The winter holidays call for a very specific type of dessert recipe: delicious, easy, and definitely impressive-looking. Well, this cake is just that. Layers of moist chocolate cake sandwiched by crisp, light meringue are filled with a whipped cream and raspberry center. Now, you may be wondering, how is it even possible to make a meringue that stays crisp when baked together with moist chocolate? Intrigued? I sure was when I first tasted something like this at the little bakery around the corner.
But wait, first let me introduce myself. My name is Nila, but my rocking rebel of a boyfriend calls me a tough cookie. Why? I have no idea. I can't watch a scary movie without a blanket to hide under and I couldn't do a push up if my life depended on it. Bottom line: I'm not really that tough... until I hit the kitchen. Put me near the pantry and I'm fearless! Unless that pantry happens to have a huge spider in it.
Almost two years ago, I started a humble little food blog and named it The Tough Cookie. (You should check it out—if you like pastry and puppies, that is.) My goals? To demystify seemingly difficult recipes and give you a better handle on basic baking skills in the process. You see, I'm an incredibly nerdy baker. I want to know everything there is to know about a recipe. I want to know exactly why I need to follow specific instructions. I'm not content with just the hows, I need the whys as well.
And I don't see the point in making things more difficult than they need to be.
This crazy chocolate-meringue cake seems like a great place to start, and while the bakery's version is great, unfortunately it's only open on weekends, and a full week is way too long for me to wait to get my chocolate-raspberry-meringue cake fix. Obviously, I had to come up with my own recipe.
The Chocolate Layers
Let's start with those beautifully dark chocolate cake layers. Don't you just hate it when chocolate cake lacks chocolate flavor? What's the point of having a piece of chocolate cake if it doesn't taste like chocolate? For this cake I wanted layers that are as dark as an actual bar of dark chocolate and taste just as rich.
To make sure this cake lives up to its promising name, I tested making the layers using both bars of dark chocolate and cocoa powder. Surprisingly, I found that the version that uses only cocoa powder came out with a deeper chocolate flavor than the one made with melted chocolate. Don't you love it when convenience and flavor go hand in hand?
I did turn to a common trick: adding some instant coffee granules. I don't know what it is about coffee—I can't stand the smell of freshly brewed coffee (I've had a huge coffee trauma ever since I accidentally snorted coffee powder as a kid)—but I love to use it in chocolate cakes, or anything chocolatey for that matter. It really enhances the chocolate flavor.
"the tiny bit of molasses in the light brown sugar makes the chocolate flavor a bit more complex"
I had chocolate flavor handled, so the next step was to tackle moisture. To ensure maximum moistness (that sounds weird), this recipe calls for a larger than average amount of sugar. Sugar not only adds sweetness to baked goods, but because of its hygroscopic properties (water likes to stick to it), it also promotes moist texture and tenderness. Brown sugar even more so. I use a combination of granulated sugar and light brown sugar, because, like the coffee, the tiny bit of molasses in the light brown sugar makes the chocolate flavor a bit more complex. Extra flavor and moisture in one go. Buttermilk in place of regular milk also hits this goal of adding liquid while also hitting it with a bit more flavor.
Oil, on the other hand, doesn't add flavor, but it's an essential ingredient for a moist, tender cake nonetheless. When mixed into a batter, oil actually coats flour particles which limits gluten formation—that's the network of interconnected proteins that give baked goods structure—and thus creates a tender crumb. I use sunflower oil, simply because it's a neutral-flavored oil I always have on hand, but you can use canola oil or another neutral-tasting oil instead. I know many home bakers prefer to use butter in cakes, but I don't see the point of using it in this chocolate cake. Sure, butter has great flavor, but that flavor doesn't really come through once there's chocolate involved. Plus, the oil, unlike butter, ensures that the cake retains its moistness a little longer. Oil is also easier to incorporate into a batter. I told you this was an easy recipe, right?
An egg, a splash of vanilla, some baking powder, and baking soda along with just a little water rounds out the ingredients. It takes three bowls (one for the sugars, oil, and egg; one for the dry ingredients, and one for the buttermilk and coffee), but the mixing process couldn't be easier. No creaming, no beating, just a simply dump-and-stir approach.
I love recipes like that!
The meringue I use in this cake is a French meringue. All meringues are made with whipped egg whites and sugar, but depending on the exact process of how that sugar is incorporated, they get different names and are used for different purposes.
A few months ago, I did a series of blog post on meringue for my own blog, in which I explain all about the different kinds of meringue. There's Swiss meringue, which is made by dissolving sugar into egg whites in a double boiler; there's Italian meringue, which is made by pouring a hot sugar syrup into egg whites and then there's French meringue, which is made by simply mixing sugar into egg whites. Luckily for us, it's the easiest type of meringue.
A few notes on French meringue, though:
- French meringue is the least stable kind of meringue, which means that it starts collapsing the minute you stop mixing. So make it only just before you'll need it!
- When making a meringue (any kind of meringue), I always like to measure the egg whites by volume. As you know, eggs come in a lot if different shapes and sizes, but the amount of sugar you use per egg white—the egg white to sugar ratio—determines the volume, strength, and density of the finished meringue. For this recipe, I use almost the maximum amount of sugar that an egg white can hold, because it makes the finished meringue crusts extra crispy.
- When you're making French meringue, first whip the egg whites to soft peaks, before adding the sugar one tablespoon at a time. Sugar can increase the viscosity of the whites prematurely, which can prevent them from billowing up as light as they can be.
- A great way to make sure the sugar has dissolved into the egg whites is rubbing a bit of the meringue between your fingers. You should not feel any sugar crystals. If you do, keep mixing!
For this recipe you need to whip the meringue until it holds very stiff peaks. Like so...
Once baked, meringue like this comes out with a crisp, hollow, melt-in-your mouth structure. But the question is, how do you marry dry meringue and moist cake together?
It's easier than you think. It starts by baking the chocolate cakes in two 8-inch springform pans lined with parchment paper. The parchment paper is really important, by the way, because it allows you to remove the cake layers from the pan without damaging the delicate meringue crusts. Anyway, once you've baked the chocolate cakes, all you have to do is top those layers—after they've completely cooled in the pans—with the meringue, then bake them again.
You'd think that this baking-it-twice method might ruin the cake, but don't worry: because meringue has so much air in it, it makes for a wonderful insulator, which both prevents the cake from drying out, and from overcooking. Neat, right?
I divide the meringue evenly over the cake layers, using the back of a spoon to smooth the meringue in one of the pans and swirl the meringue in the other pan to form peaks. The swirly layer will become the top of the cake while the other layer will form the bottom.
The meringue layers are baked for 40 minutes at 250°F. Beware of oven hot spots! I place my springform pans all the way in the back of the oven, because apparently the back of my oven is a little cooler. Unfortunately, all ovens are different, so I can't really tell you where to place yours. Just keep an eye on the color of the meringue. It shouldn't brown. If you start seeing any hints of brown spots, slide the cakes around the oven towards the direction of least browning to try and mitigate it. You may also have to drop your oven temperature slightly (oven thermostats are notoriously inaccurate).
Don't be tempted into thinking that you can speed things up by cranking up the oven temperature. There are several recipes on the Internet that suggest baking the meringue crust at temperatures ranging from 350°F to 390°F, but the higher temperatures only brown the meringue and give it a soft, shell-like crust.
You can check the meringue for doneness by gently tapping it with your fingernails. It should sound hollow. Once done, remove the pans from the oven and allow the cakes to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then remove the springform collar and carefully peel the baking parchment off the sides of the cakes. You don't need to remove the bottom part of the springform pan yet. Allow the cakes to cool to room temperature before you assemble the cake or store the cake layers in an airtight container until needed. The meringue on top of the layers stays crisp for another two days or so, but this cake is definitely best served the day or the day after you make the cake layers.
Once the cake layers are made, assembling this cake is a breeze. It's just a matter of placing the cake layer with the flat meringue top meringue-side down onto a serving plate or cake stand, plopping whipped cream and a gorgeously vibrant raspberry sauce (made with frozen raspberries) on top and topping it with the second cake layer. You can use a piping bag to make it even prettier if you want to, but it's not necessary. Just use a spoon if you don't like piping or if you don't have a piping bag. Scatter a few raspberries over the top of the cake and you're done. Perfect and easy!
If you're hosting a high-stress holiday meal, I suggest baking the cake layers (with the meringue) the day before you want to serve this cake to keep the experience as calm as possible. Assembling the cake the next day shouldn't take you longer than 20 minutes—30 if someone disturbs you/ you have trouble locating the raspberries in the fridge.
Oh, and if you're looking for more Christmas-themed desserts, these Chocolate Cupcakes with a Candy Cane Buttercream might interest you!