Fancy cake, definitely for an “occasion” (aka, adventures with gelatin)

Two beautiful  young ladies at my office are getting married in August. We had a dual shower/party last week, and I volunteered to do the cake, which of course had to be fresh and beautiful like them. After checking what allergies or dislikes either had, I found myself with complete free reign! 

Sometimes that’s not good – sometimes, you just need a “limit” or an idea to work within, but sometimes it’s awesome, if I do say so myself. 

Having fond memories of Extraordinary Desserts in San Diego, I looked up Karen Krasne’s cookbook, Extraordinary Cakes. While it didn’t have the recipe for the chocolate green tea cake with sesame ice cream concoction that I remember so vividly, it does have plenty of showstoppers!

I opted to make Marco Polo, a layered joconde, custard, fruit, whipped cream fantasy with a streusel side crust and a blackberry miroir glaze on the top surface. If you read reviews of the book, you’ll know in advance that you need to plan out your steps in order to get them all done. Thankfully, she helps with this!

My only issue with the whole recipe was that it called for leaf, or sheet, gelatin, and she’s pretty adamant about it. A little internet research showed that leaf-vs-powder is a raging debate, especially when it comes to conversion factors. I hit AmazonSmile (did you know your Amazon orders can benefit for your favorite charity? Check it out at!) and ordered the leaves, which would arrive Saturday, in time for the Sunday preparations. 

Saturday came, and my husband wanted to shop for plants (we’re working on creating a native habitat out of our little postage stamp), so we headed to Frederick. Unbeknownst to me, while a package containing, say, a computer my husband ordered, gets left at the door – a 6×9 package of shelf-stable, non-perishable gelatin does not, and although we arrived home at 4, about 6 pm I receive a “delivery attempted” notice. Knowing full well the gelatin will not be on time no matter who I call, I spend my time researching who might carry it locally. Wegman’s, Whole Foods, Rodman’s, Glen’s, Balducci’s, MOM, Williams-Sonoma… I drive to several and call others but it is not to be found. I buy several extra boxes of the powder just to be sure and try working out the conversions. 

The first step was the joconde. I hadn’t seen that term before in spite of having once owned an entire 6′ bookcase of just cookbooks; it appears to be a nut-based sponge cake with whole eggs instead of just whites. 

The cake was ridiculously easy and came out as close to perfect as I get:  

While the joconde was cooling, I started the first filling, a vanilla custard. Suffice it to say it was an interesting challenge. The custard (which I normally make only with egg yolk, never before with gelatin added) broke, so I took it off the heat and beat well, which was enough to save it. (I realized then I should have added the gelatin more towards the end of cooking. Gelatin 1, Amy 0.) I set the custard aside to cool. After it was close to room temp, it still looked soft, but I pressed on – wrapped and fridged. 

When I came back to it, having decide if it sucked I’d just make a standby custard recipe without gelatin, I found a large flat pencil-eraser – I could literally flip the custard out of the bowl in one solid piece! Unfortunately I was so flabbergasted I didn’t grab a photo. Gelatin 2, Amy 0. Determined to save it, I chopped it up and tossed it in the KitchenAid. Quite a few minutes later, it actually resembled custard, thankfully. Amy 1, Gelatin 2.

I also made whipped cream, and a simple syrup in which I steeped the namesake tea, Marco Polo. Smelled heavenly! 

Assembly entailed slicing the cake, then layering with cake soaked in simple syrup, custard, halved blackberries, whipped cream, repeat:   


Then it needed to be frozen so when I poured in hot glaze all would remain well. In the meantime, I made streusel out of ground almonds, ground tea, sugar, and butter, baked, cooled, and crumbled, then pressed into the sides of the cake. (Right about then, thankfully before adding the crumbs, I also remembered to put little strips of wax paper under the edges of the cake – which, when later carefully pulled out, would leave a clean edge on the serving plate.)

The blackberry glaze, miroir, also used gelatin, plus blackberries and a bit of jam, cooked down. For some reason mine would not hit the temperature she specified, so due to the long cooking time as I waited and stirred in vain, it was much thicker than her instructions implied, and definitely not mirror-like, but it did get an intense blackberry flavor that worked out great.  Amy 2, Gelatin 2.
That went back in the freezer. The next day at work, I topped it with a few fresh roses (well washed, stems wrapped in plastic wrap, and even a small “flag” of wrap sticking out from the stems, under the flower heads, to keep them off the glaze. Just didn’t know how organic they were – they are edible so I wasn’t worried about the flowers themselves but the potential pesticides.), and a pile of fresh blackberries.  


(Even the inside looked ok:) 

It went fast, and everyone seemed to love it. Since the purpose, for me anyway, of making cake, is for people to enjoy it, I counted it successful. 🙂 (Take that, gelatin. Amy 3, Gelatin 2; I win!) 

Plus, I kept the extra roses from the bunch I’d gotten, at my desk all week, where they smelled wonderful, and reminded me of a former colleague who always kept fresh flowers at her desk.  

PS The recipe is long, and several pages, so I’ve not included here. 

Chocolate Strawberry Mousse Cake

So a colleague did me a big favor and I promised him a cake… He asked for a carrot cake, like I had made once before for a work event, and I said “sure, but I can make lots of cakes, carrot, chocolate, pumpkin, chocolate strawberry, coffee….”. He pondered a bit and came back to me with the selection of chocolate strawberry. I say “sure”, but in my head I’m like “yes!!! Fistpump! I have the perfect recipe!”, LOL!!

I have made this a few times before. It’s a VERY chocolatey cake, and fresh strawberries are the perfect sweet-tart counterpoint. This recipe is from “Death By Chocolate”, by Marcel Desaulniers, of The Trellis restaurant. (Side note: just googled that link and did not realize it was that close to me now that I’m back in the DC area. Anyone up for a road trip??!)

The first couple times I made this, I used block chocolate, chopping and chopping…. and if you want it ultra-fab and purist, go ahead and do that. I have discovered that good semisweet chocolate chips will work (good ones, not cheap ones), and that’s what I did here. Definitely pull your scale out – no need for extra chocolate because there’s already more than two pounds of it in this cake!! Oh, and if you have gluten-intolerant friends – no flour to be found. This cake has butter, cream, sugar, chocolate, eggs, and strawberries, nothing else, and it needs nothing else…

20140601-205141.jpg (sorry, forgot to grab a shot before it was cut!!)

Chocolate Strawberry Mousse Cake

1/2 lb unsalted butter (2 tbsp of it melted)
8 oz semisweet chocolate, broken into 1/2-oz pieces
8 egg yolks
3/4 c sugar
4 egg whites

2 pints strawberries, stems removed
16 oz semisweet chocolate, broken into 1/2-oz pieces
4 oz white chocolate, broken into 1/2-oz pieces
6 egg whites
2 tbsp sugar
1 c heavy cream

1 c heavy cream
2 tbsp unsalted butter
2 tbsp sugar
12 oz semisweet chocolate, broken into 1/2-oz pieces

Lightly coat the insides of three 9×1 1/2″ cake pans with melted butter. Line each pan with parchment, then lightly coat the parchment with more melted butter. (Blogger note: this is the 2 melted tbsp.) Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
Heat 1 inch of water in the bottom half of a double boiler over medium heat. Place remaining butter and 8 ounces of semisweet chocolate in the top half of the double boiler. (Blogger note: I use a small saucepan and a stainless steel bowl here.) Tightly cover the top with film wrap. Allow to heat for 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from heat, stir until smooth, and hold at room temperature. (Blogger note: this is hands down the single best method I’ve ever used for melting chocolate!)
Place the egg yolks and 3/4 cup sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle. Beat on high until slightly thickened and lemon-colored, about 4 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and beat on high for an additional 2 minutes.
While the egg yolks are beating, whisk 4 egg whites in a large stainless steel bowl until stiff but not dry, about 3 to 4 minutes.
Using a rubber spatula, fold the melted chocolate mixture into the beaten egg yolk mixture. Add a quarter of the beaten egg whites and stir to incorporate, then gently fold in the remaining egg whites.

Divide the batter between the prepared pans, spreading evenly, and bake in the preheated oven until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove the cakes from the oven and allow to cool in the pans for 15 minutes. (During baking, the surface of the cakes will form a crust; this crust will normally collapse when the cakes are removed from the oven.) Invert 1 of the cakes onto the bottom of a springform pan. Invert the other 2 cakes onto cake circles. Remove parchment paper and refrigerate cakes for 30 minutes.
To prepare the chocolate strawberry mousse, reserve the 12 best-looking strawberries to decorate the top of the cake. In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, purĂ©e 4 ounces of strawberries (12 medium-sized berries should yield 1/2 cup – 4 ounces – of purĂ©e). Set aside until needed. Refrigerate the remaining berries until needed (that includes the 12 berries for decoration).
Heat 1 inch of water in the bottom half of a double boiler over medium heat. Place 16 ounces of semisweet chocolate, the white chocolate, and the strawberry purée in the top half of the double boiler. Tightly cover the top with film wrap. Allow to heat for 12 to 14 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir until smooth. Transfer to a stainless steel bowl, using a rubber spatula to remove all of the melted chocolate mixture. Keep at room temperature until needed.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a balloon whip, whip the 6 egg whites on high until soft peaks form, about 2 minutes. Continue to whisk on high while gradually adding 2 tablespoons sugar. Whisk until stiff but not dry, about 30 seconds. Set aside at room temperature until needed.
Using a hand-held whisk, whip the heavy cream in a well-chilled stainless steel bowl until stiff. Fold a quarter of the egg whites into the melted chocolate mixture, then fold in the whipped cream. Now fold in the remaining egg whites. Set aside at room temperature until needed.

Assemble the springform pan. Spread 1/2 cup of chocolate strawberry mousse onto the cake layer in the assembled springform pan. Arrange 1/2 the amount of reserved strawberries (not including the 12 for decoration), stem side down, into the mousse. (Blogger note: when I make this I always forget the he must have a really, really deep springform, the likes of which I’ve never seen, because even with smallish berries, there’s no way for me to pack two layers in there – so I end up with a top & bottom cake only. I made a smaller “scrap-pile-looks-messy-but-eat-up-cake” for the chef and Scruff, out of that cake, a little mousse, and berries. Scruff was happy!) The berries should be arranged in 2 rings: the first ring being 3/4 inch from the outside edge of the cake, and the second, inside ring, 3/4 inch away from the first. Distribute 3 cups of mousse over the berries, being careful to keep the berries in position. Holding the pan by the top rim, gently but firmly tap the bottom of the pan 2 to 3 times on your work surface (this will eliminate air pockets). Position a cake layer on top of the mousse, then repeat the process used on the first cake layer (1/2 cup mousse, remaining strawberries, and 3 more cups mousse). Top the mousse with the remaining cake layer and gently press into position. Refrigerate the cake for 2 hours (do not freeze).
To make the ganache, heat the heavy cream, butter, and sugar in a 2 1/2-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. When hot, stir to dissolve the sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil. Place the 12 ounces semisweet chocolate in a stainless steel bowl. Pour the boiling cream over the chocolate and allow to stand for 5 minutes. Stir until smooth. Allow to cool to room temperature.
Refrigerate 1 cup of the ganache for at least 1 hour. Keep the remaining ganache at room temperature until needed.
Remove the sides of the springform pan (do not remove the bottom of the pan from the cake; this will make it easier to handle later). Use a cake spatula to smooth and fill in the sides of the cake with 2 to 3 tablespoons of room-temperature ganache. Evenly spread the remaining amount of this ganache over the top and sides of the cake. Refrigerate the cake for 1 hour.
Transfer the chilled cup of ganache to a pastry bag fitted with a large-sized star tip. (Blogger note: I put the warm ganache in a decorating bottle and chilled it in there.) Remove the cake from the refrigerator. Pipe a circle of 12 evenly spaced stars along the outside edge of the top of the cake. Place a strawberry, stem side down, into each ganache star. Refrigerate the cake for 30 minutes.
Cut the cake with a serrated slicer, heating the blade of the slicer under hot running water before making each slice. Allow the slices to come to room temperature for 20 to 30 minutes before serving. (Blogger note: Coming to room temp is good in theory, but I didn’t find many willing to wait that long! However, it’s a rich enough cake that you can force yourself to eat it slowly and your last few bites will have the texture Marcel created here.)



If you’re looking for more experience with simple and complicated chocolate recipes, “Death by Chocolate” is definitely worth picking up. As you can see, he goes into plenty of detail so you can get it right! 🙂