It was the morning of New Year's Eve 2010. My mother and sisters and I were trying to plan our dinner menu for the evening. We settled on a meal with some of our most favorite things: pan seared wild salmon atop De Puy lentils braised in red wine, caramelized brussels sprouts with pancetta, and homemade sourdough baguettes. Coming to a consensus on dessert, however, was another matter.
We thumbed through archived issues of Fine Cooking and Martha Stewart Living from our mother's vast shelves for inspiration. We wanted to try something different- something that we had always wanted to try but had never gotten around to making. It couldn't just be any dessert, but one that would be a spectacular flourish to a year of amazing eating.
I came across a recipe that I remembered tearing out of an old Gourmet. It was a cocoa meringue cake by Francois Payard. Payard baked chocolate meringue into disks and small sticks, then layered the disks with chocolate mousse and aligned the meringue sticks around the cake. The finished cake resembled a Charlotte- elegant and decadent. This was it.
We got to work, and, ever tempted to be spontaneous with recipes, added some of our own touches. We piped the meringue into four smaller disks, and ended up with an abundance of meringue sticks (snack time!). After we made the chocolate mousse, my eye caught the tin of English toffee perched on the countertop at the same time as my mother's did. We both grinned, and a minute later, we were stacking the meringue disks with the mousse and thin layers of whipped cream (for pretty stripes in the slices), sprinkling crushed, buttery toffee bits in between. After we finished placing the sticks around the cake, we all thought it looked beautiful- perhaps a bit too brown though. Something was missing.
That something was a foaming sea of the leftover whipped cream, with waves of white chocolate curls.
For the final adornment, we dripped caramelized sugar into abstract, elegant swoops, which we pieced together into the shape of a swan.
This has become one our favorite additions in our family repertoire. Flour-less and fabulous, it is would be a spectacular birthday cake for those who cannot consume gluten products, as well as a show-stopping Passover dessert. Oscar worthy indeed. . .
- Serves 8-12: all depending
- Chocolate Meringue
large egg whites (room temperature)
1 1/2 cups
Dutch-Processed cocoa powder (sift before measuring)
fine sea salt
- Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse
large egg yolk
1 1/2 tablespoons
bittersweet chocolate, melted (we used a very dark one, about 78% cacao)
cold heavy cream, whipped just to stiff peaks (careful not to overbeat)
instant espresso powder
pure vanilla extract
fine sea salt
- Chocolate Meringue
- Preheat oven to 300 degrees fahrenheit. Whisk egg whites, sugar and salt in a mixing bow over a double boiler until a candy thermometer registers 122-125 degrees. The mixture will be nice and foamy.
- Whip the mixture with an electric mixer (fitted with the whisk attachment) until stiff, glossy peaks form.
- Sift over the cocoa and fold in gently but thoroughly.
- Transfer batter to a large pastry bag with a large round tip and pipe four circles that are each approximately 8" in diameter onto parchment lined baking sheets. Use the rest of the meringue to pipe as many sticks as possible, about 3 1/2" long (sticks will roughly equal the height of the finished cake).
- Bake disks and sticks for about three hours, or until crisp. If they seem a bit chewy at the end of the baking time, it is still OK (if you have extra time on your hands, or are making the meringue in advance, you can leave them in the oven to dry out overnight).
- Cool the meringues completely before proceeding.
- Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse
- Mix eggs, egg yolk, 2 tsp. of sugar and the salt together in a heatproof bowl.
- Stir the rest of the sugar and water together in a pot to moisten the sugar. Cook until the mixture boils and the sugar dissolves.
- Slowly add the sugar syrup to the egg mixture. Pour the mixture back in the pot.
- Cook the egg mixture over medium-low heat (stirring constantly) until thickened and just beginning to curdle on the bottom of the pot when scraped. I know this sounds like a custard nightmare- but trust us, this works.
- Transfer the egg mixture to the bowl of an electric mixer until doubled in bulk, about five minutes. A hand mixer also works just fine. The mixture will be room temperature, paler, and thicker than before. It will still seem kind of thin though, and the skeptic in you may be thinking that this will never turn into mousse. But keep your aprons on!
- Fold in the melted chocolate, espresso powder and vanilla. The mixture will magically thicken!
- Fold in the whipped cream until just incorporated.
- For assembly: Freshly whipped cream (1 1/2 C. cold heavy cream + 2 tbs. or so of confectioner's sugar + a spot of vanilla) Crushed toffee bits (We make our own, without nuts) White Chocolate curls, for garnish. Caramelized Sugar garnish (recipe follows) Tchaikovsky Swan Lake instrumental suite, for ambiance.
- Assembly: Place one meringue disk down, and spread with a thin layer of the chocolate mousse. Spread over a thin layer of whipped cream. Sprinkle with toffee bits. Top with a meringue disk. Repeat process until all layers are used. You will have some chocolate mousse and whipped cream left over.
- Spread the remaining mousse in a thin layer around the sides of the cake. This will act as an adhesive to keep the sticks in place. Place the meringue sticks touching side by side around the cake.
- Pipe the rest of the whipped cream atop the cake (we used the St. Honoré pastry tip). Shower gently with white chocolate curls. Garnish with caramel pieces, arranging some in the middle to resemble a swan shape.
- Chill at least 2-3 hours before serving. It will keep for about 2 days in the fridge, albeit slightly less crisp but still wonderfully delicious. Enjoy!!!
- Caramelized Sugar Garnish: about 2 1/2 C. sugar scant 2/3 C. corn syrup scant 1/2 C. water Cook everything over high heat until the mixture turns a rich golden amber color (or until it registers hard crack- 300 degrees). Carefully pour the syrup into a glass measuring cup, and let it sit for a few minutes (the goal is to get it a bit cooler for better workability). Drizzle over parchment paper in random squiggles and ribbons. What would Pollock do? Cool until hardened. Break into artsy pieces. Seek out ones that could resemble swan wings and tail etc. See what you can come up with.