Everyone has a special place growing up, a sparkly haven that represents the elegance of everything that transpires in the adult world after you’re sent to bed. My place is a little restaurant called C’est si Bon. The sign on the roof aimed at the bypass hardly suggests it’s a noteworthy place, nestled away from the cineplex looming over the valley like a villain’s castle. But on entering, I go from standing awkwardly in my fancy dress to feeling right in my place; the walls are painted a luscious raspberry color, and the warming glow of soft lighting and just-right wafts of rich sauces from the kitchen set the scene for almost Versailles-worthy special occasions. The only quirk is the classical selection bordering on elevator music that is clearly played while we are seated at a secluded corner table, probably a choice made to remember the owner’s days as a professional violinist. And soon, Norbert appears.
Norbert is the stereotype of a Frenchman. While he hosts, he is prone to making sweeping, emotional claims (“we are animals! There are only two things in life that people want: sex, and food – really, f**king good food!”); simultaneously insulting and endearing every American that walked through his door; and chasing (or admiring) skirts. In fact Michelle, his wife and head chef, didn’t permit the hire of female staff until a few years ago. I’ve never met another man who so expertly walked the line between being punched in the face and being poured another (comically enormous) glass of wine.
My parents would always make a reservation later in the evening, so that Norbert might join my dad for one of the few cigars he would smoke a year, on very special occasions. Toward the dessert course (always, always a round of chocolate mousses), Michelle would appear with the glow of an exhausted woman, but always greeted us affectionately. If things were winding down, she would plop down in Norbert’s end seat and remark on our size like any other grandmotherly figure. We kids sat quietly adoring her while she considered ‘a tiny, tiny’ glass of wine, accompanying the request with a squinted eye and a squeezed-together finger and thumb.
After everyone else left, we would retire to the bar, the kids timidly waiting outside to stare into the vast wall of Hollywood celebrity 8×10′s that the couple were gifted from Malibu socialites in the 60′s, when they ran a catering company. An equally beautiful picture of a young Michelle was displayed, which Norbert would proudly wave to as she excused herself to supervise the end-of-night cleaning. With a glint in his eye, he would then remind my mom of the dress she wore on her first visit to the restaurant, when she and my dad were first dating. Michelle would reappear and scoff, rolling her eyes as if to feign hurt and sometimes pretending to hit him with her tea towel, depending on how busy the night had been. While Norbert retreated into his cognac, the fattest black-and-white cat I have ever seen in my life would sneak by, prompting the question, “What do you feed that thing, anyway?”
“Only scallops, and leftovers…” Michelle explained nonchalantly.
Almost every year, we would pay a visit around Norbert’s birthday, and my mom would always make him a cake. But not just any cake – the cake that took so many bars of dark chocolate that my grandma would complain of caffeine-driven insomnia for days. Dad and Grandpa shared this cake, and my friends looked forward to my birthday a month ahead of time because they knew tupperware containers of leftover raspberry chocolate ganache awaited them in the cafeteria come lunchtime. It was made for my best friend’s bridal shower, and shared with Polish exchange students during procrasintation-filled nights of extreme baking marathons. It even spurred a frantic witch hunt for Chambord during the year I lived in Switzerland. This year, it was enjoyed while caressing the pages of Pierre Herme’s latest book – and might have gotten me my first bakery job.
One year while I was in school, my mom’s preferred brand of raspberry jam, sweetened with fruit juice instead of sugar, was nowhere to be found. In my town, most of what you needed at that time was available at one of three grocery stores – but specialty markets were a luxury, a delicious decadent experience saved for trips closer to the city. So, she made do with a substitute.
“This is not the same!” he cried incredulously in a way that suggested his entire birthday – nay, life! – had been riding on this cake. The man was married to an incredible chef, but he had that way about him that made you feel like he lived for your visit, as all great hosts do. I actually prefer seedless raspberry jam made with sugar, but a high quantity of fruit – like Wilkin & Sons Tiptree jam. Whatever you use, just don’t tell Norbert.
I can never get it exactly right, like my mom’s. The ganache is always lacking a little shine, the cake always a wee bit slanted, and the raspberry jam filling not quite generous enough. Even if all of this happens, and even if the glass holding the precious ganache shatters into a billion pieces rendering leftovers lethal or useless – the cake itself is the (or at least, my) definition of special.
Birthday Chocolate Raspberry Ganache Cake
from Glorious Chocolate: The Ultimate Chocolate Cookbook by Mary Goodbody & the editors of Chocolatier Magazine
PART 1: Chocolate Raspberry Ganache
510 g 70% chocolate
315 ml heavy whipping cream
30 g unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
160 ml seedless raspberry preserves
60 ml Chambord or other black raspberry liqueur
1. Chop chocolate into pieces small enough to melt easily, and transfer to a large bowl. (You may also want to chop the chocolate intended for the cake at this time, to avoid too much washing up!)
2. In a small saucepan, heat the heavy cream and salt until just boiling (take care to watch the pan as once boiling it is prone to spilling over). Remove the pan from heat.
3. Pour the hot cream into the chocolate, and stir with a wooden spoon (or gently with a whisk, so as not to aerate) until the mixture has liquefied.
4. Scrape down the sides of the work bowl and add the butter, stirring until smooth. Add the preserves, liqueur, and vanilla and stir again until creamy.
5. Transfer the ganache to a medium metal bowl and cover tightly with cling film/plastic wrap. Let the ganache thicken at room temperature for 7-8 hours or overnight. (If you would rather make the ganache the day you plan to frost the cake layers, refrigerate it for no longer than 1 1/2 hours or until the consistency is thick enough to frost but not so thick that it will tear the cake.
PART 2: Chocolate Raspberry Cake
240 g flour
1 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
330 g sugar
140 g 70% chocolate (I use Lindt)
175 ml water
170 g unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces
60 ml Chambord or other black raspberry liqueur
120 ml sour cream
2 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla
1. Position racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven, and preheat to 175*C (155*C fan, 350*F).
2. Lightly butter the bottoms of two 10×2-inch round cake pans. Line the bottom of each pan with a circle of baking parchment or waxed paper.
3. Chop the chocolate into pieces small enough to melt easily, and transfer to a large bowl.
4. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, 50 g of the sugar, the bicarbonate of soda, baking powder and salt.
5. In a small saucepan, combine the water and butter. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture comes to a gentle boil and the butter melts. Remove the pan from heat.
6. Pour the hot butter mixture into the chocolate and mix lightly until liquefied. Pour in liqueur and stir gently until smooth.
7. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the sour cream, eggs, and vanilla to the butter mixture, stirring again until smooth.
8. Scrape the batter into the prepared pans and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted into the center of each layer comes out clean.
9. Cool the cake layers in the pans set on wire racks for 10 minutes. Run the tip of a sharp knife around the edges of the cake layers to loosen them from the pans, and invert the layers onto wire racks. Carefully peel off the paper circles and leave them loosely placed on the bottoms of the layers. Inver the layers onto other racks so that they are right side up. Cool the layers completely.
PART 3: Assembly and Raspberry Cream
60 ml seedless raspberry preserves
240 ml heavy whipping cream
60 ml seedless raspberry preserves
1.5 tsp Chambord or other black raspberry liqueur
200 g raspberries, for garnish or folding into the cream to taste
1. Remove papers from cake layers and place one layer on a serving plate.
2. Gently warm the raspberry preserves in a small saucepan or in the microwave, and spread over the top of the first cake layer.
3. Spread 1 cup of prepared ganache over the preserves.
4. Place the second cake layer on top, and frost the top and sides of the cake with a smooth, even coating of ganache. Keep the cake refrigerated until 45 minutes before serving.
5. In a large bowl, whip the heavy cream until soft peaks begin to form.
6. Add the raspberry preserves and liqueur, and continue beating the cream mixture until stiff peaks form.
7. Use whole raspberries as garnish, or whip them into the cream which can be used to decorate the cake – or as I prefer, in generous dollops served with each slice.
From experience I can say that this is one of those next-day-better cakes, improved by the different components maturing together, so don’t be afraid to make this the day before it’s needed.