Let’s begin with a birthday

Here it is! After months of deliberating over whether or not to create a food blog, I’ve finally gotten my act together and, well, you’re looking at my final decision! In the last few months I’ve been half way around the world and back, and I’m just starting to get back to life as it was before…almost. Traveling to South Africa was my call to snap out of a life of settling. You know how that is? To settle? Well, I think we all do a bit of it, whether we mean to or not. Why? Because accepting whatever is around is a lot easier than going out and finding the best there is. That’s not to say to search relentlessly for perfection; rather, know yourself, and those who fit that picture. It’s actually a lot easier than you think…

The kitchen is where I find comfort. I’m addicted to recipe hunting and preparing the perfect meal for good company. The kitchen is where I learn about myself; cooking is a test. Patience, ingenuity and drive can take you very far when standing in front of a recipe and a bag of groceries. I’m not saying that I possess all of those coveted characteristics, but when I challenge myself in the kitchen and fail, my reactions under pressure teach me the most about my weaknesses. Settling would leave me making spaghetti with cheese and butter every night, or worse, serving it from a can. And so, I don’t. Instead, I do. I do know I can make anything, I can make the best. Thus, when it came time for my 21st birthday, I knew I had to make my own birthday cake. Why would I leave the cake of my most important birthday thus far in someone else’s hands? It took me about two hours to find the recipe, but boy was it golden.

I chose to make the 12 Layer Mocha Cake from Gourmet’s December 2008 issue. It promised to be elegant, and it was pure decadence. With a name like that comes a lot of time and a lot of effort, but hey, that’s the fun part. It took two days for me to prepare this cake (in between baking other treats for the occasion…cardamom crescents anyone?) and it all had to be handled with extreme care. The three non frosting layers: yellow sponge cake, chocolate soufflé  and hazelnut meringue are all prepared in 10″x15″ pans with a 1/2″ rim, so you can probably already guess at how layering the cake went…veeery slooowly. The preparation of those layers was actually pretty basic with the help of a stand mixer. There was a lot of folding egg whites, and that can tend to be tricky (I’m still learning how to perfect the art…), but luckily nothing really had to rise here – the chocolate soufflé  layer is actually a “sunken soufflé “-.  The mocha and coffee buttercreams were the tricky part.

The base coffee buttercream recipe isn’t your basic one, i.e. butter, powdered sugar, flavor, beat until smooth. Why would Gourmet put something so simple and yummy like that?? No, instead, they decided to really make this cake fancy by using a meringue based buttercream. Essentially, this frosting has an egg white base, which makes it glossy, light and heavenly. The part that gets a little hairy is when adding the syrup into the egg whites. I held my breath pouring that hot liquid into my beautifully peaked whites, hoping it didn’t just turn into a frothy mess of crystallized sugar chunks, and it worked! With the stand mixer on high, the syrup whisked in perfectly. The recipe instructs that you beat the meringue for 30 minutes until cool, but I did 50 minutes (poor little mixer…). I also used 3 1/2 sticks of butter instead of 6 (weak moment), and while my frosting layers weren’t as thick as the ones in the photo, it was probably for the better. This was an incredibly rich cake, but probably the best cake I’ve ever had. With the espresso syrup soaked sponge layer, mocha buttercream, hazelnut meringue, coffee buttercream, chocolate soufflé  , more coffee buttercream and then repeat, I think you can imagine the flavor explosion. I was a bit disappointed in my weak eating performance…really slacking there, but at least I can say that it all pulled together!

12 Layer Mocha Cake (adapted from Gourmet December 2008)

For cake layers:

4 large egg yolks at room temperature 30 minutes; 2 tablespoons whole milk; 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract; 3/4 cup sugar, divided; 1/2 cup all-purpose flour; 1/4 teaspoon salt; 2 large egg whites at room temperature 30 minutes

For soufflé layers:

6 ounces fine-quality 60%-cacao bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped; 1/4 cup water; 5 large eggs, separated, at room temperature 30 minutes; 1/4 teaspoon salt; 1/2 cup sugar, divided; 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder

For meringue layers:

2/3 cup hazelnuts (3 1/2 ounces); 3 large egg whites at room temperature 30 minutes; 1/8 teaspoon salt; 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar; 1/2 cup sugar

For syrup:

1/3 cup water; 2 tablespoons sugar; 1 teaspoon instant-espresso powder

***Equipment: 3 (15-by 10-inch) 4-sided sheet pans (1/2 inch deep)

Make cake layers: 

Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Butter 1 sheet pan and line bottom with parchment paper, then butter parchment. Dust with flour, knocking out excess. Whisk together yolks, milk, vanilla, and 1/2 cup sugar in a large bowl until combined well, then whisk in flour and salt until smooth. (Batter will be thick.) Beat whites with an electric mixer until they just hold soft peaks. Beat in remaining 1/4 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, and beat until whites just hold stiff peaks. Fold one third of whites into batter to lighten, then fold in remainder gently but thoroughly. Spread batter evenly in pan and rap against counter to release any air bubbles. Bake until cake is dry to the touch and pale golden, 10 to 11 minutes. (Leave oven on.) Cool completely in pan on a rack. Halve cake crosswise, cutting through parchment, to form 2 (10-by 7 1/2-inch) layers.

Prepare soufflé layers while cake bakes:
Line second sheet pan with parchment paper. Melt chocolate with water, then cool to lukewarm. Beat yolks, salt, and 1/4 cup sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at high speed until thick and pale, about 5 minutes with a stand mixer or 8 minutes with a handheld. Fold in melted chocolate. Beat whites with cleaned beaters until they hold soft peaks. Beat in remaining 1/4 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, and beat until whites just hold stiff peaks, about 5 minutes. Fold one third of whites into chocolate mixture to lighten, then fold in remainder gently but thoroughly. Spread batter evenly in lined sheet pan.

Bake soufflé layers: 
Bake until puffed and a wooden pick inserted into center comes out with a few crumbs adhering, 25 to 30 minutes. Transfer pan to a rack, then cover top of soufflé with 2 layers of damp paper towels. Let stand 5 minutes. Remove towels and cool soufflé completely in pan (soufflé will deflate as it cools). Sift cocoa over soufflé, then loosen edges with a sharp knife. Halve soufflé crosswise, cutting through parchment, to form 2 (10-by 7 1/2-inch) layers.

Make meringue layers: 
Toast hazelnuts, then cool, wrapped in a kitchen towel, and rub off any loose skins. Reduce oven to 250°F. Finely chop nuts. Beat whites with salt and cream of tartar using electric mixer until they just hold soft peaks. Beat in sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, and beat until meringue is stiff but still glossy. Line bottom of third sheet pan with parchment. Put small dabs of meringue under corners of parchment to secure to baking sheets. Fold nuts into meringue and spread evenly in pan. Bake until set and pale golden, 25 to 30 minutes. Halve meringue crosswise, cutting through parchment, to form 2 (10-by 7 1/2-inch) layers. Return to oven and bake until crisp, 45 minutes to 1 hour more. Cool in pan, then peel off parchment.

Mocha and Coffee Buttercreams

2 cups sugar, divided; 3/4 cup water; 6 large egg whites at room temperature 30 minutes; 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon instant-espresso powder; 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract; 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar; 1/4 teaspoon salt; 3 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon pieces and softened; 6 ounces fine-quality 60%-cacao bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled to lukewarm

Bring 1 3/4 cups sugar and water to a boil in a 3-quart heavy saucepan over medium heat, stirring until sugar has dissolved, then wash down any sugar crystals from side of pan with a pastry brush dipped in cold water. Boil, without stirring, until it registers 220 to 225°F, 15 to 20 minutes. At this point, while continuing to boil syrup, beat whites with espresso powder, vanilla, cream of tartar, and salt in mixer at medium speed until they just hold soft peaks. Add remaining 1/4 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating, and beat until whites just hold stiff peaks.When syrup reaches soft-ball stage (238 to 242°F), immediately pour syrup in a slow stream down side of bowl into whites (avoid beaters) while beating at high speed. Beat until completely cool, 25 to 30 minutes. With mixer at medium speed, add butter 1 tablespoon at a time, beating well after each addition (see cooks’ note, below) and until buttercream is smooth. (Mixture may look curdled before all butter is added but will come together at end.) Transfer 2 cups buttercream to a small bowl and stir in chocolate. If buttercreams are too soft to spread, chill, stirring occasionally.

Make syrup and assemble cake: 

Bring water, sugar, and espresso powder to a boil, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Cool. Loosen edges of 1 cake layer with a knife and invert onto a flat platter. Carefully peel parchment from cake and brush with some of syrup. Spread with 1 1/4 cups mocha buttercream. Top with 1 meringue layer and spread with 1 1/4 cups coffee buttercream. Carefully invert 1 soufflé layer onto buttercream and peel off parchment, then gently spread with 1 1/4 cups coffee buttercream. Repeat layering, ending with coffee buttercream (there will be some left over). Chill at least 1 hour (after that, wrap in plastic wrap). Trim all around cake with a long sharp knife to neaten edges. Bring to room temperature (about 1 hour) before serving.
**Advice: Prepare the cake, souffle and meringue layers 1 day ahead and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Also be sure to add the butter as instructed, 1 tablespoon at a time.