something to celebrate

Hi, friends. It’s been a little while, and the world has already changed so much. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing less cooking and more watching, engaging with the world and with loved ones as this crisis unfolds around us, touching every area of our lives. But as hard as it is to pull my focus away from the pandemic and my anxieties surrounding it, there are still things to celebrate, and food plays a part in that as well.

Yesterday, my partner came to a huge milestone in his life and his career: he successfully defended his dissertation and was recognized as a full-fledged Ph.D. by the committee. It’s an incredible accomplishment. I brag about him a lot, and I’m proud of him every day for the man that he is. But yesterday, when they called him “Doctor…” I was truly prouder than I have ever been. We’ve been anticipating and talking about this day since we first met, and when it finally arrived it was hard to really let it sink in, to really believe that this was it, that all the hard work and sacrifices had come to fruition. But they had! And, of course, we needed cake to mark the occasion.

It’s traditional, though no longer encouraged or expected, for defense candidates to bring refreshments—at the very least champagne—to their defense. I can’t really go to anything without offering to bake something, and I knew I wanted to make a cake because what’s a better way to celebrate than having cake?? (Besides drinking.) My partner asked for this cake: Martha Stewart’s chocolate raspberry cake which I made once for a dinner we went to a little over two years ago. I call it Five-Kinds-of-Dairy Cake because it uses every imaginable iteration of dairy you can think of in a single dessert.

It’s a basic chocolate sponge flavored slightly with framboise, layered with raspberry filling, and spread with a cream cheese-butter-sour-cream-chocolate melange that is honestly, in his words, “to die for.” The only change I made was incorporating mascarpone into the raspberry filling because it was in my fridge and I wanted to use it up. I used mascarpone in a similar cake that I made for my mother’s birthday last September, and I like how it cuts the tart sweetness of the raspberries and the sugary frosting. The cake itself includes buttermilk and butter, and the frosting is made of butter, cream cheese, and sour cream (or crème fraîche if you’re fancy) in addition to the chocolate and sugar. So it’s a lot of dairy. Not for the faint of heart, or lactose intolerant.

Now, I am the world’s worst cake decorator. I usually don’t bother at all, but I do like a neat presentation. In this instance, I think I made a few fatal mistakes. I made the frosting two days in advance but I didn’t let it sit out long enough so it was too stiff to spread neatly. I made the filling too loose with added framboise and layered it too thick in between the cake layers, making them slide around as I tried to frost them. And I didn’t do a crumb coat because the icing wasn’t soft enough and I ran out of time the day of the dissertation defense. I panicked slightly as I was frosting the damn thing and pink filling started leaking out of the sides. Truly, it looked awful: it was lopsided with uneven frosting smeared all over the place, and a heap of raspberries scarcely disguising its faults.

However…it was delicious. And no one complained. In fact, they asked for seconds, which to me is the highest praise possible for any dish.

Here’s some recipe critique, for those who are interested. I don’t particularly like sponge, or cakes that use the creaming method. To be clear, that is combining butter (or another kind of fat) with the sugar first, then adding eggs, vanilla (or alcohol), and the dry mixture alternating with a liquid (usually milk). The chocolate cake I prefer to make is more a dump cake, made by dumping hot water (or coffee), eggs, vanilla, and whatever else into the dry mixture and stirring. There’s no butter so it’s a lighter, fluffier, moister cake.

I also have to say, I don’t have a lot of success with Martha Stewart recipes and I think she doesn’t really test them as thoroughly as other baking sites. In this instance, the rather thick batter is divided between three cake pans and it doesn’t rise much, so you get a pretty thin layer of cake, which burns or dries out too easily. I prefer something about two inches thick, especially if it’s a sturdy sponge that can hold itself up. Mine were an inch or less and only slightly domed, so I didn’t bother shaving them down to shape. I would recommend doubling the recipe or making only two layers at a longer bake time. Or just make my favorite cake recipe and frost it with whatever you like.

The frosting here really is delicious. I like the tartness that the sour cream brings to it. I loosened mine with a little almond milk because I wasn’t about to risk my life at the grocery store trying to find the last gallon of dairy milk. You couldn’t taste the difference. The filling is really just a basic raspberry reduction that you can substitute with your own or with jam, if you really want, and mixed with a whole eight-ounce tub of mascarpone and about a tablespoon of framboise. I have half a tub left, so it goes far.

The cake is now gone. Half of it disappeared after the defense, along with the bottle of Moet & Chandon that was absolutely worth the price. You only become a Ph.D. once, ya know? (Usually.) We gave a quarter to his parents, and ate the rest ourselves on the couch at the end of a long day and a long weekend and a long six years of hard work. We breathed deeply and took slow bites and felt, for a few moments, that everything was OK. Because it was.

The world is a scary, chaotic place right now. Each day brings news of more to fear, and nothing is certain: but we can find some certainty, some peace, some comfort in the arms and voices of our loved ones, and maybe in a wedge of chocolate cake.

Stay safe and strong, everyone.

2 thoughts on “something to celebrate

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