40th Birthday Cake

June 22, 2009


Last June, as my friend Lauren was turning 39, we started brainstorming about what to do for her 40th.  I seem to remember talks of Sonoma or Napa, or maybe just a weekend at a spa somewhere. Several months later, she called me to tell me she had changed mind.  If she were to plan, say, a girls camping trip instead of a spa for her birthday, would I go?

Let me say here that I am not especially prissy.  I spent my childhood summers going to a camp where we slept in tee pees and if you wanted a hot shower, you had to build a fire to heat the water.  I have climbed a 10,777 foot mountain and I have biked 1800 miles across France, camping all the while.  My feeling is – I have done all that stuff and I enjoyed it then.  Now that all that is behind me, I like nice restaurants and hotels and a pedicure now and then.  So, it was a testament to how much I adore Lauren that I said of course I would love to go on a girls camping trip.

The girls camping trip morphed into a couples trip into the mountains a few hours outside Seattle where there is an alpine resort of sorts.  Eight couples were slated to enjoy an afternoon of hiking and then a fajita feast prepared by Lauren’s husband Travis.  Perhaps some songs by the campfire and s’mores would round out her celebration.

Travis is a great cook but he doesn’t really like to bake.  So I offered to make the birthday girl a birthday cake.  She asked for chocolate and I found something that sounded like a home run.  Chocolate Cake with Fleur de Sel Caramel Filling.  Mmmmmm.

Last week was a rough one for me.  In  addition to many other problems in the kitchen, I had trouble frosting the cake because the filling (bittersweet chocolate ganache and salted caramel) was oozing out the sides.  I kept wiping it up with my fingers until I had the brilliant idea to freeze the cake before frosting it.  The good news is that the fingersful of filling (say that 10 times fast) that I tasted were delicious.  So even though the cake would probably turn out crooked, as all my layer cakes do, I knew it would taste good.  The freezing worked.  I was able to frost the cake without the layers sliding around and no more oozing.

What I didn’t take into account was riding up to the “resort” on the dirt road was kind of like being on a bucking bronco.  It took us 30 minutes to go 7 miles, bumping all the way.  The cake was wedged in well but it couldn’t survive a journey like that one.  I tentatively opened the box only to find that the entire top layer had slid off the rest of the cake.  I was able to put it back, but the beauty of the cake was definitely compromised.

Here is the good thing.  After the stressful week, where I felt like I couldn’t do anything right, I was very zen about the sliding cake.  I was out of my environment, away from my kids, and there was really nothing I could do except do my best to fix it, realize that everyone would most likely be fairly drunk by the time we actually ate the cake, and take comfort in the fact that I knew it would taste good.  I just let it all go.

As it happened, we were all fairly drunk by cake time and it did taste really good.  I mean, really good.  I think this is a really good recipe to have because much of it can be done ahead of time.  You can start this cake 5 days before it needs to be served.  The caramel filling and the ganache can be made 3 days ahead and the whole cake can be made 2 days ahead.  When all is said and done, the cake is fairly easy and the wow factor is huge.


This cake is supposed to be baked in 2 9-inch pans.  Those cakes are supposed to be split horizontally and filled, giving you a 4 layer cake.  Because I couldn’t find one of my 9-inch cake pans, I put the batter in 3 8-inch pans instead.  The cakes were too thin for me to split, so I just filled them as is.  This left me with a bunch of leftover caramel, which is why I piped a circle on top and put the caramel there.  If you were to follow the recipe and not lose one of your 9-inch cake pans, the top of your cake would be smooth ganache.  If you were to simply put your in the refrigerator and then serve it (without the rodeo-like car ride that I experienced), the back part of your cake will most likely be round instead of smooshed as in the above photo.

One Year Ago:  Chocolate Dulce de Leche Bars

Chocolate Cake with Fleur de Sel Caramel Filling
Adapted from Bon Appétit
Serves 12-14

The original recipe called for a light sprinkling of chopped almonds in between each layer and on the outside of the cake.  Because neither Lauren or I like nuts in our desserts, I opted to leave them out.  If you wish to include them, you will need 1 1/4 cups chopped almonds total.  Each layer gets sprinkled with 1 tablespoon, the rest goes onto the sides of the frosted cake.

Caramel Filling
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
2 tbsp. light corn syrup
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, diced
1/4 cup crème fraiche or sour cream
1/2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
Large pinch of fine fleur de sel plus additional for assembly

Ganache Filling and Frosting
1 1/2 pounds bittersweet chocolate, chopped
3 cups heavy whipping cream

2 cups sugar
1 3/4 cups flour
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 cup whole milk
2 large eggs
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 cup hot water
1 tbsp. instant espresso powder or instant coffee

Caramel Filling: Stir sugar, 1/4 cup water, and corn syrup in deep medium saucepan over low heat until sugar dissolves.  Increase heat to medium; cover pan and cook 4 minutes.  Uncover; increase heat to high.  Boil without stirring until syrup is deep amber, occasionally brushing down pan sides with wet pastry brush, about 6 minutes.  Remove from heat.  Add cream (mixture will bubble).  Whisk in butter, then crème fraiche, lemon juice, and pinch of fleur de sel.  Cool completely.  (Can be made 3 days ahead.  Cover and chill.  Bring to room temperature before using.)

Ganache Filling and Frosting: Place chocolate in large bowl.  Bring cream to simmer in medium saucepan.  Pour cream over chocolate; let soften 1 minute.  Whisk until chocolate is smooth.  Cool, then cover and chill overnight.  (Can be made 3 days ahead.  Keep chilled.  Bring to room temperature before using. DT: Bringing it to room temperature is essential and it can take several hours.  Be sure to plan for that.)

Cake: Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F.  Butter two 9-inch diameter cake pans with 2-inch high sides.  Line bottom of each with parchment paper; butter paper and dust pan with flour.

Sift sugar, flour cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into large bowl.  Add milk, eggs, and melted butter.  Using electric mixer, beat at low speed until blended.  Increase speed and beat 2 minutes.  Stir 1 cup hot water and espresso powder in small bowl to dissolve.  Add to batter; beat until blended (batter will be thin.)  Divide batter between pans (about 3 cups each.)

Bake cakes until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 32 minutes.  Cool cakes in pans on racks 10 minutes.  Cut around cakes; turn out onto racks.  Peel off parchment and cool completely.

Using long serrated knife, cut each cake horizontally in half.  Place 1 layer on platter; spread with 1/2 cup room-temperature ganache.  Spoon 3/4 cup ganache into pastry bag fitted with 1/4-inch plain round tip.  Pipe ring of ganache around edge of layer.  Spread 1/4 cup room-temperature caramel filling evenly inside ring.  Sprinkle caramel with large pinch of fleur de sel.  (DT: The piped ring of ganache will keep help in keeping the caramel from oozing out the sides.) Top with second cake layer, ganache, ganache ring, caramel filling, and fleur de sel.  Repeat with third layer.  Top with fourth cake leyer, cut side down.  (DT: Put cake in freezer for 45 minutes to firm everything up and make frosting the cake easier.)  Spread remaining ganache over top and sides of cake.  (Can be made 2 days ahead.  Cover with cake dome and chill.  Let cake stand at room temperature 1 hour before serving.)


  1. Aw, geez! I’m sorry about the cake accident. I still think it sounds great. The camping trip sounds like a good time. Mmm drinking and smores.

    Comment by Emily — June 22, 2009 @ 11:02 am

  2. I laughed through this one! And as long as it tasted incredibly delicious and was shared among great friends, who cares what it looked like! :)

    Comment by Midori — June 22, 2009 @ 1:53 pm

  3. Such irresistible cake can not be pass! Your Chocolate Cake with Fleur de Sel Caramel Filling sounds perfect for a birthday!

    Comment by elra — June 22, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

  4. What a week you have had! On Saturday, my mother-in-law dropped a 1lb bag of coffee on her parent’s 55th anniversary cake. Oops! I used my “art school skills” to repair it and we all had a good laugh. There is not much else you can do in situations like this I guess. Glad you were in the company of friends (and liquor!)

    Comment by fresh365 — June 22, 2009 @ 5:03 pm

  5. So nice to be able to have a zen-like attitude about the sliding top layer, and it certainly looks delicious! The caramel filling sounds amazing.

    Comment by lisaiscooking — June 22, 2009 @ 5:28 pm

  6. Ooo does this cake ever sound delicious. Great to hear that you were feeling very zen about the cake sliding. :) Most people don’t seem to care too much about what the cake looks like anyway as long as it tastes good and this one definitely looks like it did! (Not that I don’t freak out about things if my cakes look weird.) Sounds like a fun weekend!

    Comment by Ashley — June 22, 2009 @ 6:29 pm

  7. I am the birthday girl and can attest to the fact that this cake was SPECTACULAR! Quoting my friend Andy, the cake tasted “ridiculously good”. THANK YOU Dana!!!!

    Comment by Lauren — June 22, 2009 @ 7:07 pm

  8. When did you take the photo? It looks absolutely perfect! And, the combo of flavors sounds pretty darn amazing. Also, what resort?? I’m always looking for a weekend adventure! Thanks, Dana.

    Comment by redmenace — June 22, 2009 @ 11:04 pm

  9. I’ve had weeks like yours before when I think, “I”m supposed to be a good cook, and can’t make anything edible to save my life!” Gives me more understanding for people who are scared of the kitchen. I brought tiramisu for 40 people up to Bellingham a few months ago for my Mom’s surprise birthday party. It ended up leaking all over the car, not setting up right, and we were pulled over at a gas station mopping it up. I was definitely NOT zen about it (ask my husband) so you’re a better person than me in that regard :)

    Comment by The Leftoverist — June 23, 2009 @ 4:32 pm

  10. I’m not a happy camper either! i uch prefer the comforts of a controlled environment, and a flushign toilet!
    Lovely cake, the fleur de sal and caramel are such a winning combo!

    Comment by Marta — June 23, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

  11. holy smokes! top or not, that sounds amazing!

    Comment by kelly — June 23, 2009 @ 11:47 pm

  12. What a riot. I just attended a 50th birthday party and the woman who volunteered to bring the cake had exactly the same problem but without the dirt road excuse and only on the special gluten-free cake for the birthday girl (?!) not the one for the rest of us. It was an occasion for much merriment.

    Comment by Lynn D. — June 23, 2009 @ 11:50 pm

  13. I love food with stories…makes everything so much more delicious…& that’s just how your cake is! YUM. Loved reading through your post…LOL! Brought a huge smile to my face!

    Comment by deeba — June 24, 2009 @ 2:55 am

  14. Are the small flowers handmade sugar flowers or are they plastic etc?

    Comment by Jane Asher — June 24, 2009 @ 7:58 am

  15. Oh, Dana! What a sweet and wonderful story, not to mention what a gorgeous and obviously incredible cake! I only wish I could have been there with you ladies to help celebrate but alas, am too far away these days! Thank you for sharing this and Happy 40th, Lauren! Much love to you both from the Tarheel State! :)

    Comment by Donna — June 26, 2009 @ 7:31 am

  16. i’m just now catching up on all the blogs i missed while i was away on vacation…and of course i had to comment on this one! this looks FANTASTIC! i’m so making this for the next cake i have to bake. how can you go wrong with chocolate and caramel?

    Comment by HappyTummy — July 14, 2009 @ 11:16 pm

  17. I am going on my 4th make of this sensation. You will win friends over this one!

    Comment by mary — November 20, 2010 @ 2:43 am

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