We’re all good at different things. Sure, we have big, shiny, professional-grade skills, but I’m more interested in the little talents, quirks, and interests that make us us. My older sister can speak in a flat-out flawless British accent, knows how to curl her hair to look like a Pantene Pro-V ad, and has a textbook golf swing. My little sister is an exceptional cook who can whip up calzones one-handed (with a newborn baby on her hip), and has an excellent ability to stay unflaggingly cheerful under nearly any circumstance (airplane travel, the brutal 11th hour of a damp and rainy 12 hour hike up a steep, rocky Adirondack mountain, a run-of-the-mill bad day).
As to my parents, I could go on and on: they each possess both big and small talents in spades. My dad has killer dance moves, born from the kind of innate rhythm that you can’t teach—the sort that makes you just want to start dancing too, when you watch him start to swivel his hips around and jokingly dip one of us in an overly dramatic Fred Astaire-style maneuver. He can navigate through practically any city with barely a map. He can switch gears quickly: one minute, all business in a suit rushing to a board meeting, and the next, figuring out how to haul a stuck mowing tractor out of the mud using a few ropes and a backhoe. He can grow raspberries in Maryland soil, correct the pH balance in the swimming pool, and he makes the fluffiest omelettes I’ve ever tasted.
My mom crafts handmade wooden puzzles and baby rattles in her shop, all with smoothly beautiful, sleek Scandinavian-like designs. She makes the single best oatmeal cookie in the entire world and once built an actual functioning car in college for her engineering degree. She taught herself how to spin yarn from our own sheep’s wool, how to birth a calf, and what to do with a glut of vegetables (learn to can, naturally). She can diagram a sentence, can coach and comfort all of her four daughters in a single day through any manner of crises, and can run a marathon with barely any training.
What about you? Do you have an incredibly fierce tennis backhand? Very good at making people laugh? Can you make an amazing banana bread, or do a dead-on impression of James Bond with a straight face?
Of course, we have our ideas about our own personal talents (as we should! celebrate yourself), but these things I mention today aren’t the kind of qualities you necessarily notice in yourself—they’re the little things other people see when they look at you. The sparkle. The you-ness.
But listen, if you really press the issue, I’ll tell you one thing I can do pretty well: take a perfectly good dessert (cake) and another perfectly good dessert (mousse) and another perfectly good dessert (sandwich cookies), and make them into one single VERY STUNNING dessert. Magic!
Cookies and Cream Mousse Cake
Makes one 8” three-layer cake
For the cake layers
3/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups (396g) granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups (240g) all-purpose flour
3/4 cup (63g) unsweetened cocoa powder
4 tablespoons (22g) black cocoa powder (find it here)
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (180g) buttermilk
3/4 cup (177g) strong brewed coffee, cooled
For the cookies and cream mousse
1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin
1 1/2 cups cold heavy whipping cream, divided
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
10 chocolate sandwich cookies, crushed into pieces
To make the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and line three 8” round cake pans with parchment, then grease the bottom and sides of the pans.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until pale and light in texture. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well between each one. Add the vanilla.
Whisk together the flour, cocoa, powders, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. In a separate small bowl, whisk together the buttermilk and coffee.
Add the flour mixture and buttermilk mixture to the egg/butter/sugar mixture, alternating between each, in 3 additions. Mix until the batter just comes together but don’t overmix.
Divide the batter between the three pans. Bake for about 30 to 35 minutes, or until the cakes spring back lightly when you touch the surface. Remove from the oven and let cool in the pans before turning out onto a wire rack to finish cooling. I like to freeze the layers for at least 30 minutes, once cooled, before frosting. You don’t need to do the freezing step, but it does make them easier to frost.
To make the mousse: In a medium bowl, pour 2 tablespoons of cold water. Sprinkle the gelatin over the water and let sit for 10 minutes.
Bring 1/2 cup of the heavy cream to boil in a small saucepan (or heat it in the microwave). Add the hot cream to the gelatin mixture and stir to combine and dissolve the gelatin. Place it in the refrigerator to cool and firm up, whisking every now and then—it just needs to chill for about 5 minutes to thicken.
Meanwhile, beat the remaining 1 cup of cream with the confectioners’ sugar and vanilla in the bowl of a stand mixer until medium peaks form. Scrape the gelatin/cream mixture into the bowl and continue beating until the peaks are medium stiffness again. Set aside about 1/2 cup of the mousse filling for the top and sides of the cake (set aside more if you want a thicker topping, but I like just a thin layer to finish), and then gently fold in the crushed cookies to the remaining filling.
To assemble the cake: Stack one layer on a cake plate. Top with half of the cookies and cream filling, then the next layer, then the rest of the filling, then the final layer. Use the 1/2 cup of plain mousse to frost the top and sides of the cake in a thin layer.