Tropical Twist: Sweet Spud & White Chocolate Mousse Cake

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 This cake... dramatically drawn out sigh of wonder and adoration. This cake is comforting, trifle-like, pleasingly dense with a layer of clouds and some serious crunch. It is most assuredly a spring cake to celebrate the very first days of warm weather and the change it works in us. We've shaken the ice from our wings, and with fresh and full range of motion, we are ready to take off!

If someone asked me to explain what I meant by "inventive soul food", I would slice them a piece of this cake and in the ensuing silence, let the sweet potatoes speak for themselves. I am happy to report that this is one of the food groups that makes you want to find a healthy tuft of grass to run through. Imagine, wanting to run after eating a piece of cake! Inventive soul food cooking is my attempt to make food that is both tied to my personal memory, and open to all the influences that the city and my travels have gifted me. Soul food speaks to us on a deeper level than our taste buds or basic need to eat. It is not only our food story but the story of how we let other traditions and people into our lives. That is where a little inventiveness comes in.

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Painters sometimes feel like there is nothing new to be painted or tried, songwriters wonder if there could possibly be a new melody to play, and writers are fearful that the sentence they just wrote might be something they read from another, more talented writer. "Nothing new under the sun" syndrome is easy to catch. I think cooking is an area of creativity that embraces repetition, relies upon and relishes it in fact. Though the culinary world is torn between two shores, that of powerful traditions and the pressure to be the latest and greatest, no one is going to want an undercooked and rubbery omelette, even if it is made in a sous vide. Repetition can be marvelous, just ask a croissant.

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If an idea or a form (or a piece of fudge!) is really good, then it bears repeating. Repeating something in your own words and with your own hand is totally what the world needs. No need to worry too much about originality. Originality is the courage to say how you see the world and to share what you make of it. We are human, we need to hear things a few times for them to really sink in. Thank goodness for sacred repetitions, and for every surprise.

Food doesn't require us to reinvent the wheel, but it does require us to be present. Each dish is a temporary work of art that we can recall at any time. Each time that we do, it acquires something new. In that moment, a touch of what's at hand can be perfect.

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This is another recipe that has remained with me from my first forays into baking in the 7th grade. My family has been subjected to numerous trials, some of them considerably soggier than others. Dear Family, I have met the one. It is true that this cake can be finicky in the frosting department, but that's what puts it at super hero status. Its weakness turns out to be its greatest strength. The white chocolate mousse is simply melted white chocolate and whipped heavy cream, so patience in the cake cooling and frosting preparation are essential. I speak at length about such matters here.

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The sweet potatoes color this cake a brilliant orange (step aside carrot cake), and keep it moist yet sturdy. The macadamia nuts add a welcome toothsomeness amid the creamy layers of mousse. Dried pineapple was late to the party but definitely made it complete.

All these flavors remind me of our first trip to Hawaii last spring, after one of the more brutal winters of my life. Sitting on the beach like a starved sunflower I let months of cold with a side of drear, drop into the sand. Of course, I sat too long and paid for my foolhardiness with a sunburn that I am sure has taken years off my life. Or added freckles to my arms. Hence the tropical twist and an ode to all things warm and welcoming.

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Sweet Potato Cake with White Chocolate Mousse & Macadamia

Adapted from Martha Stewart

2 pounds ( about 3 medium) sweet potatoes 1 1/4 cups vegetable oil Unsalted butter, for pans 2 cups cake flour, (not self-rising), plus more for pans 4 large eggs 2 cups sugar 2 teaspoons baking powder 1 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon 1 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract 3 tablespoons brandy ( I used Jameson...what's on hand?!) 1 1/2 cups unsalted macadamia nuts, toasted, coarsely chopped 1 pound white chocolate 2 1/2 cups heavy cream Dried Pineapple slices for decorating

Heat over to 400 degrees and coat the sweet potatoes with 1/4 cup of the veggie oil. Roast for 50-60 minutes. This time I roasted the tots for about 30 minutes and finished in the microwave for extra mushiness. When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, mash with a fork in a small bowl.

Lower the oven temp to 325 degrees. Butter two cake pans and cut parchment paper circles for the bottoms, making sure that these also have a coat of butter. No sticky cake bottoms here! Once the oven is lowered you can take you chopped macadamia nuts and give them a toast, being careful not to burn them.

If you have an electric mixer feel free to use the use the paddle attachment for the next step, I used my trusty and cheap hand held. Beat the eggs and the sugar together until fluffy, about 4- 5 minutes. Add 1 cup of the veggie oil and continue to beat until combined. Add sweet potato mixture and beat until combined.

Sift together flour, salt, baking powder, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Add in two additions to the wet mixture and give it a good mix. Add the vanilla and brandy and mix again. Now you can fold in 1 cup of the macadamia nuts by hand. Taste test!

Evenly distribute batter between the two pans and drop each pan lightly on the counter to release little air bubbles. Bake for 40-45 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. I like to pull these cakes out a little early so they remain super moist and just a teensy gooey. Teensy is a scientific measurement. Let the cakes cool in the pan for 10 minutes and then remove to a wire rack to finish cooling completely.

Mousse Time

Chop white chocolate into very small pieces. I was able to find a bag of white chocolate morsels that made my day. Bring 1 cup of cream to just under a boil and pour over white chocolate in small bowl. Swirl until the mixture is uniform and all the chocolate is melted. Chill for 30-40 minutes.

Whip remaining cream until soft peaks form. Gently fold whipped cream into chocolate mixture until fully combined. Refrigerate again until cake is ready to be frosted. Cover the first layer with a half inch or so layer of mousse and then place the second layer on top. Top and smooth remaining mousse and then sprinkle with remaining toasted macadamia nuts. Decorate with dried pineapple slices or perhaps some toasted coconut flakes. I saved some of the white chocolate mixture to drizzle on at the end.  Enjoy and try to find some grass!

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