When your heart breaks, bake a cake

I love to bake. I love the process of transforming dry and wet ingredients into something new. It feels like alchemy. That first bite of a baked good takes me back to specific memories. Blueberry cake on my 8th birthday. Fresh croissants in Paris. Warm and crusty marraqueta in the streets of La Paz. Sometimes I bake to ease a broken heart.

My dad had a favorite cake. More of a torte really. A rich dark chocolate base with cherries baked into the batter. Topped with a thin layer of marzipan and then a chocolate ganache. My mom would bake it for him every birthday. I think she started the tradition shortly after they were married. I have fond childhood memories of passing thin slices of that rich torte around the table at his birthday dinner. Every year, the same cake.

As the years went on, my mom stopped baking it for him. My parents didn’t have as many dinner parties anymore and there were no kids at home. Baking a multilayered torte for two seemed wasteful.

A few years ago, my sister was planning her wedding and asked my mom if she would make “Dad’s Cake” to serve. By then my mom had lost the recipe. Anyone who saw her recipe organization system would not be surprised — she kept her collection of loose recipe cards, stained printouts (some of them produced on a typewriter), and handwritten sheets of paper in a file folder. But she had made that cake for decades and felt the loss. We didn’t even know what that dessert was called because her old recipe page was simply titled “Peter’s Cake.”

After a bit of sleuthing, I found an approximate recipe for my sister’s wedding. It was a hit. I traveled to Toronto a few days ahead to help with wedding prep. My mom and I spent a happy day baking and icing the cakes. I tried my hand at making modeling chocolate animals to decorate.

Dad passed just over a year ago. I never saved the recipe we used for Jim and Clare’s wedding. Back in September, I found a similar recipe that I made for his birthday. But it was not quite right. The recipe seemed ingredients weren’t quite right. I could not find the right kind of cherries.

On February 7, I made the torte again to mark the one-year anniversary of his death. I prepped better this time, ordering the Morello cherries in light syrup well in advance. If I had been in Toronto, I would have simply bought cherries at the fabulous dry goods store in the St. Lawrence Market, but here in Nashville, I had to rely on the Internet. I did a bit of research to find the correct recipe. After rejecting several, I found one that must have been the recipe my mom always used.

The recipe I unearthed was Lora Brody’s Chocolate Cherry Torte. Brody wrote this recipe for New York Times Cooking in 1980. That year makes sense, as my parents were married in 1978. The style of cake fits that late 1970s vibe too. Fancy, European, but not fussy.

This torte really is delicious. It’s rich and decadent. The taste brings me back to happier times when my family was complete. It may be Lora Brody’s Chocolate Cherry Torte, but it will always be Dad’s Cake to me.

I include my slightly modified version with notes.

Cake ingredients:

· One 24 oz jar pitted Morello cherries (the original says you can use sour cherries, but get the Morello. Trust me).

· 6 oz dark chocolate (I recommend at least 70 %), chopped

· 12 tbsp softened unsalted butter

· 2/3 cup granulated sugar

· 3 large eggs, room temperature

· 1 tsp vanilla extract

· ½ tsp almond extract (make sure it’s high quality so you get maximum flavor)

· ½ cup fine ground almond flour

· 2/3 cup all-purpose flour

· 2 tbsp heavy cream (this is my addition, trust me)

Almond layer:

· 8 oz almond paste or marzipan (I made my own, which I highly recommend)

· 2 tbsp powdered sugar

Ganache layer:

· ½ cup heavy cream

· 2 tsp instant espresso powder

· 8 oz dark chocolate (use at least 70%), chopped

Preheat your oven to 350°F with a rack in the center of the oven. The original recipe says to butter your pan and line is with bread crumbs, but we know live in the 21st century. Grease a 9” springform pan, and carefully cut out a circle of parchment paper to line the bottom and a collar for the sides. (Much better than breadcrumbs)

Drain cherries and set them aside.

Melt chocolate in a double boiler or in short bursts in the microwave. Make sure to stir. Allow the melted chocolate to cool, but not harden.

Put the softened butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment. Cream until light-colored and fluffy. And one egg and incorporate fully. Add the second egg (but not the third yet). Add the extracts. Add the melted chocolate and beat until just incorporated. Mix in the almond flour and all-purpose flour. Then add the remaining egg and the cream.

Use a spatula to scrape batter into the pan. Smooth the top. Gently press the cherries into the batter, forming concentric circles. I find it easiest to start from the outside and work my way in. The tops should be just showing. You can smooth the whole thing with a wet spatula to make sure the top is even.

The original says to bake for 50 minutes to an hour. I baked mine in a convection oven for 40 minutes and thought it was actually a bit overdone. So perhaps start with 30 if you have a convection oven and check it. It does look a bit dry on top, but should be moist but set inside. Once cool enough to handle, remove from pan and allow to cool on a rack.

Meanwhile, roll out your marzipan or almond paste in between two pieces of waxed paper. Sprinkle with powdered sugar to prevent sticking. The idea is to roll out the marzipan into a circle that will fit the top of the cake. Use the bottom of the springform pan as a guide. You want it to be thin, about 1/16 inch. I put mine into the freezer for a few minutes after rolling to make moving it off the paper easier. Take off one side of the paper and carefully place the marzipan on the cake. Remove the other piece of paper. You can cut the overhang with a paring knife to make it neat.

To make the ganache, bring cream and coffee to hot, but not quite boiling in a heavy-bottomed pot. Take off heat and stir in chocolate. Mix until smooth. You can add 1–2 tbsp hot water if it seems too thick. Let the ganache cool until spreadable, but not hard.

Place rack, with cake on it, over a sheet pan or waxed paper to catch ganache droppings. Pour a thin layer of ganache on top and use an offset spatula to smooth it over the top and sides. You can chill the cake and add a second coat if necessary (I did not do this).

I think this cake actually tastes better the next day. It gives it time for the flavors to meld and the moisture of the cherries comes out into the cake. You can keep it covered at room temp for a few days, I used a cake tin. You can also keep it in the fridge, but the ganache will lose its pretty shine.

I always have extra cherries, marzipan, and ganache. Last time, I covered the cherries with marzipan pieces and then dipped the whole thing in the ganache. I lined the outside of the cake with them. It was fabulous.

This cake will always remind me of my dad. I plan to bake it at least once a year to remember him. I hope you enjoy it too.

Anthropology PhD. Writing because I want to.