This is birthday cake. According to my cohort here at the center, it’s also the best cake I’ve yet to make. There were some mutters that the red velvet might still give it a run for its money, but all-told, it was a major hit. As was intended. I made it for the only other resident American, and I felt the need to go all-out for the sake of nationalistic solidarity, and well, also, because s’mores. The French don’t know or understand them, and I’m not sure this cake really clarified the situation as it only resembles its inspiration in flavor and not at all in form, but in any case, I’ve convinced them that this strange American phenomena called a “s’more” is a good and delicious thing.
This picture is blurry and not the most tantalizing, but you can see the tattooed hand of the birthday boy in the background, and so I decided to include it. He’s off gallivanting around India for the next month, taking spectacular photos and bringing together art, communication, and the amazing lineage of Tibetan Buddhism we have the good fortune to be a part of.
I’m keeping it real in the Dordogne writing budgets for the Lama House and trying to train myself to read practice texts with something resembling a proper Tibetan accent. If you want to see me stare intently at the ceiling and spit a lot while I try to produce a convincing ཁ (kha), stop by the community room after lunch, where my patient friend Julie gives me pointers based on her studies in Katmandu. I might not be able to speak yet, but I can hear alright, and I’m grateful to have somebody around with a decent accent and the generosity to help me work on mine. Also, I’ve started giving English lessons to a few folks who live nearby, which is a blast honestly and a nice way to meet people in a different context than my role as an uber-busy volunteer. It’s been a very linguistic couple of weeks, I guess.
I wouldn’t say that life is exciting, but it’s enriching. I’ve taken to listening to Brahms’ violin sonatas while doing office work, and yesterday a few of us took a break from the daily grind to share a hearthside dinner at a friend’s house; such things give me this strange feeling of settling inside. That despite my longtime penchant for wandering and adventure-seeking, I’m learning something about stillness. How to find the joy and the resources to get through and even appreciate the slow-going, unglamorous business of doing what needs to be done.
For the cake (adapted from Epicurious):
1 cup (240 mL) hot coffee
¾ cup (? g) cocoa powder
½ cup (120 mL) milk
1 teaspoon (5 mL) vanilla extract
2 cups (250 grams) all-purpose flour
1 ¼ teaspoons (6 mL) baking soda
½ teaspoon (3 mL) salt
2 sticks (226 grams) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups (400 grams) dark brown sugar
4 eggs, room temperature
For the graham cracker filled ganache:
1 packet (9 graham crackers)
14 ounces (400 grams) dark chocolate
14 ounces (400 grams) heavy cream
For the Italian meringue frosting (from Serious Eats):
4 egg whites, room temperature
1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
½ cup (120mL) water
1 teaspoon (5 mL) lemon juice
For the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350˚F (175˚ C).
Line two 9-inch (23 cm) pans with parchment paper.
In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the coffee and the cocoa powder until no lumps remain. Whisk in the milk and the vanilla extract.
In another bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt.
In a large bowl, beat together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Add the cocoa and flour mixes alternately, beginning and ending with the cocoa mix.
Divide the batter evenly between the two pans. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the cake springs back when touched and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean or with a few moist crumbs. Allow to cool for ten minutes. Turn onto a cooling rack and allow to cool completely before proceeding with cake assembly.
For the ganache:
Finely chop the chocolate and place it in a heatproof bowl. In a medium saucepan, bring the cream to a simmer. Pour the cream over the chopped chocolate and allow to rest for five minutes, then whisk ferociously until the chocolate is completely melted and the cream blended in. Crumble the graham crackers into chunks or crumbs over the ganache according to your preference and then fold them in. Allow the ganache to come to cool until it has reached a spreadable consistency. (This means that you can move it around with a spatula, but it does not flow on its own. I usually pour it into a shallow pan and place in the freezer, stirring periodically, to stir up the process. By the time I’ve made the frosting and prepared the cake layers, it’s generally ready.).
For the frosting:
In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the egg whites and lemon juice until soft peaks form.
In a small saucepan, bring the sugar and water to a boil and continue heating until the syrup reaches 240˚F (116˚ C).
While mixing the egg whites on high speed, carefully pour the syrup down the side of the bowl in a slow stream. Use extreme caution, as boiling sugar burns badly! Once all of the syrup has been beaten in, continue whipping the mixture until the bowl is no longer hot to the touch; the meringue should hold stiff peaks.
To assemble the cake:
Cut the dome off the top of each cake layer. Eat as a reward for your hard labor. Slice each layer evenly into two thin layers. Use a pastry brush to brush away excess crumbs.
Place one layer cut side down on a serving dish. Spread one-third of the ganache over the cake layer. Place another layer cut side down on the ganache, and continue until you have four cake layers with three layers of ganache in between them. Cover the cake with the meringue frosting and embellish as you like. Use a kitchen torch to gently toast the meringue frosting for a proper campfire marshmallow effect.