Mocha mousse cake

Mocha mousse cake

Mocha mousse cake

I was sewing some felt owls the other month, as one does. The seams flying through the machine, somewhat sloppy and uneven, brought to mind a phrase my mother uses. “Loving hands at home.” The phrase, taken as a whole, is an adjective, and it describes work that is not technically perfect, but that is made with love. It’s such a nice expression, particularly if used by a mother, because a mother’s hands can be so magically comforting. When my boys were little I could soothe an achy belly with a tummy rub, and Malcolm still asks me to put cool hands on his forehead when he’s feverish. The exact shape and size of your mother’s hand seems to be imprinted in the memory of your own hand. My mother’s hands are calloused from cello-playing, but they’re always very soft and warm. I have a vivid memory of a train ride to Washington DC. I must have been in middle school. It was just after Christmas, and the train was very cold, but we all sat close together in the cramped compartment two facing seats make. My mother’s hand rested on my knee for some time, and the warmth of it felt good. When she took her hand away, it was as if the whole train became a little colder – not just the place where her hand had been, but every place.

I’m grateful to have grown up in a home that celebrated a loving-hands-at-home aesthetic. If the expression is taken not as an absolution of mediocrity or a justification for lackluster effort, but as an appreciation of the imperfections that make something unique, it becomes very freeing. I find that I’m raising my own boys this way. We color outside the lines. Sometimes, we don’t even make lines first! We find more beauty in lack of symmetry, in less-than-clean lines. An irregularity in fabric or wood is not a flaw but an opportunity to make something distinctly lovely. By hand, with affection for the work and the object that it produces, like true amateurs. I believe this is what they now call “artisanal.”

What’s this? A chocolate cake recipe in January! Nobody wants to see that! We all want light and healthy, dammit. Well, I’m a rebel, so here it is: four layers of dense, dark chocolatey, cinnamony cake with 3 layers of light mocha-cinnamon mousse, with the whole being topped by melted bittersweet chocolate. Actually, I made this cake for my mom’s birthday back in November, but what with one thing and another, I haven’t gotten around to telling you about it yet. My mom likes not-too-sweet things, she likes dark chocolate, and she used to eat these candies called “coffee nips,” which came in a yellow and brown box. I combined these ideas to make this cake, which is dark and rich, but not too sweet. She said it was the best birthday cake she’d ever had!! Of course, it might have been a cake that only a mother could love.

Here’s Peter Tosh with Equal Rights, because my mother likes it a lot. And so do I.


2 sticks unsalted butter (1 cup) softened
3/4 cup brown sugar
4 eggs, separated
1 t vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup very dark cocoa
1 t. cinnamon
1 t salt
1 t baking soda
1 t baking powder
1 cup strong coffee
1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350. Butter and flour two cake pans. I always fold a square of tinfoil to fit the pan in the middle (where the cakes tend to stick) and butter and flour that to the pan as well. I don’t worry about fitting it all the way to the edges.

Cream the butter till light and fluffy. Then add the sugar, and continue beating till light and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks and vanilla.

Add all of the dry ingredients, and mix till you have a smooth batter. Stir in the coffee and chocolate chips.

Beat the egg whites until quite stiff (like snow, as I believe the French say!!) Mix a heaping spoonful of egg whites into the batter to lighten it, and then fold in the rest.

Bake until puffed and firm to the touch and pulling away from the sides of the pan – 30 – 35 minutes.

Let cool completely.


1 1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup strong coffee
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup chocolate chips
2 eggs
1 T flour
1/2 t salt
1/2 t cinnamon
1 cup heavy cream, whipped until quite stiff

In a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat, warm the milk, coffee and chocolate chips, stirring all the while to melt the chips and mix them in with everything else.

In a medium sized bowl, whisk the eggs, flour, sugar, salt and cinnamon until light and fluffy.

When the milk has little bubbles around the edges, pour it into the egg mixture in a thin stream, whisking madly all the while. Pour it back into the pan (Still whisking) and warm through, whisking or stirring until the mixture thickens. Five or ten minutes should do it. When it’s done, if you tilt the pan, the custard should pull away from the bottom in patches. Or, if the custard coats the spoon noticeably, it’s probably done as well.

Transfer the custard into a dish, cover, and leave in the fridge to chill completely (over night is best). To cool it quickly, you can keep pouring it into a new cool bowl, and each one will take out some of the heat. (Of course then you need to wash all of those bowls!!) I usually use two bowls, and then put it in the fridge and hope for the best.

When completely cool, fold in the whipped cream


1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
2 T butter
pinch cinnamon
1 t vanilla

Melt these over a pot of boiling water (don’t let the water touch the chocolate, or it will seize up). Stir frequently to ensure creaminess.


Using a long straight knife like a bread knife, cut horizontally through each cake, so that you have four cakes.

Put the bottom of one on a pretty cake plate. Spread about 1/3 of the mousse on it (you want it to be about 1/2 inch thick), mounding it thicker in the middle, because it will spread when you…

put another round of cake on the mousse. Spread another 1/3 of mousse on it, then another round of cake, then another 1/3 of mousse, then the prettiest round of cake.

If you have any mousse leftover, put it in little cups, chill, and enjoy!

Let the cake chill until the mousse is set, and then drizzle the ganache over the top, letting it melt fetchingly down the sides.


2 thoughts on “Mocha mousse cake

  1. A quote for you, quoted by Jon Henley from Stephen Grosz from Karen Blixen (and so rather buried) in the Grauniad today:

    “All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story, or tell a story about them.”

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