Photos by Greg Nesbit Photography
If they say that music tames the savage beast, my research reveals that Dark Chocolate Praline Crunch Torte tames the savage restaurant guest. Imagine one of those normally-really-quiet Berkshire winter evenings: I have my knitting ready to keep me occupied, one server on, Franck and maybe one helper in the kitchen, and we’re ready to be extremely bored. Imagine our surprise as the restaurant starts to fill up. At first we’re happy, then we start to be doubtful, and ultimately it starts to get kind of ugly. All twenty tables full in three different dining rooms, and just two of us to take care of them. Those last folks seated weren’t too lucky. By the time I pant up to their table to ask if I could help them, the response: “Some service would be nice.” Ugh. Can this be salvaged or is it hopeless?
This night happened in the early days of Chez Nous, but of course I’ll never forget it. By the time that (now smiling, well-fed, and hugging me) gentleman left he was actually proposing that we go into business together (I’m really not joking), to make and distribute this cake. It’s really that good.
Dark Chocolate Praline Crunch Torte
I’m going to give you here the complete recipe, with all of the components, for this torte. It is a French-style “entrement” which just means a mousse torte with different components/textures layered into it. Don’t be intimidated: the cake can be done in multiple steps, over a few days, if necessary. It’s actually better to do it in stages. It can also be done in a modified way. For one thing, I love to make the crunchy center with praline paste, but everyone (except for Franck, we’ll forgive him, he’s French) loves it with (the much easier-to-find and cheaper) peanut butter instead. Also, it doesn’t have to have a crunch center. Instead, you can put two layers of cake. The glaze is also optional. I love it for the shiny finish and fudgy flavor that it gives the final product. But at home, a slice of this cake with a drizzle of chocolate sauce would not only be perfectly acceptable, it will render you beloved by everyone present for a long, long time.
For the Mousse: -the mousse is the one part of the recipe which can’t be made ahead. Go ahead and make everything else in advance and then the day you want to put it all together, make the mousse. All of the other components need to be in place before the mousse gets poured over them and chilled to set.
4 oz. dark chocolate, melted
1 1/2 c heavy cream whip
1/3 c sugar
1/3 t plain gelatine powder bloomed in 2 T cold water
This classic chocolate mousse works well because it is light, delicious, and can be cleanly sliced as part of a cake. The first step is to get your chocolate melting over gently simmering water, so that you don’t over-heat your chocolate (it gets grainy). The second step is to softly whip your cream. By this I mean soft peaks. If you over-whip the cream, you will need to mix it too hard to incorporate it into the mousse and you will lose lovely, precious volume and the texture will be much denser. Stop when it’s nicely and gently holding peaks, then put it aside until it’s time to combine everything. You will finally need to make a “pate a bombe,” which is a sabayon, or cooked sugar (soft ball, 248F) poured onto whipping eggs/yolks, and then whipped until cool. Usually this at least triples the volume of the eggs and makes them very stable for mixing into your mousse, as well as sterilizing them by getting them quite hot.
To make the pate a bombe, I thoroughly clean a small saucepan and leave a little water in the bottom to dissolve the sugar. I put the yolks and eggs in the Kitchenaid fitted with the whisk attachment. Let them go on very high speed to start getting fluffy while the sugar cooks. Soft-ball sugar can be measured with a thermometer, or by plopping a drop of it into cold water and feeling the texture. Either way, you must go quite quickly about measuring, since it changes temperature fast. Too hot and it will solidify before it incorporates into the eggs, making candy blobs around the mixer and not getting in the recipe. Too cool and it won’t sterilize your eggs or get them as stable. When the right temperature is reached, carefully pour the sugar syrup into the still-turning Kitchenaid, drizzling down the side of the bowl so that the beater doesn’t whip the hot sugar out into your face, please! Then let the mixer beat the mixture on high speed until it is cool. Put the little bit of gelatine into the hot sauce pan for it to melt. Pour this onto the pate a bombe when it’s completely whipped. Fold in thoroughly and quickly.
Place your melted chocolate, your semi-whipped cream, and your pate a bombe all on a table in front of you and get ready to combine. (*also your prepared ring should be next to you with your cake layer and crunch inside) Quickly fold 1/3 of the cream into the chocolate, then all of the pate a bombe, and then the rest of the cream. Work gently and quickly to make a light, fluffy mousse. (see below for the rest of the assembly instructions)
Chocolate Cake Layers: (can be made with gluten-free, einkorn or regular flour, same quantity of each) (can also be made ahead of time and frozen, with the layers individually wrapped – wonderful!)
-This recipe will make more layers than you need, but they freeze wonderfully, tightly wrapped in plastic, and can be pulled out to make different tortes with different fillings, or just to eat on their own!
-Butter and flour, or line with parchment circles, 3X 8″ cake pans
2 c sugar
1 3/4 c flour
75g/5 T cocoa
1 t baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
1 t salt
1 c boiling water
1 c milk
1/2 c canola, or other plain oil
-Sift all the dry ingredients together into a large mixing bowl and add the sugar. Stir in the eggs, milk, and oil. Make a smooth paste, then add the boiling water. Divide evenly between the pans and bake at 325F until a tester comes out clean, about 25 mins.
Boil: 1/2 c milk
1/3 lb. pate a glacer (a pastry product which is a kind of baking chocolate. Substitute more dark chocolate instead if you can’t get it)
2 oz dark chocolate
-Whisk until smooth and set aside. Reheat about 1/2 c to cover the cake. This topping keeps for about 2 weeks in the fridge and makes an amazing hot fudge sauce.
175g/3/4 lb. praline paste or peanut butter
375 g corn flakes
75 g/2 1/2 oz. white chocolate
-melt the white chocolate in a metal mixing bowl over a pan of simmering water (not too hot or the chocolate will get grainy). Stir in the praline paste until smooth, then fold in the flakes. This mix can be refrigerated for up to 3 weeks. Pull out to come to room temperature before using, and don’t eat it all before it makes it into the torte! It’s like a grown-up candy bar!)
Slice a 1/2 inch disc of cake and place at the bottom of a 9″ ring mold or spring form pan. Cover the cake with about 3/4 inch of praline crunch. Set aside. Make the mousse and pour directly on top of the crunch and around the sides. Put in the fridge to set. (overnight is fine now, or the torte freezes perfectly at this point for up to 2 weeks, well-wrapped.) Melt the chocolate glaze and pour over the tart, spreading quickly with an offset spatula. Let set in fridge again, then unmold with a blowtorch or a warm cloth and slice with a hot, clean knife.