Someone once said that there’s no common cure for birthdays. Hear hear! Ever notice that once you reach a certain age, birthdays become more of a cringeworthy event? On the opposite end of the spectrum of unwelcomed birthdays, what is invited and so zealously at that, is birthday cake. I think the genius who decided to celebrate birthdays with cake, might not have discovered a cure but certainly found the best antidote. When the cake is brought in, we stop noticing the imposing number of candles and start focusing on the delicious thoughts of cake-pleasure we’re about to receive only because we’ve added yet another digit to our age. I call that – a fair trade.
This past Sunday was party time as I celebrated another birthday, this time with a French inspired cake. I must admit I put this cake together over three days, dedicating a couple of hours here and there each day to minimise the pressure. While it can be done in a day, for cakes where there’s many steps involved, I prefer to take it slowly so I don’t get flustered. A little bit of a challenge, as we all know the French are famous for their meticulous pastry perfection but the result was worth every effort. When I blew out the candles, this cake alone made me feel like anything is possible at any age – the best birthday present to receive when you feel youth drifting away from you.
Part of this cake was inspired by the famous French Cake called Opera Cake. Rumour has it that it’s been around since the 1800’s and fact has it that Parisians adore it. Made with coffee buttercream, soft and hard chocolate ganache in between layers of coffee soaked joconde, this is again, nothing short of a work of art. La Joconde is a biscuit thin sponge made traditionally with almond flour. Aptly named after the Italian Gioconda (who we know as Mona Lisa) I wouldn’t be surprised if Da Vinci himself was impressed with the amazing Opera Cake.
The joconde in my recipe is slightly different as I used not just almonds but a mixed variety of brazils, pecans, hazelnuts, and walnuts and steered away from the tradition of finely grinding the nuts. Before the nuts could reach a fine grind I stopped the machine for added texture and crunch, similar to a dacquoise which is a meringue made with crushed nuts. When you bite into dacquoise you can feel the bits of nuts which is what I wanted for this cake. Similar to Opera, I brushed each layer with a coffee syrup with a rum infusion. In between three layers of jaconde I introduced a coffee pastry cream, a little different from the original coffee buttercream but less work. And that was as far as I went with the Opera cake inspiration, after that it was no holds barred as I sped off on a wild chocolate adventure.
I set the joconde layers bonded with coffee cream inside a creamy white chocolate mousse and then onto a dark chocolate and wafer ganache base (for texture) before I enrobed the entire cake with glossy dark chocolate glaze. Not too shabby! Finally caremelised nuts and fine sugar threads were the finishing touches to crown this memorable birthday gift to myself. Once it was all done, I couldnt have been more excited to say Hip Hip Hooray!
*Note – To make this cake, the recipe and instructions must be read over very well before you begin. This will help ensure that you have all the essential equipment and ingredients before you get started. My best advice when attempting this cake is to take it slowly and attempt one part of the preparation each day especially if this is your first time baking. This is a cake that freezes well which will help you prepare the various layers in advance. This recipe is also great to learn how to make the different components even if you are not attempting this cake. For example for a simple white choclate dessert, you may refer to the recipe below. The same can be said for the glaze if needed for a different cake, and so on and so forth. For this recipe you will need 24 x 12cm sheet of acetate, an adjustable round ring mould, a medium-sized offset spatula, a large sheet pan/ 3 x 16cm round cake tins, 24cm round cake card or board, and a large pastry bag with large round tip.
- 125g crushed mixed nuts
- 125g confectioners sugar
- 3 whole eggs (small)
- 40g flour sifted
- 30g unsalted butter
- 3 egg whites (reserve yolks)
- 30g castor sugar
- Grease and line 3 × 16cm round baking tins or alternatively a sheet pan large enough to cut out 3 cakes of 16cm diameter each.
- Preheat oven at 160°C gas fan/ 180°C electric fan / 200 ° C conventional. Place oven rack in the centre of the oven.
- In a mixing bowl combine flour and nuts.
- In a small saucepan bring butter to melt, switch of the heat and leave to cool.
- In a grease free bowl whip egg whites until they begin to froth then add sugar and whip to medium peak stage. Set aside.
- Beat whole eggs and confectioners sugar with an electric whisk or stand mixer for 10 minutes until light and double in volume.
- Fold in the flour.
- Fold in the butter.
- Mix in 1/3 of the meringue to lighten the batter and proceed to fold in the other 2/3 gently until fully incorporated.
- Divide batter equally into the 3 prepared tins or onto the sheet pan and bake for 12 minutes.
- Remove the cakes from the oven let cool. If the batter was baked in a large sheet pan the joconde would then need to be cut into 3 cakes of 16cm each. Adjust the ring mould to 160 and press down onto the cake ever so lightly to make an outline. Use a sharp knife and cut along the outline to get the perfect round. Proceed to wrap each individual cake with parchment paper, place in a freezer bag and freeze overnight/4 hours. Freezing the cakes will keep them moist and make assembly easier.
Coffee Pastry Cream
- 2 egg yolks (reserved)
- 30g castor sugar
- 20g unsalted butter
- 250ml whole milk
- 30g fresh whole good quality coffee beans
- 30g cornflour
- 2 tbsp good instant coffee
- 150ml fresh cream
- In a small saucepan bring milk and coffee beans to a slow simmer so that the flavour from the beans infuse into the milk.
- Meanwhile in a separate bowl, whisk egg yolks, sugar, cornflour.
- Dissolve instant coffee in a few drops of hot water before whisking it into the egg mixture.
- Holding a mesh sieve over the bowl, pour the milk into the eggs retaining the coffee beans into the sieve. Work quickly here because the mixture needs to be whisked before the eggs start to coagulate from the heat of the milk.
- Whisk ensuring there are no lumps and pour back into the saucepan, place onto the heat and continue whisking.
- Add the butter and whisk until the mixture forms a thick custard.
- Remove custard from the heat and quickly transfer into a dish. Cover the surface of the custard with cling film to prevent the unwanted skin from forming.
- Refrigerate overnight/ 4 hours.
- Whisk cold custard until smooth.
- In a cold bowl whisk fresh cream to stiff peak stage.
- Add custard to whipped cream and mix well until combined. The result should be smooth and fairly stiff.
- Cover and refrigerate.
- 100g wafer biscuits
- 50g dark chocolate
- 50ml fresh cream
- Heat cream until very hot and add to a bowl with chocolate pieces. Mix so that the hot cream melts the chocolate to form a silky smooth sauce-like texture with a glossy shine. This ganache is now ready to be mixed into the crushed wafers.
- Prepare the wafers by crushing in a freezer bag with a rolling-pin.
- Add the wafers to the chocolate and mix to combine.
- Set the adjustable ring to 200/20cm and place it over a large piece of cling film.
- Set the chocolate wafer mixture into the mould and smooth out evenly with an offset spatula.
- Remove the mould. The wafer ganache should now be 20cm round. Cover the ganache with overhanging cling film and set in the freezer overnight/4 hours.
- 60 ml water
- 30g castor sugar
- 1 tbsp instant coffee
- 1 tbsp dark rum
- In a small saucepan, heat sugar and water until sugar dissolves.
- Add coffee and stir in until dissolved.
- Cook for five minutes more.
- Remove from heat. Add rum and stir. Set aside.
White Chocolate Mousse
- 300g white chocolate
- 3 whole eggs separated
- 2 tbsp castor sugar
- 300ml whole milk.
- 500 ml fresh cream
- 6 gelatine leaves (12g)
*Note – The different layers of mousse will have to set in stages therefore it is advisable not to make all the mousse at once but instead in batches. For this we will have to divide the ingredients listed above, accordingly. At this point the adjustable ring mould must already be prepared. To prepare the ring mould adjust the size to 220cm/22. Cut out an adequate piece of cling film to cover the base of the mould tightly. Use sticky tape if you need to, to keep the film taught and in place. To get the film extra taught, the film should be larger than the circumference of the mould so that it can be pulled up the sides and stuck on with the tape. By pulling tight and sticking the excess on the outer sides of the ring mould the newly formed base should be without many creases or wrinkles. Now line the inner sides of the mould with 24cm of acetate using two pegs to keep it in place for now which can be removed once the first layer of mousse is set. The acetate is going to make for easy and quick removal of the entire cake from the ring mould once it has been frozen therefore its use in the making of this cake is very important. When lining with acetate ensure that it is slightly higher than the height of the mould so that the mousse does not spill over.
- For the top layer of white chocolate mousse, place a mixing bowl in the freezer and leave to cool. Place two of the gelatine leaves in cold water and leave to soak. In a small saucepan slowly heat 100ml of milk. In a mixing bowl beat 1 egg yolk and 1 tbsp of sugar until light and airy. Pour the hot milk slowly into the yolk mixture to temper the mixture so the eggs do not coagulate. Mix well before returning to the heat. Stir till the mixture looks hot enough to melt the gelatine, (hot not boiling). Squeeze out the water from the gelatine and add it to the hot milk/egg mixture. Cook for another minute whisking all the time. Set aside. Prepare a double boiler and whisk one egg white over the double boiler to medium peak stage. Set aside. Return to the double boiler and melt 100g of white chocolate in a clean bowl. When chocolate is glossy and melted, transfer it into the milk/egg mixture and whisk it together to combine. Set aside. Remove bowl from the freezer and whip 125ml of fresh cream in chilled bowl to medium peak stage. Fold the chocolate mixture into the cream until combined. Then fold in the whipped egg whites to form a light airy mousse. Pour the mousse into the prepared ring mould, tap the mould onto a hard surface to even out the mousse, place onto a flat, even board, cover with cling film and place in the freezer.
- The rest of the mousse must be prepared once the assembly is complete so follow the assembly guidelines before making this mousse.
- To make the remaining white chocolate mousse when needed, follow the steps in point 1 using all of the remaining ingredients.
- Once the mousse is ready, prepare the pastry bag with large round pastry tip and fill the bag with mousse.
Dark Chocolate Glaze
- 100ml water
- 100ml pouring cream
- 60g cocoa powder
- 210g castor sugar
- 50g dark chocolate
- 6 gelatine sheets (12g)
*Note – The preparation of the glaze can be made in advance and reheated but my advice is to prepare it once the cake is fully assembled and ready to be glazed.
- Place small saucepan (preferably with spout) on low heat.
- Add water, cream, cocoa powder and sugar and stir to combine.
- Place gelatine in cold water and leave to bloom for 10 minutes.
- Once the mixture is fully heated and all ingredients are well incorporated without lumps, add chocolate. Let the chocolate melt in properly by stirring gently with a whisk.
- Squeeze out the water from the gelatine and add to the chocolate mixture. Stir until gelatine melts and the mixture looks glossy and smooth.
- Pass glaze through a fine mesh sieve to remove air bubbles and any lumps. Repeat this step for extra assurance that the glaze is silky smooth.
- 30g mixed whole nuts
- 30g sugar
- Place a flat pan on low heat with nuts and let the nuts toast for 10-12 minutes turning from time to time.
- When the nuts are ready rub them gently to remove any loose skin. Once the nuts are free from any skin and dust set them aside.
- Place sugar on low heat in a small saucepan (with a spout) to melt and caramelise. This will take roughly between 5-6 minutes.
- Meanwhile place nuts onto silicone mat, in a random tapered shape.
- When the caramel is ready it should be a golden colour, with a smooth finish. If there are traces of uncooked sugar in the pot, swirl to blend in with the rest of the caramel.
- The nuts should have a head and a tail shape. Start pouring the caramel from the head making sure that as the caramel is dripping it is forming a bond between every nut so that they stay together to form one single piece. As the caramel is starting to finish do not stop pouring. At this point the caramel will start to form threads like spun sugar. Keep pouring randomly to release the delicate threads to add a some detail. If the sugar breaks, the pot can be placed back on the heat and the pouring process can continue.
- Cake topper can be left on the silicone mat until it becomes hard and firm roughly 10 minutes.
- At this point there should be a prepared ring mould already in the freezer with the first layer of chocolate mousse already set inside.
- Place one layer of joconde onto a work-top before brushing adequately with coffee syrup. Cover the cake with 3 ice cream scoops of coffee pastry cream and smooth out with an offset spatula leaving an edge of 2cm so that when the next layer of joconde is placed over, the cream does not spill over the edges. If it does, go around the finished tower with an offset spatula to smooth out. Repeat the first step for remaining two layers of cake and finish with pastry cream as the top layer. Place in the freezer for 1 hour.
- Remove the ring mould from the freezer along with the joconde. Using an offset spatula lift the jaconde off its board and place it inside the ring mould in the centre so that it sits on top of the first layer of mousse. Place the mould back into the freezer for thirty minutes. Twenty minutes into the setting time would be the right moment to start preparing the remaining white chocolate mousse. See instructions in number 3 for white chocolate mousse..
- After the 30 minutes setting time is over, remove ring mould from the freezer and pipe over the remaining mousse. Start by filling the space between the ring mould and the joconde and move up until the entire layer of jaconde is completely covered. Smooth the top and place in the freezer for half an hour.
- Remove ring mould once again and place the wafer ganache in the centre of the mould before freezing overnight. Ensure that the mould is well covered.
- To turn out the cake once it is completely frozen you will need to have your chocolate glaze and cake topper prepared. Place an extra-large plate onto a work-top and line the plate with cling film. Lining the plate ensures that any excess glaze that drips into it can be saved for other recipes. Place a medium size bowl with a flat bottom, upside down in the centre of the plate. The cake is going to sit on top of the inverted bowl to form a raised surface so that the glaze can drip off the cake easily so ensure to use a steady bowl.
- Remove the cake from the freezer. To remove the cake from the board it’s been placed on, gently push the offset spatula in between the cake and the board and the cake should easily come away from the board.
- The top layer with the wafer ganache is actually the base for this cake so when placing the cake onto the inverted bowl make sure that the cake is turned upside down so that the wafer layer is at the bottom now, and the very first mousse layer that was set, becomes the top. Basically, remove any covering from the cake and turn it upside down before gently placing it in the centre of the inverted bowl.
- Gently lift the ring mould upward and out, if it does not slip out, wait five minutes and try again. It should slip out as the acetate has prevented the cake from sticking to the mould.
- When the mould has been lifted out, remove the acetate, Remember that because of its transparency some times it becomes difficult to notice so make sure that if extra strips of acetate was used, to remove them.
- Once removed use the offset spatula to smooth the top of the cake as well as the sides. The cake should now be perfectly smooth on all sides.
- The glaze should still be runny which means that it should not be cold nor should it be piping hot. Starting from the centre of the cake gently pour the glaze in a circular motion around the cake from the centre moving outward. Keep pouring while paying attention to the sides of the cake. If the sides are still not covered continue pouring around the edge the cake in a circular motion until all sides are covered.
- Remember that once the glaze hits the frozen cake, the gelatine will begin to set and form drips along the bottom edge. These excess drips must be trimmed or gently tucked underneath the cake with the offset spatula.
- To transfer the cake from the inverted bowl onto a cake plate or cake stand, lift the cake up with the offset spatula. Place one hand underneath the lifted section and move onto the cake plate still keeping the spatula in place. Before releasing onto the plate remove the hand and gently ease the cake down with the spatula. Once the cake is firmly set down, gently pull out the spatula.
- Place on the cake topper.
- Wrap the cake with a silk ribbon of your choice which will easily stick to the glaze without much effort.
- Make a wish before you blow out your candles 🙂