Monday, December 5, 2011

Karen Krasne's Bonaparte Cake

I usually don't go in for fussy desserts. Fussy is not my style. Also, my patience has its limits.

This cake really tried my patience.

In the end, the effort was worth it but I doubt that I'll be making this baby again anytime soon. (Which is such an apt analogy- this cake was so agonizing to make, I feel like I gave birth to it.)

I half-joked with a friend that it just wouldn't be a holiday for me if I didn't undertake to make some overblown pastry project. It's the only time of year that I'll take on the kind of fidgety projects that I'd never endure otherwise. I figure the holidays are already stressful, why not just ratchet it up a notch?

I embarked upon this four day cake making odyssey for our Thanksgiving meal. Eric had invited a few of the other chefs he works with to join us for dinner. I was cool with baking for a slightly more selective crowd (chefs can't help but be critics) but then he went and dropped a bomb on me. Turns out one of the chefs that would be dining with us was a former pastry chef at the Four Seasons here in Austin.

I was decidedly not cool with baking this cake for a former pastry chef. Not one bit.

Gah! At that point, there was nothing to do other than press on. I had already completed day two prep and I certainly wasn't going to a grocery store the day before Thanksgiving to pick up ingredients to make another dessert. I'm not that crazy. (Good thing I didn't know then what day three prep was going to be like or I might have changed my mind.)

I finished up the fourth day of cake making Thanksgiving morning. From outward appearances, the cake looked fine but I always stress when serving a dessert that I haven't sampled beforehand. To tame my nerves, I pulled out a couple of extra bottles of wine. I figured if I plied the guests with plenty of booze, by the time I cut the cake they'd be too inebriated to scrutinize it too closely. Or at least I'd be well lubricated if I had to face a flop.

Fortunately, the cake was delicious. The ganache and mousse layers held together perfectly and the cake layers were super moist and rich. In hindsight, I don't know why I got so worked up- with as much chocolate as went into the cake, how could it have been bad?

And the former pastry chef was quite complimentary of my effort. Whew!

The Bonaparte is a chocolate sour cream cake layered with ganache and salted chocolate chip mousse, topped with ganache, salted caramel, and almond brittle. It's from Karen Krasne of Extraordinary Desserts. She recently released her first book, Extraordinary Cakes: Recipes for Bold and Sophisticated Desserts and Jan surprised me by sending me a copy (how apropos- the very two ladies that inspired me to start baking). As I've mentioned before, Extraordinary Desserts was such an eye opener for me- I had never before seen desserts done on that level. Karen's confections are awesome and inspiring even if I've since learned that her style of pastry will never be my cup of tea. While I appreciate the beauty and intricacy of her creations, honestly I'm happiest making (and munching on) simpler baked goods. I get excited by a really well executed chocolate chip cookie made with super rich European butter and bad ass single origin chocolate. While I'll never be an expert cake maker like Karen Krasne, I do think it's good to push yourself. Now and then everyone needs to step outside of their comfort zone, right? Especially when the reward is chocolate cake!

I apologize for not including recipes but the six separate recipes to make the components of the assembled cake spanned five pages in the book. If you're going to make the kind of commitment required to reproduce one of Karen's cakes, you are probably invested enough to buy the book. Instead, I'm going to give you crib notes on what I learned while making this cake that might make the process easier for you if you do buy the book and embark on the odyssey yourself:
  • Karen called for baking the cake in a 10"x3" round cake pan and then cutting it into three layers. I don't have such a pan so I used three regular 9" round cake pans and weighed the batter out equally into each pan to ensure even layers. I then baked one cake pan at a time on the middle rack of the oven. While it might have required a little extra time, this was so much easier, in my estimation, than agonizingly trying to cut even layers on a large, rather thick cake.
  • The original recipe called for brushing the cake layers with a Tuaca simple syrup. I skipped this step because I didn't have a bottle of the liqueur, although Karen did note that you could substitute pure vanilla extract. I didn't think the simple syrup was needed after baking the layers individually. There were no crumbs to be tamed from cutting layers and baking the layers individually lessened the risk of dry cake from over baking.
  • Next time (as if) I would skip making the salted chocolate chips called for in the mousse. It seems tedious and unnecessary to me when several chocolate companies make excellent salted chocolate bars you can readily buy in a store and chop up to use for chips. Lindt makes a great, inexpensive bar that I'd probably use next time (yeah, right).
  • Karen called for using a cake ring to assemble the cake layers, which is another piece of baking equipment that I don't own. I bought a cheap acetate strip I used to line one of my 9" cake pans to serve as a mold. It worked like a charm to assemble the cake, mousse, and ganache layers and was a breeze to just peel off after freezing the cake.
Lastly, the Fairy Hobmother from Appliances Online is making her holiday rounds.  She kindly visited me and left a sweet gift. She just might visit you too if you leave a comment!


  1. While the undertaking sounds monumental, the result is simply gorgeous! Your guests were super lucky to be at your table that night. Amazing job!

  2. It turned out perfectly! The look of the salted caramel over the chocolate ganache is causing serious cravings. Must have been deliciously worth all the effort.

  3. Good gracious!!! I love the "as if" in parenthesis... I am not sure if I have this much patience, so good call on not writing down the recipe. Nice to look at, if someone serves it, I will definitely eat it. But that is pretty much it for this cake.

  4. What a great post, Shelley. and what a glorious cake! After reading through your post I don't think I'm ready to tackle such an elaborate cake, but what an inspiration you are for making the commitment especially after hearing the news that a pastry chef would be a guest for your dinner! No pressure! Bravo!

  5. Amazing!! You did well, friend. Glad you stuck it through.

  6. Wow, what a masterpiece! I don't think you could get anything more fabulous at the top london bakeries. Simply spectacular daaahling! What time should i come for dessert?
    *kisses* HH

  7. You get a serious A for effort here. Wow! That looks amazing. And, you impressed the pastry chef. Wonderful news. I would never attempt this one, I'm afraid. You are my hero, as per usual. xoxo

  8. Ok, lady. What can you NOT do? You're the bomb and that is proven by this lovely looking creation. Can I come over? Thanks!

  9. hi shelley, I just discovered a blog, have a look, I am sure you'll like it.
    by the way, fantastic job! big hug

  10. Wow Shelley, what a beautiful cake, love how you assembled and decorated it, so elegant!
    Hope you are having a wonderful week :-)

  11. First off, I think that you're way too modest: All your desserts look complex and wonderful to me. That said, what were you thinking? Four days to make a cake!?!? Truly it is a death wish. That said, what with the extra bottles of wine, and this incredible dessert, I'd be honored to dine with you anytime...