Here’s the thing: I pretty much despise all holidays. The earlier we start seeing decorations in stores and ads on TV, the more my ire grows. Holidays have become less about the actual event they celebrate and more about the commodification of emotion. We sell “joy” and “love” and “community” rather than actually getting together and experiencing them. I’m far from sentimental in daily life, but the absence of true emotion in holidays irks me.
What does not irk me about holidays? The food. I have very pleasant memories of my mother making pumpkin pies and decorating sugar cookies and rubbing herbs and spices over huge hunks of roast (perhaps the only thing about Christmas I truly look forward to). If I am holiday averse in the let’s-buy-things-for-each-other, let’s-pretend-for-one-day-we-like-each-other-instead-of-liking-each-other-every-day mentality, I am all about it when it comes to the eating mentality.
Which is to say, even though I find no use for celebrating Valentine’s Day (or “Galentine’s Day” or…Single Awareness Day? This is a thing now?), I did take some inspiration from the holiday to try my hand at this recipe for Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse Cake.
Special equipment purchased: 9-inch springform pan ($11.99).
The science behind this recipe is concept 21: Whipped Egg Whites Need Stabilizers. The voluminous fluffy cloud produced by whipping egg whites is a lovely, but temporary thing. Eventually, gravity will get the best of it and the water surrounding the whipped up air bubbles (egg whites are 90% water) will begin to drain away and cause the foam to separate. To prevent this we introduce stabilizers, one of which is sugar. Sugar slows the drainage of moisture, helping the foam to remain stable and achieve maximum volume. When you add the sugar is key: too soon and it’ll interfere with the egg proteins’ ability to link together and build the foam; too late and there won’t be enough water for the sugar to dissolve and the resulting foam will be gritty. The right time? When the egg whites are frothy, but before they’ve reached soft peaks.
First you’ll want to separate 8 eggs, taking care not to get any yolk into the bowl with the whites (the opposite is fine). Then, place 12 ounces dark chocolate (at least 60%) and 1 ounce unsweetened chocolate in a heatproof bowl with 12 tablespoons unsalted butter over a saucepan of simmering water. Let the chocolate and butter melt, while giving it an occasional stir with a heatproof spatula. Once melted, let it cool for a few minutes before whisking in the egg yolks and 1 tablespoon vanilla extract.
On to the egg whites! Add ⅛ teaspoon salt to the whites, then beat them with an electric mixer until they’re nice and frothy, like the picture on the left. Add ⅓ cup packed light brown sugar and mix for about 30 seconds, then another ⅓ cup packed light brown sugar and beat until the whites hold soft peaks. When you lift the beaters out of the bowl, peaks will form but will quickly drape over themselves, like the picture on the right. If the peaks stand straight up, you’ve gone too far and you’ve made meringue…wonderfully delicious brown sugar meringue, but that’s not what we’re going for here.
Now, gently combine the thick chocolate-yolk mixture with the egg whites without deflating that beautiful foam we’ve built. Take about a third of the white mixture and fold it into the chocolate mixture with a whisk. Do the same for the remaining white mixture, in two additions, taking care to not beat out the air. Scrape all of this into a prepared 9-inch springform pan (baking sprayed, lined with a parchment circle, sprayed again, outside bottom covered completely with two layers of foil) and smooth out the top with a rubber spatula.
Here’s where we come to another bit of science: the water bath. We’ll return to water baths in concept 19, but the gist is that because the water will never rise above 212°, it allows for a lower, slower cooking time for delicate custards and mousses. So, place the batter-filled pan in a larger roasting or cake pan and place it on an oven rack. Fill the larger pan with boiling water until it reaches about one inch up the side of the springform pan. Bake at 325° for 45-55 minutes, or until the edges are firm and the center has just set.
Once the cake has come out of the water bath, let it cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes, foil removed, before running a thin-bladed knife around the edges. Let it cool on the rack until barely warm, about another 3 hours, then cool completely in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours. To serve the cake, remove the sides of the pan and use a thin spatula to transfer the cake to a platter or cutting surface, peeling back the parchment. Run a thin-bladed knife under hot water to cut slices, wiping off the blade in between cuts. (You’ll have all manner of cake sticking to the blade if you don’t. Trust me…because I neglected this step. So much cake everywhere…)
For additional fanciness, top with a dollop of whipped cream (You make your own whipped cream, right? Combine 1 cup heavy cream, 1½ teaspoons sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla, beat 2-3 minutes on high until desired texture? Easiest thing ever, no need to buy the can or tub, right?) and, if you’re feeling particularly amorous, or, in my case, dorky, chocolate hearts. (The hearts are also the easiest thing ever, yet look so impressive. Melt some leftover chocolate in the same manner as above, then let cool slightly and pour into a squeeze bottle. When the chocolate has cooled to the right consistency, draw hearts or other shapes on a piece of waxed or parchment paper and place in the freezer to harden until ready to use. What’s the right consistency? I don’t know the thermometric answer to this, but I do know the best way to find out is to squeeze out a little bit of the chocolate and see if it holds its shape. Some things you just have to do by feel.)
So, you see, this cake does require some forethought and isn’t one to be whipped up on a whim. But, the rich, creamy texture and intense chocolate flavor makes it one worth spending some time preparing for special occasions. Or, you know, a Monday night.