Allow me to introduce you to The Black Pearl Cake. Isn’t it a beauty?
I was not a kid who wanted the same cake for her birthday each year. From the age of ten, I began using my birthday as an opportunity to try out the most elaborate and decadent new dessert to catch my eye in the previous months, but I have people in my life who make the same annual request when it comes to their birthday cake. Jorge has eyes only for my Frozen Ginger Key Lime Pie every year since he first encountered it several years ago, and Rob will have no other birthday carrot cake than mine. Cenovia, who appreciates a great black-and-white in all forms (cake, cookie, milkshake, cat, etc.), has proven consistent in asking for my Black Pearl Cake for several years in a row. I was more than happy to oblige this request for her birthday dinner last week.
This particular study in black-and-white is inspired by one of the exotic chocolate bars from Vosges Chocolates. Their popular Black Pearl Bar is 55% bittersweet chocolate that gets its kick from both ginger and wasabi plus a little crunch from black sesame seeds. This flavor combination doesn’t strike me as unusual now, having experienced chocolate paired with all sorts of wild ingredients over the years, but it seemed very daring when I first made its acquaintance in 2003.
How do you translate the flavors of this exotic chocolate bar into cake form? It starts with an excellent deeply chocolate cake, one with a firm crumb that is not at all cloyingly sweet. The cake layers are first moistened with ginger syrup and then perfectly complemented by a ginger-and-wasabi-spiked chocolate ganache that I could easily eat by the large spoonful. The light-as-air whipped cream icing has just a touch of ginger in it, and a sprinkling of black sesame seeds adds an elegant visual to the finished cake. And you just can’t believe how beautifully the flavors blend together, creating a harmonious and satisfying whole.
This recipe originally came from the January 2005 issue of Bon Appetit, and I first made it for a post-concert party I hosted for my friends after a Riverside Symphony performance that month. I have a major soft spot in my heart for that orchestra, for it was while playing in that group that I first met the violinists who became some of my closest friends in New York. Cenovia, the very warm and engaging concertmaster, introduced herself at my very first rehearsal (thirteen years ago today!), and I became friends with Sylvia, Lorra and Kristina shortly thereafter. Not only are these beautiful women talented and inspiring in so many ways, they are also some of my most enthusiastic food buddies, and I treasure their collective presence in my life.
Our Riverside Symphony program included Kurt Weill's haunting theater piece “The Seven Deadly Sins” on the night that I first served this Black Pearl Cake to a dozen friends. I always associate this particular recipe with that music, for this cake certainly encompasses many of those sins! Gluttony, Greed and Lust are definitely inspired every time a Black Pearl Cake is on my horizon. I will admit that my own Pride gets puffed up each time I make this stunning dessert, for it never fails to dazzle people’s taste buds and always inspires a wide variety of enthusiastic responses. Sloth doesn't figure into it, for the cake is a bit labor-intensive albeit well worth it, though I do experience major Envy when I watch the friends who can eat a big slice of this without looking like the cake went straight to their hips. (Grrrr....)
There have been many Black Pearl Cakes since that first awesome encounter. Whether it’s a dinner party, a birthday celebration, or a post-concert soiree—you name it—I’m happy for an excuse to create one of these unusual cakes. Lorra, who once commissioned me to make a Black Pearl Cake to feed 80 people for a big birthday party, summed it up perfectly after her very first bite of this. “Why would you ever need any other cake in your life?” I may have musical associations with the Seven Deadly Sins whenever I eat this, but as far as the actual taste is concerned, this Black Pearl Cake is sheer heaven.
Two Years Ago: Chocolate Mascarpone Praline Cupcakes
BLACK PEARL CAKE
Adapted slightly from a recipe inspired by Katrina Markoff's Vosges creations in Bon Appetit, January 2005
I made a few tweaks to the original recipe, reducing the amount of sugar in the cake and not adding the chopped fresh ginger to the cake batter because I think it interferes with the final texture. I’ve increased the ratio of cream-to-chocolate to make a more generous and spreadable ganache. I’ve also amped up the amount of ginger and wasabi in the ganache, just because the quantities in the original recipe were rather timid and barely discernable. Depending on your tastes, you could add an additional teaspoon of ginger and half-teaspoon of wasabi if you like an extremely bold flavor, but I think I have the proportions well-balanced here. I used a bittersweet chocolate that was about 60% cocoa, which was definitely bittersweet but not so dark that it overpowered the ginger and wasabi notes in the ganache.
For the cake:
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 cups boiling water
2-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
For the ginger-wasabi ganache:
2 cups heavy cream
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon wasabi powder
10.5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
2 tablespoons black sesame seeds
For the ginger syrup:
1 cup water
½ cup sugar
a 3-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and cut into thin rounds
1 vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise
For the icing:
1-3/4 cups heavy cream
¼ cup confectioners’ sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground ginger
black sesame seeds, for finishing
Make the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350•, placing the racks in the center of the oven. Butter the bottoms of three 9” round cake pans. Trace circles of parchment paper to fit the bottoms of the pans. Line the bottoms of the pan with the parchment paper circles, then butter and flour the papers and sides of the pans.
Combine the cocoa powder and boiling water in a small heat-resistant bowl, whisking to beat out any lumps. Set aside to cool to room temperature.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt, combining thoroughly.
In another large bowl, use a mixer to thoroughly blend the softened butter and sugar together. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla, and scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Use the mixer to alternate adding the flour mixture and the cocoa mixture, gradually adding the flour in four additions and the cocoa in three additions, beginning and ending with the flour mixture.
Pour the batter equally into the three prepared pans, smoothing the tops of the batter. Place the pans in the oven and bake for 30-35 minutes. Unless you have a convection oven that will circulate the air throughout the oven, switch the pans’ positions on the racks about halfway through the baking time so that they have a chance to bake evenly. Check the cake layers after 30 minutes of baking time; the top should spring back when touched with a finger, and a tester inserted in the center should come out clean.
Let the cake layers cool in their pans on a cooling rack for 10 minutes. Using a small knife, cut around the side of the cake to separate it from the sides of the pan. Invert each layer onto a greased plate, then place it right side up on the cooling rack. Allow the cake layers to cool thoroughly.
Make the ganache:
While the cake layers are baking, make the ganache. Place the finely chopped chocolate in a large mixing bowl. Whisk the heavy cream with the ground ginger and wasabi powder in a small heavy saucepan and bring the mixture to a boil. When the mixture begins to boil, immediately remove from the heat and pour the hot cream over the chocolate. Cover the mixing bowl with plastic wrap and let stand for 15 minutes, allowing the steaming cream to melt the chocolate. Remove plastic wrap and gently stir with a large whisk, thoroughly incorporating the chocolate with the hot cream. Stir in the black sesame seeds till blended. Cover again with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours until thoroughly chilled.
Make the ginger syrup:
Combine the sugar, water and ginger in a small saucepan. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the pan and add the vanilla bean itself. Stir over medium heat until the sugar dissolves, and let the mixture simmer for 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and cover, letting the mixture steep for 1 hour. Strain the syrup through a fine-meshed strainer into a small bowl, and let the syrup cool to room temperature before using.
To assemble the cake:
When cake layers are cool, use a serrated knife to slice off the very top layer of each cake so that the layers are even. Using a pastry brush, generously brush the ginger syrup over each of the layers.
Remove the chilled ganache from the refrigerator and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed for about 30 seconds, just until the ganache is fluffy and easily spreadable.
Smear a dab of the ganache on the bottom of serving platter or cake plate; this will anchor the cake so it will not slide around. Place one of the syrup-moistened layers on the plate, and gently spread with half of the ginger-wasabi ganache, leaving a half-inch border around the edge of each cake layer. Smooth out to form an even layer, Top with another cake layer and spread with the remaining ganache. Place the remaining cake layer on top and place in the refrigerator to chill while you make the icing.
Whip the cream, confectioner’s sugar, ground ginger until soft peaks form. Add the vanilla extract and continue whipping until firmer peaks are formed. Spread the whipped cream icing evenly over the top and sides of the cake. Sprinkle the finished cake with black sesame seeds. Chill in the refrigerator at least 1 hour before serving.
This cake is tall and rich, and it can easily be cut into thin slices to serve anywhere from 12 to 16 people.