Wednesday, January 11, 2012

It works

There is a Nepali-Indian restaurant in the area called Kathmandu Kitchen that's been my favorite for years. Lucky for me its my sister, Mara's favorite too, so the other night we got to celebrate her birthday there.

I was late, having had to assemble her cake in the presence of a two and a half year old who wanted a snack, wanted to read, wanted, above all, attention. You do what you have to do. We finally arrived at the restaurant just in time to grab the last couple pakoras and witness the passing around of drinks. The beer was good, the strange Indian-styled margarita was even better, the family jovial, and Cedar delighted with all the attention from his counsin, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. But the whole time I was distracted.

I baked a cake. It is not just any cake. This is the cake I've been thinking about for two years. I don't know why it hasn't happened earlier, but it doesn't matter anyway, because I've made it, and it works.

Let me introduce you to The Elphaba Cake. It is the cake version of my favorite Cocoa Nymph truffle, a sexy little square, layered with white chocolate pistachio and dark chocolate cardamom ganaches. The depth and acidity of the dark chocolate with the spice of cardamom always surprises me. And the sweet white chocolate is marvelous when tempered with the earthy floral of the pistachio and the bitter dark edge.

I' m sorry I don't have a good photo of the cake. I was late as I've said, and then so high on success and that intriguing margarita that I forgot to take any pictures. All that remained when I finally remembered my brain was this sad lump of leftovers I smuggled home in Mara's discarded tissue paper.

When I worked at Cocoa Nymph I ate my fair share of truffles. The finished product was enrobed in a shiny cloak of either milk, dark, or white chocolate. They were all good, but I always seemed to like them best unadorned. The cake is like this. It's the truffle without the dark chocolate cloak. It is two layers of moist, rich devil's food cake with white chocolate pistachio ganache sandwiched in between and a soft thin cloak of the dark chocolate cardamom ganache. Just so you know, the flavors paired really well with the Nepali-Indian food too. Even the waitress was interested when she heard what it was.

That waitress, our waitress, who will remain nameless because I never got her name, was fabulous. I liked her because she was nice and made amazing margaritas and cut the cake for us. And I admit it, I liked her even more later. She had brought out the cake sliced and plated and we told her to keep the remaining wedge for the kitchen staff and herself. After disappearing in the back for a few minutes and apparently trying a bite or two she came back asking if I owned a restaurant or something. Awe-shucks. That's one way to put a smile on my face.

The Elphaba Cake (inspired by Elphaba at Cocoa Nymph)

Unlike other cakes, I prefer this one a little chilled, like one you might find in a cafe. The cake's crumb will be understandably less soft and a shade less moist, but believe me when I say the ganaches are more than equipped to make up for this. In fact, the overall structure of the iced cake is more sturdy and the sweetness more approachable when chilled. The ganaches firm up enough for the knife to make a cleaner cut. But, then again, I served the cake at room temperature, and I did not hear any complaints.

General Instructions:

This recipe reads in order of appearance, asking you to assemble parts along the way.

The night before (or 6-10 hours before) you want to serve the cake, bring 3/4 cups heavy cream and 7 crushed cardamom pods to a boil in a small saucepan. Let cool and steep in the refrigerator overnight.

To make the cake: (adapted from 1001 Essential Recipes)
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1 cup milk (I hadn't enough milk and used instead: 1/2 cup milk, 1/3 cup heavy cream, then filled to 1 cup mark with water)
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
4 ounces unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs, separated
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 315 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease two 8 inch round pans, lining the bottoms with parchment paper, and flour lightly. Combine a third of the brown sugar with the cocoa and milk in a small saucepan. Stir over low heat until the sugar and cocoa have dissolved. Remove from the heat and stir in the chocolate, stirring until it has melted completely. Cool.

In the meantime, sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt in a smallish bowl. Set aside.

Cream the remaining brown sugar with the butter in a stand mixer (or in a bowl with a hand-held beater) until light and fluffy. (Kind of. Mine never got that light. Do what you can.) Beat in vanilla and egg yolks and the cooled chocolate mixture. Take off the stand and stir in the flour mixture.

Beat the egg whites in a medium-sized bowl by hand until soft peaks form. Fold into the chocolate mixture. Divide the batter evenly between the pans. Bake for about 25-35 minutes (the original recipe calls for 35 minutes, but mine baked for 30 and I think it was a minute or two too much) or until a skewer inserted in the center of the cakes comes out clean. Cool for five minutes in the pans. Run a spatula around the sides and invert onto a cooling rack. Cool completely and, if possible, wrap well in plastic and refrigerate until ready to assemble.

I cut off the uneven edges of my cake because I have cake pans that slope slightly outward and this look irritates me without buttercream to straighten things out. To cut the cakes so they are symmetrical, I stacked them top-on-top and put them on a board or plate. I then cut them at the same time with a small knife. This gave me perfectly straight sides for the dark ganache to flow over evenly.

To make the White Chocolate Pistachio Ganache:

100 g pistachio creme (such as this or this)
8 ounces good-quality white chocolate chips or pieces (I used Guittard peels)
3/4 cups heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoons golden syrup or corn syrup
2 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, cut into smallish cubes

Place the chocolate, syrup, and pistachio creme in a food processor. Put the lid on and everything to have it ready.

Heat cream in a small saucepan to boiling point. Turn on the processor (beware, it is very loud), let it run for a few moments, and pour the cream through the feed tube into the processor. Let run until the very loud, clunky sound becomes a more muted, smooth sound (you're listening for the melting of the chocolate), stopping the machine and scraping down the sides if necessary, a minute or two. When the chocolate is smooth, feed in the bits of butter through the feed tube. Listen for smoothness. It took me just a few minutes for all of this, but it doesn't hurt to let it process longer. I usually let it process until it cools a little. Set aside to firm up a bit, stirring often.

Partial assembly:
Even out the cake tops, if necessary. (It was not necessary for me; the cakes baked perfectly flat...but this has never happened before.) Place one of the cakes top side down on a cake board (or a makeshift cut out of cardboard) the same size as the cake and pour/spread some of the white ganache on it. Careful, it flows. Stash it in the freezer for a few minutes. Repeat once or twice, until you have an even layer of ganache about 1/3" thick. I did it three times (1/2" and thought it was a little too much).

Put the second cake layer on top, being sure to center and match up the sides before you make contact. If there is still a wide, irritating gap between the cakes (like there was in mine), use a little of the white ganache to patch things up, spreading it like buttercream around the sides with a straight-sided spatula. I used a mash and spread technique (mash into the gap and spread thin on the cake). Refrigerate while you make the dark ganache.

To make the Dark Chocolate Ganache (adapted from The Cake Bible):

7 cardamom pods
3/4 cups heavy cream
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped or processed until fine
1 tablespoon golden syrup
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

Place the chocolate and syrup in a bowl and set aside. Heat the steeped cream in a saucepan again until boiling and then strain into the chocolate mixture. Stir to mix, cover, and let sit for five minutes.

Stir with a spatula until smooth. Add the butter and stir well, until the ganache is smooth and glossy.

To finish:

Place the cake on a cooling rack set in a clean, rimmed cookie pan. Pour the ganache over the cake slowly, letting it flow over the sides. Do not disturb it with a spatula or greedy fingers, It should completely encase the cake.* Let set a few minutes and then refrigerate for at least 15 minutes. Trim off jagged, cooled ganache and put on a pretty plate. Cut and serve straight from the fridge, or at room temperature. I like the former. Enjoy!

*If for some reason you have not followed directions and you find yourself with a separating ganache, a cake stuck fast to a cake plate too big, and a glaring watch telling you your late late late already, try the following: 1) Pour in a little extra cream in the dark ganache and whisk till smooth. 2) Pour the ganache over the cake that you are holding over said pan without the rack on it, letting it flow as much (and as little) as needed until the cake is covered. Now put the rack on the pan and put the messy cake on the rack. Let set and then refrigerate for fifteen minutes. 3)** When firm, remove cake from fridge and from rack and scrape and wipe clean the oversized cake board. Continue as usual.

**Alt 3) If the ganache refuses to cooperate, spread if you must with the forbidden spatula. Scrape and smooth until you get that damned cake covered. 4) Then do some kind of funky swirling or spiking on top to hide the fact that the icing is ganache even though it looks weird. Use like buttercream, spreading till smooth. It will not look like the shiny truffle of your dreams, but it will still work. The sides might even get a little swirly dark and green look to them, which, in the end, looks nice. People will think you meant to do that. Trust me, I know from experience. 5) Let the ganache set as above, and refrigerate for 15 minutes. Clean the wretched cake plate well, and don't forget to change your clothes and wipe the chocolate off your arms before the party.


  1. It was delightful! And a work of art! You really should open a restaurant, sister.

  2. Your cake was amazing. I hope you'll make it for my birthday too, and you know how smitten I am for lemon anything in June.

    BTW, our waitress/bartenders' name is Olivia.

    Love Mom

  3. Oh Enchanted Fig - this sounds incredible! I was so intrigued by your blog name I had to see - and what an entry to find! Will you make me one and ship it to me please? Especially with white chocolate and pistachio...