On occasions that call for a special dessert, I most often turn to a recipe for Chocolate Cloud Cake in my Nigella Lawson cookbook, Nigella Bites. It’s a bit labor-intensive, but not dauntingly so. It requires some focused attention to let the chocolate melt slowly and incorporate other ingredients, a vigorous whisking of the egg whites to achieve the right structure, and a gentle touch to fold the whites into the chocolate just so. It’s the kind of flourless cake (a torte, really) that sinks upon cooling, but as Nigella says, “Don’t worry about cracks or rough edges: it’s the crater look we’re going for here.” That crater then becomes the perfect receptacle for softly whipped cream and a sprinkling of cocoa powder or syrupy berries.
I’m making the chocolate cloud cake today in part to celebrate my daughter’s first week of pre-school. It’s a proud moment for a parent to watch her kid embark on the first year of her long academic journey. Ah, the friends she’ll make! The opportunities she’ll have! I can’t help but be excited to see her grow and thrive. Along with the excitement, though, comes a touch of anxiousness: Oh, the dangers she might face when I’m not there! It’s our little girl, and try as I might to look at it rationally and know that this is a joyous milestone, there’s a little part of me that finds it hard to let her go, to actually walk back down those schoolhouse steps and not look back. And so I make this cloud cake in part to soothe that anxiety, to occupy my hands, and to set my mind to simply create something.
The melting of the chocolate is a glorious thing. I do a makeshift double boiler with a metal mixing bowl set over a pot of boiling water. The steam coaxes the chunks of chocolate into trickles, then a pool of glistening goodness; I add butter and stir gently to melt. Then in go some egg yolks, sugar, and orange zest. What more could one want from a dessert, anyway? Chocolate, butter, eggs, sugar, zest – these are the raw ingredients that will shine through in the dessert if I just let them. There are moments when parenting is this glorious too: the animated stories she’ll tell me after trying something new, the belted-out songs in the bathtub, the toy shared with other kids, the doctor’s office visit without tears, the snuggles during bedtime stories. Sometimes she’ll show these glimmers of creativity, kindness, humor, and grit that make me a proud mama. I need to believe that with just a little coaxing over the course of her growing years, these qualities will shine through no matter what challenges lie ahead.
Whisking the egg whites comes next in the recipe, and to me it’s the most difficult part. Much like the disciplining aspect of parenting, you have to be careful they don’t turn out too stiff, but you need to provide some structure to make the cake set. Both the egg whites and the discipline usually require more strength than I believe I have in the moment. But just when you think your arm is too sore to continue holding the whisk, the whites suddenly start to hold their shape. It’s like that as a parent, too: the repeated prompts to clean this, wear that, eat this, don’t eat that, don’t touch, be careful, watch your head, put that down, let’s go, use your inside voice, say please-and-thank-you, and I’m-counting-to-five-now. It’s an exhausting and brutal and endless battle, but just when you think you’re down for the count you hear a tiny but distinct little voice say, “Okay, mummy.” And bam, something took. It’s those moments when you know it’s all worth it – all your laboring and all the heartache slowly but surely yield a structure to hold up on its own.
To finish the cloud cake batter, you need to lighten the chocolate mixture with a dollop of the egg whites, then gently fold in the rest of the egg whites. It sounds easy, but I’ve done both extremes of not mixing the batter enough (and ending up with a marbled, streaked cake), and over-mixing (and ending up with a near-flattened cake). After a few trials and errors you get a bit more confident in this step, but you also just have to have faith that whatever the results, this cake’s going to be amazing. I guess by now I should know that in parenting, too, it’s often the ups and downs and the mistakes that build confidence to find the right balance between over-involvement and a hands-off approach. And that as my daughter’s school adventure begins, I will feel the push and pull of parental instincts in both directions until we settle on the best way forward – one that doesn’t have too many streaks of reckless behavior but at the same time doesn’t quash her personality and independence.
The last step is to cook the cloud cake and resist the urge to open the oven door while it bubbles and rises and cracks and sets. You can’t lose hope when, upon cooling, the cake appears to deflate a little in the middle. Let go of your pre-conceived notions of how a chocolate cake should look. You can’t fix the cracks or prevent the caving, you just have to believe that the glorious ingredients will shine through, trust that the structure you worked on will hold up, and have confidence that the results will be delightful, imperfections and all. It’s a long process, this creating of the cloud cake, but I know now just what I have to do when I pick up my girl later from school – it’s what you do when your chocolate cloud cake is settled and cooled and released from its spring-form pan. You heap upon it a healthy dollop of sweetness, then step back and take a good, long look, and you smile at this wondrous creation before you.
Nigella’s Chocolate Cloud Cake
(This recipe appears in Nigella Bites and originates from Richard Sax’s Classic Home Desserts. I’ve simplified some of the steps here.)
9 ounces (about 250 g) bittersweet chocolate, minimum 70% cocoa solids
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
6 eggs: 2 whole, 4 separated
½ cup plus 1 Tbs. sugar
Grated zest of one orange (optional)
9-inch spring-form cake pan
Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C) and butter the cake pan. Melt the chocolate in a double boiler and let the butter melt in the warm chocolate. Beat the 2 whole eggs and 4 egg yolks with 1/3 cup of the sugar, then gently add the chocolate mixture and the orange zest.
In another bowl, whisk the 4 egg whites until foamy, then gradually add the remaining sugar and whisk until the whites hold their shape but are not too stiff. Lighten the chocolate mixture with a dollop of egg whites, and then fold in the rest of the whites. Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 35-40 minutes or until the cake is risen and cracked and the center is no longer wobbly. Cool the cake in its pan on a wire rack; the middle will sink as it cools….
For whipped cream topping: Whip 2 cups heavy cream until it’s soft and then add 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and sugar to taste and continue whisking until the cream is firm but not stiff. Fill the crater of the cake with the whipped cream, easing it out gently toward the edges of the cake, and dust the top lightly with cocoa powder pushed through a tea strainer. Serves 8-12.
(Variation: Instead of – or in addition to – whipped cream, top with berries cooked lightly in a simple sugar syrup.)