i made this cake in honor of claude debussy! two days ago would’ve been his 154th birthday. debussy is amazing. his work is breathtakingly beautiful, and his nontraditional use of dissonances and intervals sculpted music’s impressionist era and hugely popularized chromaticism.
not only was debussy an incredible musician but he was also extremely eloquent. this is an excerpt from a letter he wrote to paul dukas; it shows what sets him apart from other famous musicians of the era:
“I confess that I am no longer thinking in musical terms, or at least not much, even though I believe with all my heart that music remains for all time the finest means of expression we have. It’s just that I find the actual pieces — whether they’re old or modern, which is in any case merely a matter of dates — so totally poverty-stricken, manifesting an inability to see beyond the work-table. They smell of the lamp, not of the sun. And then, overshadowing everything, there’s the desire to amaze one’s colleagues with arresting harmonies, quite unnecessary for the most part. In short, these days especially, music is devoid of emotional impact. I feel that, without descending to the level of the gossip column or the novel, it should be possible to solve the problem somehow. There’s no need either for music to make people think! … It would be enough if music could make people listen, despite themselves and despite their petty mundane troubles, and never mind if they’re incapable of expressing anything resembling an opinion. It would be enough if they could no longer recognize their own grey, dull faces, if they felt that for a moment they had been dreaming of an imaginary country, that’s to say, one that can’t be found on the map.”
my favorite of his (musical) compositions is a prelude called la cathédrale engloutie (the submerged cathedral). there’s an m.c. escher painting with the same title. it’s of – you guessed it – a cathedral submerged in water. debussy and escher lived during the same time period so i’m not sure which came first, the painting or the music piece.
this cake is more reverie-inspired, however. reverie begins with a repetitive theme that sounds like a descent into sleep. as the piece continues, its sounds grow lusher, launching the listener into a whimsical dream-world.
the cake is spread with lilac buttercream, glazed with chocolate ganache, and topped with dainty little meringues and raspberries. i think it looks like one of those dreams that you know was good but forget immediately upon waking up.
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
- 1/4 cup white sugar
- 3/4 cup brown sugar, loosely packed
- 3 eggs, room temperature
- 1 cup flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 3/4 cup buttermilk, room temperature
- 2 cups (4 sticks) butter, room temperature
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp egg whites, from about 3 to 4 large eggs
- 1 1/4 cups sugar
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/4 tsp lavender extract
- food coloring
- 4 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped
- 4 oz heavy cream (1/2 cup)
- meringues in assorted colors
- gold luster dust (optional)
for the cake, preheat the oven to 350º. grease two 6-inch round pans and line them with parchment paper. beat together the butter and sugars until light and fluffy, about five minutes. add the eggs in one by one. add the vanilla extract. in a separate bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. add the dry ingredients and the buttermilk, alternating and starting and ending with the dry ingredients. spread the batter evenly into the pans and bake for 20 minutes, or until golden brown. let cool for 10 minutes in the pans, then remove to a rack to cool fully.
for the frosting, place the egg whites and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. whisk them together by hand to combine. fill a medium saucepan with a few inches of water and place it over medium-high heat. place the mixer bowl on top of the saucepan to create a double-boiler (the bottom of the bowl should not touch the water). whisking intermittently, heat the egg mixture until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is hot to the touch. carefully fit the mixer bowl onto the stand mixer. with the whisk attachment, beat the egg white mixture on high speed for 8 to 10 minutes, until it holds medium-stiff peaks. when done, the outside of the mixer bowl should return to room temperature and no residual heat should be escaping from the meringue out of the top of the bowl. stop the mixer and swap out the whisk attachment for the paddle. with the mixer on low speed, add the extracts, then the butter, a couple tablespoons at a time. once incorporated, turn the mixer to medium-high and bet until the buttercream is silky smooth, about 3 to 5 minutes. color as desired.
for the ganache, place the chocolate into a heat-proof bowl. heat the cream in a saucepan until almost boiling, then pour over the chocolate. whisk until smooth. let cool (it will thicken).
to assemble, halve each cooled cake horizontally. stack and fill with buttercream, then crumb coat. chill and frost again. put the cake in the refrigerator and heat the ganache in the microwave for a few seconds. it should be pourable but not runny. remove the cake from the fridge and coat it with ganache, using an offset spatula to guide the drips along the side. let the ganache set, then decorate the cake with meringues and berries. brush with luster dust.