Susan McWhinney
Le Bernardin's Chocolate Birthday Cake
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Chocolate Birthday Cake

Gary Tucker / June 2012

When Florian Bellanger began working as executive pastry chef at Le Bernardin in New York City in 1996, it saddened him to just stick a candle into the dessert, no matter what it was, of a guest celebrating a birthday. It seemed to be such a letdown after the level of refinement that had been displayed during the savory portion of the meal. What was needed, he reasoned, was an actual birthday cake, to be kept on hand and brought out as needed. Since the menus are prix-fixe, it wouldn’t cause a distraction or awkward time-consuming adjustment to the bill, and the evening could end on an unexpectedly festive note.

So he implemented a custom that continues to this day of the readily available birthday cake, not listed on the dessert menu. “Every two weeks or so, we would make 20 cakes, complete except for being glazed, and store them in the freezer,” recalls Bellanger, who now co-owns Mad Mac, a company based in Paterson, New Jersey, that creates authentic French macarons and madeleines. “On the day one was ordered, we would remove it from the freezer and let it thaw for a few hours in the refrigerator. Then we would glaze it and decorate it with tempered chocolate plaques.” And so smooth and shiny is Bellanger’s glaze that you could gaze into it to apply make-up.

The practice of making the chocolate birthday cake continued after Bellanger left for other pursuits in 2001 and was replaced by Michael Laiskonis, who himself left in December 2011. Laurie Jon Moran, the current pastry chef, was not aware of the cake and its history when he came on board after Laiskonis, but says that loyal customers insist it remain an option. “It’s kind of a thread through the lineage of the pastry chefs who have worked here since Florian. All have agreed that it’s a great classic cake, and no one has wanted to change it.”

Watch the video here.

Serves 8

Chocolate sponge cake:
• 2 Tbsps. plus 1/3 tsp. (30 g) unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus more at room temperature for cake rings
• 1 1/4 cups (150 g) all-purpose flour, plus more for cake rings
• 1/4 cup plus 2 tsps. (25 g) cocoa powder
• 5 (280 g) lg. eggs
• 3/4 cup plus 3 1/2 tsps. (165 g) granulated sugar

  1. Heat oven to 350°F.

  2. Butter and flour an 8" by 2" cake ring; place on baking sheet lined with nonstick baking pad; reserve.

  3. Sift flour and cocoa powder through fine sieve into large bowl; reserve.

  4. Whisk eggs in the bowl of electric mixer fitted with whisk attachment until light and fluffy.

  5. Bring sugar and 2 Tbsps. plus 1 tsp. (35 g) water to a boil in a saucepan, stirring until sugar dissolves; cook, without stirring, until candy thermometer registers 250°F (121˚C); remove from heat. 6. With motor running, carefully pour down side of bowl into egg mixture; whisk until mixture has thickened and cooled; fold into melted butter; fold in flour/cocoa powder mixture; pour into cake ring to fill 2/3 full (A) bake until a skewer inserted into center of cake comes out clean (15 to 20 minutes); remove from oven; cool; reserve.

Cocoa soaking syrup:
• 1/3 cup plus 3 1/2 tsps. (75 g) granulated sugar
• 3 cups plus 3 Tbsps. (275 g) cocoa powder

Bring sugar and 1 3/4 cups (400 g) water to a boil in a saucepan; whisk in cocoa powder; remove from heat; strain through fine chinois into a bowl; cool; reserve.

Chocolate mousse:
• 2 (80 g) sm. eggs
• 6 (100 g) sm. egg yolks
• 2/3 cup (120 g) granulated sugar
• 9.7 oz. (275 g) bittersweet chocolate, melted (keep warm)
• 1 2/3 cups (400 g) heavy cream, whisked to soft peaks

  1. Whisk eggs and egg yolks in the bowl of electric mixer fitted with whisk attachment until light and fluffy.

  2. Bring sugar and 2 Tbsps. (30 g) water to a boil in a saucepan, stirring until sugar has dissolved; cook, without stirring, until candy thermometer registers 262°F (128˚C); remove from heat.

  3. With motor running, carefully pour down side of bowl into egg mixture; whisk until mixture has thickened and cooled; remove from mixer.

  4. Fold in melted chocolate; fold in whipped cream in 3 batches.

  5. Place in pastry bag fitted with large round tip; reserve in refrigerator.

Assembly:
• 6 sheets silver gelatin
• 1/3 cup (80 g) cold water
• 2 cups plus 4 3/4 tsps. (420 g) granulated sugar
• 2 cups (280 g) heavy cream
• 1 1/2 cups plus 2 Tbsps. (140 g) cocoa powder
• chocolate plaques and decor (for serving)

  1. Cut cake horizontally into 2 disks; reserve 1 disk for another cake; cut remaining half horizontally into 2 disks; stamp out slightly smaller cake disks using cake ring 1/2" smaller than original ring (B).

  2. Place chocolate soaking syrup in half hotel pan; add cakes; press to submerge and saturate completely (C).

  3. Place a soaked cake disk on cardboard set on baking sheet lined with nonstick baking pad; center original cake ring around; pipe mousse halfway up ring, covering cake; top with second cake disk, making sure it is centered; pipe additional mousse to fill ring (D); smooth top with a spatula (E); cover with plastic wrap; reserve in freezer.

  4. Bloom gelatin in cold water in a bowl; reserve.

  5. Bring sugar, cream, and 1/4 cup (65 grams) water to a boil in a saucepan; cook until candy thermometer registers 217°F (103˚C); remove from heat; whisk in cocoa powder; whisk in bloomed gelatin with any unabsorbed water; blend with immersion blender until smooth; cool to 104°F (140˚C).

  6. To serve, using a blow torch, warm sides of cake ring; unmold cake; place on wire rack set over baking sheet lined with plastic wrap; pour glaze over top (F), allowing glaze to completely coat top and sides of cake; let excess glaze drip into pan; place cake on cake stand; decorate sides of cake with tempered chocolate plaques; decorate top with other chocolate decor as desired; let stand until glaze is set; place birthday candle in center of cake; light candle; set on table in front of honored guest.

What to drink: Champagne