My dad’s favorite dessert (or, as we think of it, Daddy’s Favorite Dessert) is an old fashioned ice box pie made with packaged lady fingers (the soft ones) and layered with an airy chocolate mousse, and whipped cream lightened with egg whites. It’s one of the first desserts I learned to make, and either my sisters or I (mostly my sister who lives in New Orleans) have made it for his birthday for as along as I can remember.
My parents were in Austin for a visit the weekend before my dad’s 90th birthday. Dad had radiation treatment for throat cancer a few years ago, so his taste sense has changed dramatically, as has his ability to swallow. So even though I re-worked the recipe (I wanted to avoid using raw eggs and packaged lady fingers.), I wanted to create the same sense memory as the old one. I’d like to think of this as the new and improved version.
I remember when my dad turned 50. He was really upset about being 50--he was worried that he was old. His own father was in his 50’s when he died, and I’m sure that weighed heavily (I can see that now, but at the time, we all just thought he was crazy or vain for thinking that way.) I was in college, and I came home for the weekend to surprise him. We decorated an appliance box with wrapping paper, and during the party, I hid in the box and jumped out when he opened the front door. This year, my sister who lives in Colorado came to Austin for a day, and on his actual birthday, my brother, who lives in Florida, surprised him with a day trip to New Orleans. We’re big into surprises.
I think he was surprised by this cake (but maybe not in a good way--he kept asking me where the lady fingers were!). Lady fingers are essentially sponge cake, so I was thrilled to find mrslarkin’s Master of Disguise Sponge Cake recipe, which I modified so that I could make two 8” round cakes, and flavored with vanilla extract. As she points out, it's a dry cake, so I brushed it with a couple of tablespoons of rum before assembling the dessert. For the mousse, I considered the brilliant Hervé This Chocolate Mousse, but in the original recipe, the mousse is very light (the chocolate is folded into a mixture of whipped cream and beaten-till-stiff egg whites). The first time I made it, I used Alice Medrich’s dark chocolate whipped cream recipe, to which I added a little powdered espresso. We liked it, but felt like the chocolate kind of got lost. The second time, I used a chocolate pudding that I make frequently. My husband liked that version so much that he was eating leftovers for dinner while I was out of town… For the whipped cream, I adapted Nancy Silverton’s Genius recipe.
I made two layers so I could decorate the top with sponge cake. But it can of course be decorated any way you like.
6-12, depending on who's cutting
For the Sponge Cake:
1 1/4 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2-4 tablespoons liqueur of your choice (or rum, bourbon or coffee, to moisten the sponge cake)
For the chocolate filling:
3 cups whole milk, divided
3/4 cup cocoa powder, sifted
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon powdered espresso
A pinch of kosher salt
3 tablespoons of cornstarch
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 ounces very good semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
For the cake:
Set oven rack to middle position. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease 2 8” x 1 1/2" round cake pans and line with parchment.
Whisk and aerate the flour, salt and baking powder together. Set aside.
Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Scrape down sides of bowl. Add vanilla extract. Add the eggs one at a time, and beat into the butter/sugar mixture.
Gently mix in the flour until just incorporated. Spoon batter into the prepared pans, smooth the top and bake for 20 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean. Let cool.
For the chocolate filling:
In a large saucepan heat 2 cups of milk, cocoa, sugar, salt, and espresso, whisking so that all ingredients are completely blended. Whisk cornstarch into remaining milk until smooth and thoroughly incorporated. Stir this into chocolate mixture. Cook on medium-medium high heat, whisking constantly until the pudding begins to boil and becomes noticeably thicker. Turn heat down to medium-low. Continue whisking until it's so thick that the whisk leaves trails in the pudding (about 5 minutes). Remove from heat and stir in vanilla extract and chopped chocolate, stirring until chocolate is completely melted and mixture is very smooth. Pour into a bowl and place plastic wrap or a parchment circle over the top, laying it flat against the surface of the pudding so that a skin doesn't form. Refrigerate till cold
For the whipped cream:
Place cream, salt and vanilla into a stand mixer with a whisk attachment. Start on low speed until the cream thickens enough not to spatter. Increase the speed to medium high and continue to whip, stopping the machine just before the cream holds soft peaks. Remove the bowl from the electric mixer and finish whipping the cream by hand with a whisk. Fold or gently whisk in sour cream and confectioner’s sugar to taste.
To make dessert:
Place one layer of sponge cake at the bottom of a decorative 8” round pan. Sprinkle or brush 2-4 tablespoons of liqueur, rum, bourbon or coffee onto the cake to moisten it. Spoon chocolate filling over the cake and smooth it with an offset spatula, then top with whipped cream. Smooth the top layer of whipped cream with an offset spatula. (Try to get it smoother than I did. ) Decorate the top as you prefer. (I used a fleur de lis because my parents are die-hard New Orleans Saints fans. I also sprinkled unsweetened cocoa powder over the top because, as you can see, cake decorating is not my forte. Do what you like. ) You can also make this into a layer cake with the chocolate pudding as the filling and iced with whipped cream (or vice versa), and you can decorate it with berries, nuts, grated chocolate. The possibilities are endless.