Building a birthday cake at both ends

“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.” 
― Paulo Coehlo (b. 8/24), “The Alchemist”

RaHowardWho am I? It’s birthday and navel-gazing season, so once again, I contemplate the big questions. If readings and meditations of late are to be believed, who I am — who we all are — is less of a matter and more of a mind, and not even mind really, but something deeper. We are the spiritual beings having a human experience, not the other way around. We are not our bodies, but our souls. Our souls, what are they? The space between thoughts, the space between words, the observer of thoughts, our soul is the witness to the lives we are creating each and every day. If we are the observer, then we are genderless, ageless (and maybe odorless). Still, the human body has its place here…to carry the observer around and provide its own distractions, both painful and pleasurable.

The real you, I’ve been told, is the one who sees the divine. And we know those divine moments when they come. If we are really tuned in to our real selves, the seer of the divine, we should be seeing it everywhere. If you want a true test, look for the divine standing in line at the DMV. If you can see it there, you can see it anywhere.

Has this true seer been captured on film? Some of my childhood photos, when I was perhaps more in tune with the real me than ever, suggest this is possible. If one picture captured who I would really like to see myself as being, it would be of the laughing me above, not yet two, but with essence already established, took delight in something, anything, probably nothing, but was still delighted and laughing, lit up with the funny of what I saw.

Because the best of who I am is just that — the one seeing the humor of it all — because it can be truly laughable. The truth is, we are here for such a short time. We should not struggle so, we should not torture ourselves, we should not fixate on pain, on what is wrong, on what is missing. I know this can be hard to manage.

At some point in your life, you must choose sides. Are you for yourself or against? Hold tight to being your ally and it will carry you far.

Rahoward2We break ourselves up into segments as we ponder our lives, as if at each turn we become a new being, a stranger to ourselves. Oh, that was the girl I was, but no longer. But if the observer, the soul, is a constant and has always been, you are the cumulation of all you have been. Instead of a life on the floor in fragments like broken glass, you are one fluid line, a river, gathering force in some areas, quieter at other spots, but always the river, headed in a certain direction.

I’ve seen myself as a gathering of souls, too, layers, if you will. I’m all the folks I’ve always been. The little laughing girl is still there, for sure, as are the others, assembled and growing, but rooted in the same divine truth.

So many layers, in life and in cake. My birthday cake this year was a merging of dualities in something called “Heaven and Hell Cake,” created by Dallas chef Stephen Pyles. When described to my friend, Joan, she replied, “Sounds like all heaven to me.” Layers of devil’s food cake and angel food cake, sandwiched with a peanut butter mousse (not heaven or hell, but, what? The present? Purgatory?) and the entire thing coated with chocolate ganache. How decadent and perfect in its representation of the dark and light views of human existence.

sugarChoco01I began, by making “hell,” a devil’s food cake layer that, by all rights, should have been enough of a cake to just stop baking there. Full of rich dark cocoa and a cup of strong black coffee, it was a tender and sinfully delicious-smelling creature. Yep, should have been enough, but I moved on.

”Heaven,” the angel food cake layer, called for a cup and a half of egg whites, whipped with cream of tartar, salt, sugar and flavorings to lofty billows of foam, then combined, ever delicately, with cake flour — just enough to transform meringue into cake. Never having made angel food cake before, I was a tad apprehensive. Not too worry, it baked to a golden brown, and with some nudging, dismounted the pan successfully.eggsSep01

Next, the purgatory of peanut butter mousse. Peanut butter got me through childhood, as there was a time when it was nearly all I ate (see photo of bony girl), so it seemed fitting that peanut butter would be the glue to hold this whole thing together. The recipe makes a gargantuan amount of mousse, created from cream cheese, peanut butter, and whipped cream, and it occurred to me — the mousse is reason enough for is cake. The mousse could stand alone.

PeanutLayer01Each heaven and hell layer was sliced in half then layered with the mousse, then frozen for a time before the ganache was applied. Now if you are unfamiliar with ganache and think it to sound like something fancy, it is so not…merely chocolate melted in heated cream. It makes for a glossy delicious exterior to any cake or cupcake.layers

The cake was chilled again before slicing. Seven layers. It seemed to weigh 30 pounds. This was enough birthday cake for everyone I knew.

Sliced through, its interior (like the photos I had seen) was striking with all the contrasts of dark and light, the rich golden filling of my beloved peanut butter. A little slice will do ya…and all flavors, together, somehow worked — the dark undertone of the devil’s food, the lofty, almond sugary pillow of angel food, the peanut butter mousse (purgatory and present) dominated, but all was held firmly stable by that dense chocolate coating of ganache.FrigidCake01

A day past birthday, the cake is still calling from its dominating spot on the top shelf of the refrigerator, like Audrey, the plant in “Little Shop of Horrors,” only instead of saying, “feed me,” the cake cries “Eat me!” It might take me an eternity to eat it. And I will, along with others with whom I’ll share. We’ll eat the dark and light, the heaven and hell. And the richness of the present. All heaven, really. We are both mind and body, but tend the soul, will you? Do not forget her, that soul you have been. Always.proflecke01

Heaven and Hell Cake
From Saveur magazine
Serves 10 to 12

2 lbs. milk chocolate, such as Valrhona, chopped
1 1/2 cups heavy cream

1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 cup cake flour
1 1/2 cups egg whites
1 tsp. cream of tartar
1/8 tsp. kosher salt
1 cup sugar
2 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. almond extract

1/2 cup vegetable shortening, plus more for pan
1 1/2 cups cake flour, plus more for pan
1 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1 cup coffee
1/2 cup cocoa powder, sifted
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2 eggs

1 1/2 lbs. cream cheese, at room temperature
4 cups smooth peanut butter, at room temperature
3 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 1/2 cups heavy cream

1. Make the ganache: Place the chocolate in a medium­size bowl. Bring cream to a boil in a 2­qt. saucepan; pour cream over the chocolate and let sit to melt for 5 minutes. Using a rubber spatula, combine the chocolate and cream. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to let rest for 4 hours.

2. Make the angel food cake: Heat oven to 325°. Line bottom of a 10″ round cake pan with ungreased parchment paper. In a medium bowl, sift together confectioners’ sugar and flour; set flour mixture aside. In a
large bowl, beat egg whites, cream of tartar, and salt with a handheld mixer on low speed until frothy. Increase mixer speed to medium, sprinkle in sugar, vanilla, and almond extract, and beat until stiff peaks form. Sprinkle half of the confectioners’ sugar–flour mixture over egg whites; using a rubber spatula, fold until just combined. Repeat with remaining flour mixture. Pour batter into prepared cake pan and bake until top of cake springs back when touched, 45–50 minutes. Transfer cake to a rack and let cool.

3. Make the devil’s food cake: Heat oven to 350°. Grease a 10″ round cake pan with shortening and dust with flour to coat; shake out excess flour and set pan aside. In a medium bowl, whisk together cake flour, baking soda, salt, and baking powder; set flour mixture aside. In another medium bowl, whisk the coffee and cocoa powder until smooth; set coffee mixture aside. In a large bowl, beat the shortening, sugar, vanilla, and eggs with a handheld mixer on medium speed until pale and fluffy, 2 minutes. Alternately add the flour mixture and the coffee mixture to the bowl in 3 stages, beating to combine after each addition. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake until a toothpick inserted into cake comes out clean, 30–35 minutes; transfer to a rack and let cool completely.

4. Make the peanut butter mousse:In a large bowl, beat cream cheese, peanut butter, and confectioners’ sugar with a handheld mixer on medium speed until smooth and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Put cream into a large bowl and beat on high speed until stiff peaks form. Using a rubber spatula, fold the whipped cream into the peanut butter mixture; set mousse aside in the refrigerator.

5. Assemble the cake: Using a serrated­blade knife, slice each cake horizontally into 2 layers. Place 1 layer of the devil’s food cake on a cake stand and spread 1/3 of the peanut butter mousse over the top with a butter knife. Top mousse with a layer of the angel food cake and spread with half of the remaining mousse. Repeat with the remaining devil’s food cake, mousse, and angel food cake. Wrap cake in plastic wrap and freeze for 2 hours. Stir ganache until smooth and spread evenly over the top and sides of the cake with a butter knife.
Refrigerate the cake for 2 hours before slicing.

Blogger’s Note: I successfully made this cake using 9-inch cake pans (leaving a slight amount of batter out) and making the ganache with a combination of semisweet, bittersweet and milk chocolate.

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