Let us eat cake

By Frank Whitman

Say, “Napa Valley,” and the reaction is immediate: world class wines in a stunning setting just an hour from the Golden Gate bridge.  The most famous wines, highly sought after and beyond the reach of most of us, are just the top of the vat.  The thirty-mile long valley pumps out almost fifty million cases of outstanding wine annually. 

Sampling all that wine has made Napa a tourism juggernaut with luxury accommodations and good eating that ranges from Michelin-starred restaurants to trendy roadside stands. It’s a uniquely dense food, wine, and hospitality destination. 

Those of you who have been reading Not Bread Alone over the years, know that I’m always on the lookout for a good bakery. There’s no lack of those in Napa either. 

When our son Bertram was living in St. Helena, the small town mid-way up the valley, he discovered the Model Bakery.  The family-owned local landmark was founded some 90 years ago, well before the wine boom, when fruit farming was the Napa way of life and every small town had a bakery. Under the leadership of Karen Mitchell and her daughter Sarah, it has become the Valley’s premier source for European-style breads and pastries as well as old-time American favorites.  

A few years back, Bertram gave us a copy of The Model Bakery Cookbook. He has an infatuation with their English muffins (Oprah’s favorite) and sometimes makes them at home.  The muffins are the bakery’s flagship product, popular across the valley and around the country. 

The book is fascinating, loaded with beautiful photos and tempting prose – a compendium of irresistible recipes.  Although I may try the muffins sometime, my first look was at the cakes – my weakness. 

There are too many good bread bakeries in our area, to spend time making it at home. Wave Hill Breads, SoNo Baking, and Flour Water Salt Bread to name a few, all have the special equipment, expertise and access to ingredients to make great bread.  But I’m willing to take a crack at cakes, pies, tarts and cookies. They may not look like the ones in the pictures, but with a little practice they can taste as good. The only problem is, who will eat all that cake?  I’m always ready to bake for an occasion that supplies some helpers to eat up.

For our daughter Charlotte’s birthday, I showed her the Model Bakery cake chapter and offered to make the cake of her choice. The whole family would be on hand to devour it.

Chocolate Mousse Cake was her pick. 

You don’t achieve the level of success and national reputation of the Model Bakery with some quick and easy recipes. These are detailed procedures and descriptions leading to an exceptional result. 

Three layers

The simple-looking one-page recipe explained the ingredients and method for the mousse and laid out a step-by-step process for assembling the cake. It then referenced three other recipes: Devil’s Food Cake, Simple Syrup and Chocolate Buttercream.  After a careful review, I laid in a supply of butter and cream and budgeted two days to bake the layers and finish the gateau. 

As you would expect, the tall and showy cakes have three layers, requiring a trip to the Cook’s Nook in Wilton for one more pan and a pastry tip for piping the icing. 

The cake, light and flavorful, departed from typical recipes in a couple of ways: less acidic Dutch Process cocoa powder and brewed coffee for the liquid. The result was a cake with a rich, deep chocolate flavor. 

Resting in the refrigerator

On day two, the chocolate buttercream was first up. Usually it’s a mashup of butter and sugar with added flavor, but not here. The base was a stiff-peak meringue with a pound of butter mixed in (one tablespoon at a time) and flavored with melted semi-sweet chocolate.

The fragile mousse was next – a time-consuming process of folding whipped cream into a chocolate ganache.

For the bottom and middle layers a “dam” of buttercream was piped around the edge to corral the mousse filling. Each layer got a 20 minute rest in the fridge to firm things up before moving on. After the top layer was set in place the whole cake was coated with a thin layer of buttercream and chilled again. The final step was a finishing layer of buttercream. I dabbed some remaining icing on top and decorated it with raspberries. This is one of those recipes where there’s a big difference between working time and total time. The cake gets a lot of rest, even if the baker does not. 

Did it look like the pictures in the book? No. Was I proud of it?  You bet. 

The family was impressed and loved the flavor. The only problem, the three-layer slices were too big.  Next time I’ll make a two layer cake and freeze the third layer for later. 

Maybe you’ll get a slice.