March is a month full of birthdays, a month for celebrating family and friends. Twelve family members and good friends, to be exact. It seems that every other day Brian and I are passing a card between us, signing our names and licking an envelope, sending our best wishes and good cheer zipping across the country to loved ones. Each of these special days surely contributes to my attachment to this third month of the year, with so many excuses to reach out and connect with people we don’t see or talk to nearly enough.
It is a part of the start of Spring, the phone calls and cards and Facebook messages, a routine as comfortable and happy as the emergence of lemon-hued daffodils and the pop of blushing cherry blossoms. We send wishes for a year better than the last, marvel at the changes that have come in just twelve months' time. Across the line there are promises to visit, promises to talk more, promises to write often. The phone disconnects and we return to our routines, our hearts a little more full with the knowledge that we are better for knowing that other person, for being able to share another year with them even if from a distance.
I’ve come to think of March as the beginning of the new year, with all of its fresh growth and rekindled promises to keep in better touch, rather than the dreary gray and reclusive hibernation that is typical of January. I find myself with renewed motivation, making plans while seeking spontaneity, striving to keep up with the ever-changing state of the surrounding environment. Each new clump of tiny chartreuse leaves, each cotton ball puff of Bradford Pear blossoms is a reminder of time's quick passage, a kick in the backside that jolts the gears in my head to life, prompts me to take action on the ideas swirling through my brain.
I realize that these feelings come in part because Brian and I each celebrate our birthdays in March, his falling on the 2nd and mine on the 29th. We can’t help but to reflect on years passed as yet another draws to a close, setting goals for the coming weeks or in our case, the next two years before we hit the big Three-Oh. Three. Oh. Wow.
We've started a ‘thirty before thirty’ list, although I don’t think either of us has finalized the catalog of things we’re set to accomplish. A lot can happen in two years’ time, and I’ve come to terms with the reality that is a sliding scale of goals, an evolving list of priorities. The point is to think about it, to make an effort towards trying new things, towards bettering and challenging ourselves in the smallest or biggest of ways.
One of the ways I am seeking to improve upon what is already a lovely life is to increase the connections we have with distant friends and family beyond the every-few-months phone calls. I want to follow through on the March promises, pick up the phone more frequently to catch up with those we hold dear. This is a goal I'm not willing to let slide, a priority at the top of my list as I embark on my 29th year. Phone calls to loved ones. Often.
And, if I had my way, along with those phone calls there would be more cake. Shared on actual birthdays. We'd sit across from each other at my dining table, forks in hand, three-layer pillar between us. There would be wine and coffee, stories and laughter, a vase of Spring flowers in the corner. It would be so simple if only I could convince each person we love to move to Virginia, to live within a few hours of Charlottesville. Perhaps a task for the 'forty before forty' list...
This cake I'm sharing today was made for Brian, on his 28th birthday, just 3 weeks ago. It is the same chocolate cake that I baked for him last year, which was the first from-scratch cake I'd ever made. When I asked Brian what I should make for his birthday this year he requested the same chocolate cake, and left the frosting and adornment up to me.
The praline was a good choice, the crunchy texture a nice contrast to the dense, moist crumb of the cake and the creamy, stick-to-your-tongue ganache. The whole ensemble is tall, dark, handsome and dreamy, just like my Hubb.
Happy 29th year, my love. I feel certain it will be a good one.
I said it last year and I'll say it again, this is the best chocolate cake recipe. Ever.
for cake layers:
- 3 ounces fine-quality semisweet chocolate such as Callebaut
- 1 1/2 cups hot brewed coffee
- 3 cups sugar
- 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 1/4 teaspoons salt
- 3 large eggs
- 3/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1 1/2 cups well-shaken buttermilk (for dairy free variation: mix 1 1/2 cups soymilk with 1 tablespoon cider vinegar and set aside to curdle)
- 3/4 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 pound fine-quality semisweet chocolate such as Callebaut
- 1 cup heavy cream (or soy creamer)
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
- 1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter (or margarine)
for praline topping:
- 3/4 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
- 1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
- 3 tbsp unsalted butter
- 3/4 cup powdered sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 cup pecans, toasted, chopped
make cake layers:
- Preheat oven to 300* F and grease two 10″ cake pans, or three 8″ or 9″. Line bottoms with rounds of wax paper and grease paper.
- Finely chop chocolate and in a bowl combine with hot coffee. Let mixture stand, stirring occasionally, until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.
- Into a large bowl sift together sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. In another large bowl with an electric mixer beat eggs until thickened slightly and lemon colored (about 3 minutes with a standing mixer or 5 minutes with a hand-held mixer). Slowly add oil, buttermilk, vanilla, and melted chocolate mixture to eggs, beating until combined well. Add sugar mixture and beat on medium speed until just combined well.
- Divide batter between pans (pans should only be half full – if you use 8″ pans you will have some batter leftover) and bake in middle of oven until a tester inserted in center comes out clean, 1 hour to 1 hour and 10 minutes for 10″ pans, 50 minutes for 8″-9″ pans.
- Cool layers completely in pans on racks. Run a thin knife around edges of pans and invert layers onto racks. Carefully remove wax paper and cool layers completely. Cake layers may be made 1 day ahead and kept, wrapped well in plastic wrap, at room temperature.
- Finely chop chocolate. In a 1 1/2- to 2-quart saucepan bring cream, sugar, and corn syrup to a boil over moderately low heat, whisking until sugar is dissolved. Remove pan from heat and add chocolate, whisking until chocolate is melted. Cut butter into pieces and add to frosting, whisking until smooth.
- Transfer frosting to a bowl and cool, stirring occasionally, until spreadable (depending on chocolate used, it may be necessary to chill frosting to spreadable consistency). I found that stirring this over a bowl of ice water did a great job of cooling it off quickly and evenly.
- Use a serrated knife to cut off domes of cakes if needed (mine came out perfectly flat, so there was no need to take a knife to them).
- Place first layer on the plate you'd like to keep the cake on. Spread a layer of ganache across the top of that layer, about 1/8-inch thick. Place the second layer on top of the first, and spread ganache on top of it. Place the third layer on top of the second, and cover the sides and top of the cake with ganache.
- Stir first 3 ingredients in a large, heavy sauce pan over medium-high heat until butter melts. Boil 1 minute without stirring.
- Remove pan from heat, whisk in sugar and vanilla.
- Add pecans, stir just to incorporate.
- Pour praline over top of cake and spread to edges, working quickly to get even coverage before praline sets.
Cake will keep stored in an airtight container at room temperature for 3-5 days (and will stay incredibly moist, too!)