I can whip up some mean biscuits and a mess o’ cornbread, but otherwise, I’m not much of a baker. It requires too much precision from someone who likes to make things up as they go along.
But, my beloved husband requested a chocolate cake for his birthday. Yikes, I’ve never quite found the perfect recipe for that! I’m not fond of the devil’s food kind, with heavy buttercream frosting; it reminds me too much of a cake mix. And yet I wanted a big fat American-sized cake but with French élan, the kind that you eat when you forget the diet and the cholesterol, and totally indulge yourself for the sheer joy of still being alive after all these years.
So first I looked to the French. When they make a chocolate cake, it’s light and rich, one layer only, and usually served simply, with a bit of cream on the side. So why not wamp it up, with lots of layers, a filling, and some French chocolate ganache?
Luckily I happened across Valerie’s Chocolate Cake, on the Smitten Kitchen website. Valerie is French, so she knows instinctively how to rock a chocolate cake. The site gave instructions for making three layers (double the recipe, but use three pans), and it worked great.
Then, with perfect timing, the New York Times featured an article last week on classic French chocolate ganache. Read this even if you’re not making a cake. You can use it as a sauce for ice cream, a glaze, a frosting—and it’s so simple you can make it in the microwave. And I am here to tell you that if you want to skip the cake and just lap it up with a spoon, you won’t be disappointed.
But after all that effort, who wants to make a complicated filling? I had the idea that crème fraîche might work. It was perfect. I whipped it with a little sugar, and stirred in some of the chocolate ganache. It added just a bit of tang to the cake, to cut the sweetness of the rest.
There was a big party (for 35-ish) at the château for Nicole and Ron (born a day apart), and the cake was a success. We are now all a bit older, and fatter. And happier, bien sûr!
RECIPE: The Ultimate Franco-American Chocolate Birthday Cake
I made Valerie’s French chocolate cake from the Smitten Kitchen blog. At the bottom of the post she tells you how to make three layers if you want to do it American style. I used 8” cake pans instead of 9”, and it was fine. I didn’t bother to freeze them before frosting, they were quite easy to handle. Photo: my cake on the buffet dessert table at the château birthday party.
For the filling: Crème fraîche comes in liquid form, or épaisse, which means thick; I used the latter. (If you can’t find it, mix half sour cream and half whipped heavycream). I used about a cup of crème fraîche, and I added 2 tablespoons of confectioner’s sugar (icing sugar, if you’re a Brit) and a splash of vanilla. I also added about 1/2 cup of chocolate ganache (instead you could add dissolved espresso powder, or other flavoring, or stir in raspberries or other fruit at the end). Then I beat it with an electric mixer for a minute or two, until it was fluffy and well combined.
Read about how to make chocolate ganache here, in Julia Moskin's article. This stuff, as she says, is a marvel. A note on using it as a frosting or glaze: if you put it in the fridge, it gets quite firm. I just zapped it in the microwave for a few seconds when I was ready to frost the cake, but ONLY for a few seconds. Once a bit of it is semi-melted, you can stir it to soften up the rest. This made plenty; cut it in half if you don’t want leftovers. You will, but your hips may not.
To assemble, spread the filling between the layers, spread the ganache generously on the top, and garnish. Cut a big fat slice and eat with abandon.
In the COMMENTS: Bonnie and Alix share my opinion of Lacoste, from last week's post. And you'll see a comment form Sandy Vann, a francophile who has read my blog over the years, we've communicated from time to time--and we got to meet when she and her husband Terry came down to Cluny, during their Burgundy travels. Nice to meet you at last, Sandy and Terry!
Favorite Reads: Want to try something fun? Go the Kim's 24/7 in France blog, and test your French cheese abilities with her French Cheese Quiz. She describes a dozen famous French cheeses, and you have to guess what they are. Also this week, in the Unexcused Absenses blog, Heather and Kent have a funny story called the Great Coin Shortage that is the quintessential French tale, when it comes to how the French do business. We've been telling it to friends here. They all laugh, but nod knowingly. Everyone here has a similar story!