Good Cake Can Come In Smaller Packages: My Kind of Chocolate Birthday Cake

This year during our annual cabin trip to Shenandoah in honor of our friend Jim's birthday, I deliberately took a restrained approach to his birthday cake. It went without saying that I would make something chocolate. But last year I overdid it with Ruth Reichl's Giant Chocolate Cake. That cake tasted great; we just had too much of it. So I scaled down my plans and decided to make something small that wouldn't create so many leftovers.

I decided to try a recipe by Elizabeth Falkner that I found on titled, "My Kind of Chocolate Birthday Cake." I have a lot of respect for Falkner's baking skills but have never tried one of her recipes before. I once flipped through a copy of her cookbook Demolition Desserts in a store and decided not to buy it because many of the recipes were for intricate plated desserts, which are not my normal repertoire. But this cake looked like an elegant and unusual dessert -- and it's short, with a footprint of only 4.5-inches by 13-inches. It seemed like the perfect size to feed the seven adults and four children who would be at the cabin this year.

From start to finish this recipe is an all-afternoon project, but it is comprised of three relatively basic components: an almost-flourless chocolate-hazelnut cake; a chocolate mousse filling; and a chocolate glaze. Because Jim's wife Colleen is allergic to tree nuts, I swapped out the hazelnuts for peanuts.

To make the cake, I beat room temperature eggs with sugar until they were thick and pale; folded them into a mixture of melted dark chocolate, dark brown sugar, butter, and orange zest; and gently whisked in the flour and chopped peanuts. I baked the cake in a parchment-lined 9-inch by 13-inch pan. The cake was very thin -- you could see the peanuts peeking up through the top surface, which was spotted with tiny craters from air bubbles.

The technique for making the filling was somewhat unusual. First you make ganache with a mixture of milk and dark chocolates. You put the ganache in the refrigerator until it's firm, which takes a few hours. The you reheat the ganache on top of a double boiler -- without stirring it -- until it's partially melted, remove it from the heat, add softened butter, and beat the mixture until it's thick and glossy. My beaten ganache expanded significantly in volume and became much lighter in color. Finally, I folded in heavy cream beaten to soft peaks. I cut the cooled cake in half lengthwise, spread a little filling on one layer, and stacked the second cake layer on top of it. I put the remaining filling in a pastry bag fitted with a large plain tip and piped it on top of the second cake layer, trying to build it up into a domed shape. I smoothed out the filling with an offset spatula and put the cake in the fridge until the filling was firm.
After the filling had set up, I spread on a glaze made from heavy cream, corn syrup, dark chocolate, and butter. I was able to keep most of the filling on the cake instead of just having it roll off of the sides; it was thick enough to mostly stay put but was pliable enough that I could spread it relatively smooth.

I put Jim's oldest daughter McKenna (she's almost eight) in charge of cake decorations -- she sprinkled on chocolate shavings and carefully arranged whole roasted peanuts and strips of candied orange peel on top. We put the cake back in the fridge to set the glaze and pulled it out right before serving. McKenna and her sister Stella were also in charge of putting on the birthday candles; I was glad that I happened to bring gold candles, because they went along well with the color scheme of the cake. When Jim blew out the candles, he also blew a miniature cloud of small chocolate shavings off of the cake. I should have pressed the shavings into the top of the cake before the glaze set up to make sure that they were properly adhered.
This cake cut very easily and cleanly with minimal fuss. I didn't even need to wipe off the knife between cuts. As you can see from the photo above, there is actually very little cake in this dessert -- you can barely make out the two thin cake layers sandwiched around an equally thin layer of filling; the peanuts are what gives the cake away. The dessert is mostly chocolate filling. But oh, is that filling rich and creamy and chocolatey and delicious. And the cake might be thin but it's critically important, especially because of the flavor and texture of the chopped nuts.

The cake was a big hit and after everyone was served, there was only one slice left that we wrapped up for Jim's breakfast the following day. I appreciated that our friends' three-year old daughter Winnie followed her instincts and ate her cake the same way you would handle a large slice of pizza. Ignoring her fork, she used both hands to grasp the opposing narrow ends of her cake slice, using the far hand to support the cake while the near hand directed it into her mouth. The fact that Winnie was able to eat her cake this way underscores that this dessert holds together beautifully in one piece. The filling is firm enough that you can enjoy it as a hand food -- although a big pile of napkins would also be advised, due to the chocolate glaze coating.

I was really pleased with the way this cake turned out. While it wasn't particularly difficult to prepare, I think that the result was festive and memorable -- it seemed like a celebration cake. And it was good enough that a small slice was all anyone needed to feel sated.

Recipe: "My Kind of Chocolate Birthday Cake" by Elizabeth Falkner, from

Previous Birthday Cakes for Jim:


Louise said…
Looks great. I wondered about doubling the cake, but I see on Epicurious that others have done it.