Christmas for my family means we all eagerly hop on planes from freezing Boston and Memphis and head west to La Jolla, CA. For anyone who’s never been to La Jolla, it lies on the rocky coast of San Diego and is arguably one of its most breathtaking parts. I miss the summers I spent there growing up when the hardest decision of the day was whether to grab mouth watering carne asada burritos from our favorite Mexican place or hit up In-N-Out after the beach. When I think of La Jolla, I picture sunny days laying out on the grassy bluffs watching the waves roll in at our beach, The Cove, and coming back at sunset to see the sky turn pink-orange as the sun sank into the water. I’ve traveled all over the world, but no place is more beautiful to me, although I admit I may be biased.
This year the trip home was probably more needed than ever. The fall had worn everyone pretty thin, between work, travel, and general feelings of gray-ness. “Gray ghost syndrome” — I think it’s technically called. We desperately needed Christmas break, the beach, and some home cooked meals. For our family, the holidays are always about spending the day together preparing and sharing a meal. We’ve never really cared much about presents, always preferring to mark the day with a delicious dinner and time together. Everyone gets really involved in planning the menu, and dessert is always a hot topic in our house. Many years, I go back and forth mulling over some complex dessert to try out, perhaps something French. Not this year. This year, I knew — all I wanted was chocolate cake. I polled the audience, and everyone was in agreement. But what kind of chocolate cake? My sister suggested orange and my mom wanted cream cheese frosting and voila, we had our cake: a moist dark chocolate base with chocolate cream cheese frosting and a hint of orange!
Every time I dream up, bake, frost, and decorate a cake, it’s so much fun that I wonder why I don’t bake a cake every week. Making a cake from start to finish is like getting dressed up for a special event. It takes a bit of TLC and can seem a bit overwhelming at the onset but the whole process of watching the cake and details come together is so, so worth it. For the cake itself, I used Molly Yeh’s go-to chocolate cake recipe, which comes from Magnolia Bakery, and it was an easy batter to whip up. I baked my cakes on Christmas Eve and let them firm up in the fridge to make it easier to frost the next day.
Then, came my favorite part: decorating! I’ve had an abstract image of this cake in mind for a while now — I knew I wanted something rustic and pretty easy since I would be multitasking, while cooking the other dishes for Christmas dinner. If you are any bit a foodie, you’ve probably noticed a big trend in the last year: naked cakes. Basically, instead of painstakingly trying to create a perfectly smooth layer of frosting all around the cake, you spread a very thin layer to reveal the cake layers underneath. In my case, because my frosting ended up darker than I expected, I decided to leave the whole sides unfrosted and let the layers of thick frosting in the middle peek through the four cake layers. The frosting was rich chocolate from the cocoa, slightly tangy from the cream cheese, and the flavor was brightened up from orange zest. For the top, I made a festive, wintery half crown using orange slices, hazelnuts for crunch, pomegranate for a pop of color, sprigs of fresh rosemary, and the lightest dusting of powder sugar.
My family only gets together maybe once or twice a year, so the best part of making this cake was having everyone involved. My mom was slicing the cake layers, while my sister zested an orange, and my brother stood on a chair to get some faraway shots with his DSLR. My dad took over searing the short ribs I was cooking so that I could finish the cake with the sun still out. When we finally cut into it after dinner, it was dreamy — perfectly moist, dense, and super dark and chocolatey. The orange helped balance out the sweetness, and the hazelnuts added great texture. Its decadence reminded of the famous (infamous?) cake scene from Matilda, which in this case was a very good thing! All in all, it was a very sweet ending to my trip out to California, and really nothing beats family and cake.
Hope you all had a happy holiday!
Magnolia Bakery Super Rich Chocolate Cake
(If it’s Molly Yeh’s go-to chocolate cake, it’s gotta be good!)
I baked my cake in two 9-inch cake pans and chilled them overnight before slicing the layers in half to make the 4 layers
Orange Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting
12 oz cream cheese, room temp (1.5 packages)
12 Tbsp (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temp
4 cups powdered sugar
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
zest of an orange
Mix all ingredients together and whip until fluffy. The frosting will be very thick and rich. Spread about 3/4 cup of frosting between the middle layers of the cake and a generous layer on the top. There will be a good bit of frosting remaining (which can be eaten with a spoon!)