When I was a girl I always wanted my birthday cake floated to me down a river, because in Tasha Tudor’s book “Becky’s Birthday” ten-year-old Becky’s cake arrives to her downstream, where she waits in the middle of a dark forest with her happy family gathered, their smiling faces illuminated by birthday candles. Nothing spills. Nothing gets wet. No sibling sulks that it’s not their birthday.
Long on fantasy, my mother tried; she floated my birthday cakes in bathtubs and in buckets, which was just funny, not dreamy.
One day this past winter, I looked at the frozen quarry outside the kitchen of my new house, and realized the floating birthday cake moment had finally arrived. My daughter would be turning fourteen in May -
With a small boogie board and a length of string to pull the cake across, I finally created the ultimate birthday moment, and it was prettier than the page in the book. Lighting candles in the dark outside is always primal; candles on water is haunting, reminiscent of a trip across the River Styx. The candles on water made everyone hush, watching in silence as the little grocery store cake make its journey, leaving a tiny wake of reflected sparklers in the black water.
It was more enchanting than I even imagined; we decided, no matter what the number, every birthday at Howlets should be celebrated with a floating birthday cake. No one is ever too old to have the quiet and darkness illuminated by candles reflected in the rippling wake of a gently moving dessert.
Now I’m thinking about what other illuminated dishes I can send across the quarry.
Also, I was no dummy; there was no way I was going to risk sinking the real cake I made for my daughter, The Concorde, an amazingly scrumptious assemblage of cocoa meringue and chocolate mousse from the cookbook The Perfect Finish by White House Pastry Chef Bill Yosses. As if that weren’t enough, this cake is also gluten-free.
Float the white icing and blue roses, but MAKE The Concorde. As Yosses describes it, “the second you cut into the gorgeous whole, the meringue shatters into an asymmetric pile of delicious crisp chips suspended in the dark chocolate mousse.”
For those who have come to dread the cake part of birthdays, this is the anti-cake cake, because there’s no cake at all, just airy mousse and crumbling meringue. Poor Becky didn’t get a slice of this.
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
9 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 large eggs at room temperature
2 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
5 tablespoons granulated sugar
Crisp Cocoa Meringue:
1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons Dutch-processed unsweetened cocoa powder
6 large egg whites at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
For the Mousse:
In a saucepan over low heat (or in the microwave), melt the chocolate and butter, whisking until smooth. Let cool.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the 6 egg whites with the cream of tartar on medium speed until frothy. Continuing to beat at medium speed, gradually add the granulated sugar, then raise the speed to high and beat until the meringue forms stiff, glossy peaks, 5 minutes more.
Whisk the 4 egg yolks into the chocolate-butter mixture, then gently fold some meringue into the chocolate mixture. Add the rest of the meringue and fold until thoroughly combined. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least 4 hours to set the mousse. You can leave it in the refrigerator for 4 days if you want to work ahead.
For the Baked Meringue
Postition the racks in the top an dbottom thirds of the oven and preheat to 250 degrees F.
Sift the confectioners sugar and cocoa powder onto a piece of parchment or waxed paper and set aside.
In a clean bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar on medium speed until frothy. Beating at medium speed, gradually add the granulated sugar a tablespoon at a time, then raise the speed and beat until the meringue forns stiff, glossy peaks, 5 minutes more.
Sprinkle the sugar-cocoa mixture over the meringue and fold it int using a rubber spatula. Spread some of the meringue with a spoon or spatula onto one of the prepared baking sheets into two 8 inch circles.
Here, Yosses recommends piping strips of meringue with a pastry tube or by squeezing a plastic bag, snipped at the end, onto the second baking sheet. As usual, I was in a bit of a hurry, and simply spooned two to three inch lengths of meringue onto the parchment. These are stuck decoratively on the sides of the cake at the end. It’s worth doing for the “nested” effect. Yosses trimmer pieces are more architectural.
Bake both sheets until the circles and strips of the meringues are thoroughly dried, 1 – 1 1/2 hours. They will be crisp, but will not change color. Let cook, then peel the parchment off the circles and strips.
To assemble and serve:
Spread a little mousse in the center of a serving plate, then pace one meringue circle over it. Spread about half of the mousse over the meringue, dolloping it evenly so that you can spread it without working it more than necessary. Top with the second meringue circle, then spread the rest of the mousse all over the outside of the cake. Stick the random sticks onto the sides. Yosses breaks his up and sticks them on at zigzag angles, very Post Modern sounding, but there was no photo of his. Refrigerate the cake until chilled, at least 3 hours, and up to 12. Sift confectioners sugar or cocoa powder over the cake before serving.