Invented by a French pastry chef in the seventies, concocted by a beloved, now-shuttered Upper West Side bakery, and nostalgically recreated in a postmodern rendition by an owner of Breads Bakery, the Concord(e) Cake is a quintessential New York story.
This post is part of the Eating New York series.
I love the story of Concord Cake—an Israeli-American tale. It goes like this: Once upon a time, Soutine, a cult favorite hole-in-the-wall bakery by Lincoln Center, used to make this outlandish mousse and meringue concoction called Concorde Cake. It was their version of pastry chef Gaston Lenôtre's classically elegant Gâteau Concorde, so called because he designed it to be served aboard the Concorde airplane. Soutine closed its doors, but Gadi Peleg, a restaurateur and an Israeli kid who grew up on the Upper West Side, had fond memories of the cake. So he recreated it, in a postmodern incarnation, as Concord Cake, which is (was?) sold by Breads Bakery.
Concord(e) Cake is one of the oddest, most endearing cakes you'll ever make, a true conversation piece. (If you live at my house, that conversation will apparently revolve around the striking resemblance of piped chocolate meringue to a certain emoji.) The cake is also ethereally textured, thoroughly chocolatey, and a real treat.
Making the mousse
While chocolate mousse is usually made with egg yolks, the version used in this cake relies on well-whipped egg whites. It's technically a chocolate Italian meringue with whipped cream folded in, but the result is definitively mousse-like with not even a passing resemblance to a marshmallow or Italian buttercream.
There are four preparatory steps in making the mousse:
- Preparing the chocolate: Just melting it in a double boiler with butter (or margarine).
- Making the sugar syrup: You'll need a thermometer for this step, but it's mostly hands-off, waiting for the sugar to fully dissolve in a bit of water.
- Whipping the egg whites: You want to beat them well before slowly drizzling in the piping hot sugar syrup (fun times in the kitchen), then beating to oblivion, by which we mean glossy and firm.
- Whipping the cream: Phew, finally an easy step, eh? Unless you need to clean up the mixer bowl first, sorry. (I avoided this by using a hand mixer and a separate bowl for whipping the cream, then stuck it all in the dishwasher.)
Once you've got those four elements, it's a matter of combining them according to a scripted technique. You're going to add the hot syrup to the egg whites with the mixer running. Then, you add the melted chocolate, and finally, fold in the whipped cream. You want to fold the cream in very gently, so it doesn't deflate. A few streaks of white (as you can see in the photo) are preferable to overmixing.
The mousse needs to be chilled separately from the cake, at least 6 hours before assembling. That's why I recommend starting with the mousse. Its consistency will change completely after refrigeration. It goes in smooth and creamy and comes out textured and firm.
Making the meringue
The process of making the meringue portions of Concord Cake is confusingly similar to making the mousse part (because, again, the base of the mousse is actually Italian meringue). The meringue uses a cocoa-sugar mixture to flavor it, however, rather than melted chocolate, and, notably, it gets piped and baked.
The meringue requires less prep than the mousse, but the piping/baking bit is obviously more involved. There are five steps, start to finish:
- Making the cocoa-sugar mixture: Just mixing them together. Easy.
- Whipping the egg whites with granulated sugar: You'll want to whip the whites very well, since the granulated sugar tends to weigh them down. Take your time. Don't underbeat.
- Combining the beaten egg whites with the cocoa mixture: Just folding them in gently till there's almost no streaks of white left.
- Piping the meringue: Ah, now for the tricky bit. The entire batch of meringue will fill two whole large-sized piping bags, so you'll either have to refill or prep two bags. Then you have to get it spiraled into two large circles for the bases of the cake, followed by lots of meringue sticks. You're going to need four baking sheets for all the meringue.
- Baking the meringue, 25-30 minutes at 350F / 180C for the cake layers, about half that for the meringue sticks.
About the piping: classic concorde cake uses small, neat, cylindrical meringue sticks arranged methodically on top of the cake, while Peleg's version for Breads uses longer, more organically shaped sticks mounded up on the cake. If you'd like smaller, neater meringue sticks, you'll need to change to a smaller piping tip to pipe them, after making the cake layers. I'm into the pomo look of the big, organic meringue sticks poking out all over, so I used the same piping tip (a large ½" / 1.5 cm round tip) to pipe the base layers and the sticks. For what it's worth, that's what Peleg's original recipe says to do.
Assembling the cake
This is the fun part, if also a bit nerve wracking after all that prep work. To make the cake, place one of the meringue rounds on a platter and spread about a third of the chocolate mousse evenly on top. Place the second meringue round on top, then spread on the remaining mousse, mounding it in the middle. Finally, place the meringue sticks artfully around the perimeter and all over the top. Last step: call everyone in the house to immediately come bask in the sublime, chocolatey weirdness that is Concord-without-the-e Cake.
My tips for making Concord Cake
- Make sure you have enough room for the cake in your fridge. The original recipe I worked from suggested building the cake right on the cake stand. While great for assembling and serving, I had a hard time squeezing the cake on the stand in my refrigerator. I'd suggest building it on a platter and then placing the platter on a cake stand to serve.
- Slice the meringue sticks while they're still warm (but not hot). I tried slicing the meringue sticks right away, when they were softest; while still warm; and when completely cool. They tended to fall apart if hot and crinkle a lot when cool, but slice most cleanly when warm.
- Make it a two- or three-day project. No way around it, this is a fussy cake. There are a lot of components, and they need to cool completely before assembling. Then, the finished cake needs time to firm up in the fridge. While you can do this in one day if you start early and serve the cake after dinner, I recommend budgeting three days for it: make the mousse the first day, the meringue the second, and assemble and chill the cake on the third day. This should require about an hour of active work per day, when you factor in clean up, plus bake time for the meringue and chill time for everything.
- Have a plan for all the unused egg yolks. This cake uses almost a dozen egg whites, and no yolks. I was making the Concord cake for Shabbat, so I just dumped all those yolks (10, because I dropped one on the floor) into my challah dough in place of (3) whole eggs. It made a wonderfully eggy, yellow-like-from-the-bakery challah. Another good way to use up the yolks is in making ice cream or another custard or mousse, which usually require many yolks.
- To make it parve: While Concord cake uses whipped cream as a major component and a bit of butter, you could easily substitute a non-dairy whipped topping plus margarine. I think coconut cream or coconut whipped topping would be too loose, however. You'd need the kind of dairy-free whip that you actually whip with a mixer.
- To make it for Passover: This cake is inherently flourless (and gluten free), but it requires some specialized equipment you may not have among your Pesach dishes, in particular, piping tips. It also requires a lot of mixing, so if your Pesach mixer is a cheapie (*raises hand*), it would be annoying to make with that.
Concord Cake (dairy)
- 10 oz semisweet chocolate, finely chopped - 285 g
- 5 Tbsp butter - cubed
- ½ cup + 3 Tbsp granulated sugar - 140 g
- ¼ cup water - 60 ml
- 2 egg whites
- 1 tsp vanilla bean paste
- 2 cups cream - 480 ml
- 2 cups powdered sugar - 250 g
- 1 cup cocoa powder - 125 g
- 9 egg whites
- 1 ⅓ cups granulated sugar - 265 g
Make the chocolate mousse:
- In a double boiler, melt together the chopped chocolate and cubed butter. Stir occasionally, until the mixture is smooth and glossy. Set aside.
- Add the sugar and water to a small pot and set it up with a candy or probe thermometer for monitoring the temperature. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, without stirring. Cook the mixture until it reaches 240°F /115°C, about 7 minutes.
- While the sugar syrup is cooking, start whipping the egg whites. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites at medium-high speed until soft peaks form, 3-5 minutes.
- When the sugar mixture reaches 240°F /115°C, carefully and gradually pour it into the mixer bowl with the mixer running. After all the syrup has been added, continue beating until the mixture is glossy and fairly stiff, 5-7 minutes.
- Remove the mixer bowl from the mixer. Using a silicone spatula, gently fold the melted chocolate mixture into the glossy egg white mixture. Fold only until no white streaks remain. At this point, if you need the mixer bowl to whip the cream, you can transfer the mixture to a separate large bowl.
- Whip the cream with the vanilla bean paste at high speed until it holds firm peaks. Combine the whipped cream with the chocolate mixture, folding gently with a silicone spatula until almost no white streaks remain.
- Cover the finished mousse and place in the refrigerator to chill for a minimum of 2 hours.
Make the chocolate meringue:
- First, set up for making the meringue: Line four baking sheets with parchment paper. On two of the sheets, trace 8" / 20 cm diameter circles (lunch-sized plates or a round cake pan work well as guides). Then, set up a large piping bag with a ½" / 1.5 cm round tip. If you want to make smaller meringue sticks, set up a second piping bag with a smaller diameter round tip. (If you use one bag, you will need to refill it once.)
- Into a medium bowl, sift first the powdered sugar and then the cocoa powder. Stir gently until combined.
- Beat the egg whites on medium-high speed until soft peaks form, 3-5 minutes. With the mixer running, add the granulated sugar a few tablespoons at a time until fully incorporated. Continue beating the egg whites until they are glossy and fairly stiff, another 3-5 minutes. Transfer the meringue to a large bowl and, using a large rubber spatula, gradually fold in the cocoa powder and confectioners’ sugar until just a few streaks remain.
- Using a silicone spatula, gently fold the cocoa-sugar mixture into the egg whites until only a few streaks remain.
- Scrape half the mixture into the piping bag (or ½ into each of two bags). Pipe the meringue in a spiral over the circle you traced onto the parchment paper, beginning in the center.
- Pipe the remaining meringue into 4-5" / 10-13 cm sticks in rows onto the remaining two baking sheets, leaving a gap of about 1" / 2.5 cm between the rows.
- Leave the completely piped meringue to rest at room temperature, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350F / 180C.
- Bake the meringue rounds for 30-35 minutes, until the exterior is firm and they are lightened in color. They should be able to lift easily off the parchment.
- Bake the meringue sticks for 12-15 minutes, again until firm and lightened in color. Allow to cool slightly, then cut the sticks in half using a sharp knife.
- Allow all the meringues to cool completely to room temperature.
Assemble the cake:
- Place one of the meringue rounds on a platter. Spread about ⅓ of the chilled mousse, which will be quite stiff, evenly over the round. Top with the second round. Spread the remaining mousse on top of the cake, mounding it in the center.
- Cover the cake completely with the cut meringue sticks, so that they are poking up.
- Transfer a meringue round to a cake stand or platter. Spoon half of the chilled chocolate mousse onto the meringue and spread it in an even layer with a large offset spatula. Cover with the second meringue round and spread the remaining mousse on top, mounding it slightly in the center. Cover the cake entirely with the meringue sticks. Refrigerate until the mousse is firm, at least 6 hours or overnight. Dust the cake with confectioners’ sugar just before serving.