Posted by Stephanie Simpson on
Last weekend, I made a birthday cake for my boyfriend. Not a noteworthy way to start a story, I recognize, but consider this: My boyfriend lives in a different country.
So when I say that I made a birthday cake for my boyfriend, what I’m really saying is that I made a birthday cake to show to my boyfriend, and to eat by myself.
To elaborate on what sounds like a cruel gift: In the time we’ve been together, he and I have spent most birthdays apart and, somehow, this has cropped up as a tradition.
We don’t mail the cake, and we only stash a piece of it in the freezer if one of us will be visiting the other soon. The most that the birthday person typically gets, then, is a good look at the thing over Skype, where it’s waved around by the baker, dangerously aflame with celebratory candles. And so we keep it simple, making a basic loaf cake that won’t take up a ton of time or inspire cake-envy in the celebratee.
This birthday was a little different. Come Sunday morning, when it was time to bake, I knew he had a cake. And it was a good cake – a two-layer chocolate-and-almond creation delivered the day before by some of his friends. So I diverged from the usual plan, and made a pared down version of the same thing, for a more shared birthday experience.
The recipe: Julia Child’s single-layer chocolate and almond Reine de Saba. Simple though it looks, the cake turned out to require the level of effort fitting of a birthday treat. Fortunately, the results entirely reflect that effort. The cake is elegant and decadent, with a rich chocolate-almond flavour and a texture somewhere between a cake and a ground-almond cloud.
I ate the cake over the course of the week, savouring the final slice just as much as the first. But, fast forward ahead a few years, and I think it’ll be that first slice that stays with me. Not because it was more novel or fresh, but because I shared it, even if only virtually, in celebration of a day that meant something.
Often it’s the meaning behind a dish, and not the dish in and of itself, that makes it linger in your memory. So, if you can, save a special little cake like this for an occasion – it’ll make it all the more sweet. And if the occasion demands that you, say, end up with an entire cake to yourself, well, I don’t think you’ll have any trouble polishing it off. You know, speaking from experience.
Reine de Saba
Adapted from Bon Appetit (where it was sourced from Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”)
Makes 1 8-inch single-layer cake
Note: Instruction photos will be up in the next day or two!
4 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 tbsp brewed coffee (at room temperature) or rum
1/2 cup of unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup + 1 tbsp of white sugar, divided into those two measurements
3 large eggs, at room temperature, separated
Large pinch of salt
1/3 cup of ground almonds
1/4 tsp almond extract
3/4 cup of cake flour (measured after being sifted a few times)*
1 oz semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 tbsp brewed coffee (at room temperature) or rum
3 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup flaked almonds
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour an 8-inch cake pan with 2-inch high sides. Line the bottom of the pan with a round of parchment paper, and butter the parchment.
2. In a bowl set over a pot of gently simmering water, whisk together 4 oz of semisweet chocolate and 2 tbsp coffee or rum, until the chocolate is totally smooth. Turn off your pot of water and set the chocolate aside to cool.
3. In a large bowl, beat together the butter and 2/3 cup of sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add in the egg yolks and beat again until they’re fully incorporated into the butter mixture.
4. In a metal bowl, using clean beaters, beat the egg whites with the pinch of salt until soft peaks form. Gently add 1 tbsp of white sugar and beat again until stiff peaks form.
5. Carefully fold your ingredients into the butter mixture in the following order (make sure each ingredient is fully incorporated into the mixture before starting on the next):
- All of the cooled chocolate mixture.
- The ground almonds and almond extract.
- 1/4 of the whipped egg whites.
- 1/3 of the remaining whipped egg whites.
- 1/3 of the flour mixture.
- 1/2 of the remaining whipped egg whites.
- 1/2 of the remaining flour mixture.
- The remaining egg whites.
- The remaining flour mixture.
6. Gently spread the batter into your prepared 8-inch pan so that the sides are a little higher than the centre (this’ll help give your cake a flatter, less rounded top).
7. Bake for 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the centre of the cake comes out with a few crumbs on it. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then turn out of the pan and let cool completely before icing.
8. Make the icing: In a bowl set over a pot of gently simmering water, whisk together 1.5 oz of chopped chocolate and 1.5 tbsp coffee or rum. Turn off your pot of water, then whisk the butter into the chocolate mixture, one tablespoon at a time. Allow the icing to cool to room temperature, then whisk again until it’s thick and spreadable (I put mine in the fridge, whisking every few minutes, just to speed up the process).
9. Assemble your cake: Place the cooled cake on a cake plate. Carefully spread the icing in a thin layer of the top and the sides of the cake. Press flaked almonds around the edges of the cake. Serve on its own or with a bit of whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. Extras will keep at room temperature for a few days or in the fridge for at least a week.
*If you don’t have cake flour: Stir together 1/2 cup + 2 tbsp of all purpose flour and 2 tbsp of corn starch. Sift 3-4 times, to fully incorporate the corn starch into the flour. To use: Measure out 3/4 cup after the final sifting, and use as instructed.