Like most folks moving away, I assumed that not much would change back home: The house would stay the same, the family would stay the same, my hometown and its surroundings would stay the same.
Upon moving back, just in time for my family’s celebration season to start up again, I came to the rough (but obvious) realization that I was wrong. Familiar things I took for granted were gone. My parents were selling their house. A younger cousin had graduated from college. Our favorite bakery had closed.
For every family event, a relative went to Cenan’s Bakery in Vienna, Va., to pick up a chocolate mousse cake: a light sponge layered with thick mousse, with chocolate chips strewn throughout, encased in a layer of deep chocolate ganache and a ring of chocolate sprinkles along the sides. Birthday? Mousse cake. Graduation? Mousse cake. Eid? Mousse cake. Getting together for an extended tea? Mousse cake.
The cake came into our lives accidentally when Dad was trying to get a dessert for a housewarming or birthday party when I was about 8 years old. The original came from a bakery that has long since disappeared, and it had a Black Forest vibe. After we moved away from that bakery, my dad had stopped by Cenan’s on a whim for something to satisfy his perpetual sweet tooth. Out of one slice of chocolate mousse cake grew a family obsession.
For our gatherings, it’s become a necessity: After huge, hourslong dinners, nobody has room for heavy desserts. That runs especially true for the upcoming Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of fasting for the holy month of Ramadan, when we gather for lunch and don’t go home until late in the evening. Nobody wants a heavy, butter-laden cake; nobody wants brownies or cookies. Dessert can’t be anything more than an airy chocolate mousse, its equally airy mango mousse cousin and maybe a box or two of shiny, brightly colored Indian sweets.
The bakery that replaced Cenan’s still sells a chocolate mousse cake but on a trip to pick one up, a woman behind the counter guessed that we might need a crucial bit of information: Their cake uses pork-based gelatin to stabilize the mousse.
Now, we have no mousse cake.
But as Eid nears and my father has been scrambling for replacement bakeries, I went on a quest to make my own.
I’ve never been much of a baker. I preferred to make savory foods while my younger sister doctored cake mixes and cream cheese into sweet, shareable things. This is actually the first cake I have ever made that didn’t come from a box. In an exercise of extreme patience and an abundance of chocolate, it came to fruition; not a replica of the one we loved so much but one similar enough that melts away in fluffy chocolate bites.
It was surprisingly difficult to find a sponge that was light brown instead of dark. I, too, understand the appeal of deep, dark devil’s-food type richness, but I needed a cake similar in color to the mousse. A recipe tweaked from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s “Cake Bible” ended up being the right one — after much trial and error.
Although “The Great British Bake Off” will have you believe that making a sponge cake is simple, it is far from easy for a person who has very little experience, let alone patience for the precision involved in baking.
Many cakes were ruined — though still eaten, of course — before this one puffed up and panned out. The mousse and the ganache were no trouble: A recipe from The Washington Post’s archives made a great filling that was gobbled up during testing, while ganache has never involved anything more than pouring boiled cream over chocolate.
Having a sister home from her first year of college allowed me to boss her around the kitchen (and make her clean all the bowls), while cousins tasted and took samples to their parents. Key to making the process satisfying was my own parents’ willingness to avert their eyes from the kitchen mess.
I haven’t been able to join my family to celebrate for a while — I’d moved to New York for college and then to the San Francisco Bay area for a job, so I missed too much. Being home again means being there for my aunt and uncle’s 60th anniversary, my cousin’s college graduation, the regular annual rush of June birthdays and, starting Monday, June 3, Eid. Being home means mousse cake.