To me, birthday cakes are an integral part to any birthday celebration. I am quite sticky about this, and maybe a tad too opinionated. I always feel that no matter how great a birthday celebration is, something is always missing when there is no birthday cake.
Just as I am thinking a little more about why I feel this way, I guess what makes a birthday really special is during that couple minutes where the whole group, as one, dedicates a birthday song to that person. It is really that couple of minutes that everyone comes as one, and focuses on wanting to give joy to someone else. In a society where we many a time take things for granted and move too quickly, stopping for a couple of minutes to appreciate someone’s life really makes a difference.
I enjoy celebrating birthdays as much as making birthday cakes. Every time I make a birthday cake, I always feel this overwhelming sense of joy and excitement. It is probably due to the pressure of wanting to make sure the cake is perfect. I usually keep the cake I’m baking a secret, especially from the birthday girl/boy. Seeing his/her expression when the cake I created is carried out is just absolutely priceless to me.
For Jon’s 26th birthday this year, I decided to go out of the ordinary and chose Alice Medrich’s Gâteau Diane. As we usually have quite a heavy dinner before having the birthday cake, I find that people these days are more inclined to choose lighter cakes. The Gâteau Diane fits this criteria perfectly. The meringue, when done properly, is light, airy and crunchy. I think it is ingenious how hazelnuts and chocolate is incorporated into the recipe by blending the hazelnuts and chocolate together, then folding it into the egg whites. When eating the whole cake, this creates such a great combination of different textures – airy from the meringue, crunchy from the hazelnuts and soft from the whipped chocolate ganache.
I made this cake once before using 2 whole nutty chocolate meringue discs. It was a little difficult to cut through as you’ll have to “crack” the top layer of the nutty chocolate meringue disc before cutting through. For Jon’s birthday cake, I decided to break up the nutty chocolate meringue discs for the top to create more of an abstract uneven top, which I felt gave a cake a lot more height. My family decided that we’ll call this cake the Crater Cake as it resembles the uneven-ness of volcanic/lunar craters. It also has a nice alliteration to it!
Adapted from Alice Medrich’s Bittersweet
Note: As the nutty chocolate meringue discs take 2 hours to bake and the whipped chocolate ganache filling needs a chilling time of at least 6 hours, start planning early! Both components can be made in advance.
For the nutty chocolate meringue:
4 oz semisweet/bittersweet chocolate
1/2 cup toasted and skinned hazelnuts
2/3 cup sugar
3 large egg whites, room temperature
1/8 tsp cream of tartar
1/8 tsp salt
1-2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder (optional)
*it is preferable to use a large pastry bag fitted with a 7/16- to 3/8-inch plain tip but not absolutely necessary
1. If using a regular domestic oven, position 2 racks in the oven and preheat to 95°C or 200°F. On parchment paper, trace two 9-inch circles using pencil. This might sound ridiculous but I have a mathematical set in the kitchen and I use the compass for this. As the compass does not draw a very dark line, I usually retrace it over with a 2B pencil. Alternatively, if you have a cake ring or springform pan that is about 9 inches in diameter, you can use it to trace around as well.
2.Pulse the chocolate to the size of crumbs. I find doing this easier when the chocolate is cold so that it doesn’t melt. If using a piping bag to pipe the meringue, ensure that the chocolate is fine as it might keep getting stuck in your tip. The bamix is perfect to doing this. Pour the chocolate into a bowl.
3. Pulse the hazelnuts with about 1/3 of the sugar until fine. You do not need to wash the blender. The bamix is perfect for doing this. Pour the fine hazelnuts and sugar into the bowl with the chocolate and mix.
4. In an impeccably clean dry metal bowl, beat the egg whites, cream of tartar and salt on high speed until soft peaks form, using a whisk attachment. At this point, gradually beat in the remaining sugar, taking 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. When beaters are lifted, the meringue should stand glossy and very stiff.
5. Pour all of the ground chocolate and hazelnut mixture into the meringue and using a large rubber spatula, fold it in until just incorporated.
6. If piping, scrape the meringue into the pastry bag. Ensuring that the parchment paper with the circles drawn have the pencil marks on the underside, pipe, starting from the centre, an ever-widening spiral of meringue. If not piping, scoop out half of the meringue and plop it in the centre of the 9-inch circle. Using the spatula, slowly inch the meringue to the sides of the pencil guidelines. Smooth out the top. It’ll look like the picture of the meringue disc above. Do the same for the second meringue disc.
7. If desired, use a fine strainer and sprinkle the tops of the meringues lightly with cocoa.
8. Bake meringue discs for 2 hours. At the end of 2 hours, turn off the oven and let the meringues cool completely in the turned off oven. At this stage, you can store the discs in an airtight container for up to 2 months.
For the whipped chocolate ganache filling:
4 oz bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
1 cup heavy cream
1. Place the chopped chocolate in a medium bowl. Pour the cream in a large heavy saucepan and heat over medium-high heat until it comes to a gentle boil.
2. Immediately pour the hot cream over the chocolate. After letting it sit for 1-2 minutes, use a whisk (my preference) or a spoon to stir until the chocolate is mostly melted. Let stand for 15 to 20 minutes to ensure that all chocolate particles are completely melted. Stir it again to ensure it is smooth.
3. Cover the bowl and refrigerate the ganache for at least 6 hours. It must be very cold or it will curdle when whipped.
4. When ready to use the ganache, whip it until it is spreadable and stiff enough to hold a shape. It becomes overdone and turns grainy very quickly – make sure you watch closely. If it is overdone, warm your spatula by rinsing under hot tap water, wipe it dry and use it to fold the ganache.
5. Use immediately
Assembly (as per pictures):
1. Lay out your cake stand or cake board. Put a small amount of ganache on the cake stand or cake board. Put one nutty chocolate meringue disc on top. The small amount of ganache helps to glue the meringue on the cake stand or cake board so it doesn’t slide around.
2. Spread all of the chocolate whipped ganache on top of the nutty chocolate meringue disc. Smooth out the top.
3. If laying the top with a whole disc, carefully place the disc on top of the ganache and press down softly. If you decide to do it like the pictures above, break the nutty chocolate meringue discs into uneven pieces. Randomly sprinkle the meringue pieces onto the filling and press down very lightly. If desired (and highly recommended!), sprinkle the top with a generous amount of valrhona dutch-processed cocoa powder. Decorate with toasted and skinned hazelnuts.