covered. Make sure the top is glossy and even. but don’t worry too much about the sides. The icing will set pretty quickly since the cake is cold. When it looks stable enough and you are happy with the top, cover the sides with praline crumbs: put praline on the palm of your hand and press it gently on the sides of the cake. It is much easier than it sounds, since the praline sticks to the icing. The icing does not go hard, it stays quite sticky and fudgy.
Arrange the cake on a serving plate. Keep in the fridge until you are ready to eat it.