Here we are at the end of March. Spring has claimed her space and unpacked her bags, kicked off her shoes and accepted a glass of lemony iced tea. She's fully settled in and ready to chat for awhile, her pony-tail bobbing enthusiastically as she shows you what's in store for the next few months.
There are predictions of 83* sunny days in Charlottesville this weekend...83*! That is shorts weather, my friends, and tank tops and strappy sandals and [eek!] swim suits weather. It was all very exciting until I pulled out a pair of those shorts last night and realized that this month coming to an end, the month full of birthdays and cake and cocktails, has done a number on certain, *ahem*, areas. Those well-intentioned New Year’s resolutions set in January were shaken with the arrival of Brian’s birthday 29 days ago, and continued to slowly slip away as we celebrated our way through March.
This last weekend was the culmination of all of that good cheer. With my Daddy in town for four days spoiling us rotten, there were indulgent meals shared at favoriterestaurants and bottles of wine Brian and I could never justify buying ourselves. As a “thank you!” for all of that generosity we had a little barbeque Saturday afternoon, complete with Double H Farm baby back ribs smoked on the Big Green Egg, the best baked beans I’ve ever had, salad with a hearty base of [local!] emerald green spinach and a delightfully moist lemon mousse cake. Although the air was a crisp 50*, we had a cloudless Caribbean-blue sky and a brilliantly radiant sun to warm our skin and confirm the departure of [old man] Winter.
And now today, with all of those birthdays behind us and the very last of that lemon mousse cake tossed away in the trash (but not before a bite or two passed my lips to verify its staleness) it is time to think of April, the second to last month before the water flowing steadily through our surrounding rivers warms to a point that justifies the loading up of kayaks and the donning of swim suits. It’s time to welcome the farmers back to downtown Charlottesville, to our Saturday morning City Market that starts this weekend(!), and to embrace the first gifts of Spring. It’s time to lighten up and brighten up, to take a break from all the sugary-sweet goodness of March and indulge in the green that comes with April.
But first, I want to give you more cake.
With a buoyant crumb that bounces back at the poke of a finger and an airy, lemon-tinted mousse so cool and refreshing you'll have to fight yourself not to finish the entire bowl in one sitting, this cake seems to be the perfect welcome for Spring. It's a persuasive cake, the kind that you want to always have under a dome on your counter, ready to share with important guests while sitting on the front porch drinking a tall glass of iced tea. It seems that, when being offered a cake like this one, it would be impossible for those guests to leave.
That's my hope anyway, as I embrace Spring and ask her to stick around for awhile.
This is a very long recipe, but is actually very simple. Especially if you divide the tasks between two days - the cake and lemon curd on the first, the mousse, frosting and assembly on the second.
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/2 cup milk
1-1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1-1/4 cups sugar
2-1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 fresh lemon, seeds discarded
for the lemon curd
2 large eggs
1 egg yolk
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice (from about 2 medium lemons)
1/8 tsp salt
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest
for the lemon mousse
1 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup lemon curd
for the lemon buttercream frosting
6 tbsp (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
3 tbsp heavy cream
1-1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp lemon extract
make the cake (up to one day ahead)
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat oven to 350*. Grease and flour two 8" round cake pans and line the pan bottoms with parchment rounds.
In a small bowl, combine the egg yolks, butter, milk and vanilla. Set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, 1 cup of sugar, baking powder and salt to blend. Add the egg yolk mixture and stir until well combined. Set aside.
In a clean dry bowl, using clean dry beaters, beat the egg whites on medium-high speed until they hold soft peaks. Lower the mixer speed to medium and gradually add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar, beating the whites until they hold stiff peaks. Stir about one-third of the egg whites into the batter to lighten. Gently fold the remaining whites into the batter, in two batches, to blend thoroughly.
Transfer the batter to the prepared pans, filling them equally. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the sides of the cakes begin to pull away slightly from the pans and a wooden skewer inserted near the center of the cake comes out clean.
Set the pans on a wire rack for 10 minutes to cool. Turn the cakes out onto the rack and carefully remove the parchment. Reinvert the cakes and allow them to cool completely on wire racks.
If making the cakes the night before (as I did), wrap them tightly with plastic wrap once entirely cool and keep at room temperature.
make the lemon curd (up to one week ahead)
In a small saucepan set over medium-low heat, whisk the eggs and egg yolk with the sugar, lemon juice and salt. Continue to cook, whisking constantly, for 10 minutes or until thickened.
Remove the curd from the heat and add the butter, stirring until melted. Strain the mixture through a mesh sieve into a small bowl. Stir in the lemon zest.
Cover with plastic wrap, pressing the plastic directly on the entire surface of the lemon curd to prevent a skin from forming. Chill the curd in the refrigerator until firm.
make the lemon mousse
In the bowl of an electric mixer set on medium-high speed, beat the cream until it holds soft peaks. Working in three batches, gently fold the cream into the lemon curd. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before using.
make the lemon buttercream frosting
In a clean bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter, sugar, cream, vanilla and lemon extract. Mix on medium-low speed until well combined.
assemble the cake
With a long serrated knife, trim the rounded top off each cake layer to create a flat surface.
Squeeze half of the juice from the lemon over the cut side of one layer of cake. Place that layer, cut side up, on a serving plate. Spread the lemon mousse evenly on top.
Carefully place the next layer, cut side down, on top of the first layer. Squeeze the rest of the juice from the lemon on top. Frost the top and sides of the cake with the lemon buttercream frosting. Place the cake in the refrigerator for at least an hour to set. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.
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.
Double Chocolate Cake with Praline Topping
Makes 12-14 servings. Cake recipe from Epicurious, praline recipe from Bon AppetitIngredients
for cake layers:
3 ounces fine-quality semisweet chocolate such as Callebaut
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!)