My baby brother just turned a quarter century recently. Gee. Saying that out loud makes me feel old. My brother grew up watching the movie My Neighbour Totoro . It's pretty safe to say that he was obsessed with it, as only a small child can be. To this day, this fluffy, gentle, forest spirit character (you can add your fan theories in the comments) remains one of his favourites. So for this "milestone" birthday, I decided to make him a chocolate mousse Totoro cake to mark the special occasion.

chocolate mousse Totoro cake

For the last few years, I've opted to make my brother a birthday cake as a gift instead of trying to buy him something. One big reason is that he's hard to shop for... actually, I should clarify. I find most males above the age of 12 hard to shop for. It's not that I'm not aware of his hobbies and passions. It's just that they're so specialized (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu... karate...) that I'd rather leave the shopping for those things to him, rather than screw it up. I'm also not sure if he needs more "stuff", you know? Making an edible gift for him definitely fits in with his passion for food. We both have the foodie gene and neither one of us is shy about it.

I would say that my brother has a pretty varied palate and is up to try most things. From ramen, to sushi, to curry, to pizza, to peking duck, my brother is game. But don't get me wrong. He's not a food snob, like some self-proclaimed foodies can be. He is the epitome of "fuss-free." He doesn't discriminate. The simply prepared meal doesn't get points docked just because it's not a multi-step, laboured process. My brother appreciates it all, especially if it's made with love. And that's what food boils down to for me.

loaf of cake, sliced on cutting board

Yes, food is fuel for your body. It keeps your engine running and gives you energy to go about your day. But it will be a sad day when I look at food as just sustenance. For me, food will forever be intertwined with love. Growing up with my maternal grandmother in the house, food was always a focus. We never got more than five steps away from her without being asked if we needed to eat or being offered something that she had just made earlier. My grandma grew up on a farm, so the food she made wasn't fancy or anything, but it was good. Good in the way that only a grandma's cooking can be.

chocolate mousse Totoro cake

She never measured. Ever. She would throw in a bit of this, a bit of that. She could tell by the way it looked, or the way it smelled, or the way it sizzled, if it was ready. To this day I still can't replicate any of the dishes that she made with accuracy. My grandma would make her own pickled mustard greens, salt-cured salmon, and fermented black beans. She would also make bread and yam fritters. There was artistry in all of those humble things. And love. The love of food and the love of family.

This chocolate mousse Totoro cake combines a lot of loves: my brother's love of Totoro, my love of baking, our mutual love of cake, and (of course) my love for my brother. This is probably the most involved cake that I've made in a while. I'm talking, like, almost two years. I knew that I wanted to make something different for my brother this year. I've made him the traditional layer cake before and they worked out great, but I wanted to try something new. Add a different notch to my baking belt. I also knew that it would need to be a smaller cake, since there wouldn't be that many people eating the cake. So when I came across this video tutorial for a Totoro cake I knew immediately that this was something I wanted to try. Of course, I made a few changes, since I wanted to do my own take on the method.

chocolate mousse Totoro cake

Instead of using a premade loaf cake, I baked up some of my easy vanilla cupcake batter in two loaf pans, giving me two lower profile layers. These were cooled and sliced to form the structure for the chocolate mousse Totoro cake. I was originally going to make a swiss meringue buttercream but thought that might make the the cake too rich and heavy, considering how much of it would be used to create the Totoro look. Instead I used a chocolate mousse made of stabilized whipped cream and cocoa powder. I used gelatin to set the cream and the addition of the cocoa powder (for colour and flavour) helped to firm up the mousse some more, to make it easier to pipe and decorate with.

chocolate mousse Totoro cake

The inside of the cake was filled with a chocolate mousse made with stabilized whipped cream, a bit of sugar, vanilla, and a bit of melted dark chocolate. I didn't want the cake to be too sweet overall. That was the only request from my brother when I asked him if there were any flavours that he was particularly craving for his birthday cake. I was happy to oblige.

chocolate mousse Totoro cake

We had his birthday dinner out at a restaurant that allowed us to bring our own birthday cake. I will admit that it was somewhat macabre to slice into Totoro's belly but how else were we going to get this chocolate mousse Totoro cake into our bellies? Sorry Totoro. The recipe below may look a bit long, but it's not that complicated. I just wanted to be clear on the steps... I hope you enjoy making this cake as much as I did!

chocolate mousse Totoro cake

Chocolate Mousse Totoro Cake

serves 6-8

For the cake layers

1 cup olive oil

3 large, free-range, happy eggs

1 and 1/4 cup milk

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1 cup sugar

2 cups all purpose flour, spooned and levelled

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

finely grated zest of one small, organic lemon

For the filling

1 cup heavy (whipping) cream, very cold

1 tablespoon gelatin

1 tablespoon cold water

2 tablespoons hot water

1/8 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/3 cup dark chocolate chips, melted over a double boiler and cooled

For the outside of the cake

2 cups heavy (whipping) cream, very cold

2 tablespoons gelatin

2 tablespoons cold water

4 tablespoons hot water

1/2 cup sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla

cocoa powder

To make the cake layers:

Preheat oven to 325 degrees before you even gather your ingredients. Allowing ample time for your oven to sit at your desired temperature is actually really helpful. It ensures that your oven is evenly heated before you put your cake in. It's common practice for me to turn my oven on to preheat about 20-25 minutes before I'm ready to put anything in the oven.

Prepare two loaf pans by greasing and lining each pan with parchment paper.

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the olive oil, eggs, milk, and vanilla extract.

Sift the flour into a large mixing bowl and add the sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and lemon zest. Whisk well. If you wanted to add any herbs like rosemary or lavender, now would be the time. Mixing the zest (or herbs) with the dry ingredients helps to suspend them in the batter as the cakes bake. Otherwise they would all sink to the bottom of the cake.

Pour the oil, eggs, milk, and vanilla mixture into the flour mixture. Whisk gently until there are no clumps and lumps left.

Divide the batter evenly between two loaf pans and bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes.

Remove the cakes from the oven and allow to cool for ten minutes in the loaf pans.

Remove the cakes from the pans by pulling the parchment paper up and placing the cakes on cooling racks. Allow to cool completely before using.

When the cake is cool, slice into pieces about 1/2-inch thick.

Line a 6-inch bowl with plastic wrap long enough to drop over the outside. Make sure the inside of the bowl is completely covered.

Lay the pieces of cake inside the bowl all the way up the sides, stopping about 1/2 inch from the top of the bowl. Make sure there aren't any big gaps or holes. Cut small pieces of cake to fill in the holes if you have to. Set the cake bowl aside.

To make the filling:

Pour the heavy cream into the bowl of a stand mixer. Whisk on medium speed for a few minutes.

While the cream is being whisked, place the gelatin in a small bowl with the cold water and allow to bloom.

With the mixer running, slowly pour the sugar into the cream. Continue to whisk at medium speed.

Stir the hot water into the gelatin to dissolve. Stir a few more times to cool it down a bit before adding to the cream.

Continue to whisk the cream until soft peaks form.

Add the vanilla to the softly whipped cream and allow to whisk until combined.

Stop the mixer and add the melted and cooled chocolate and whisk on medium speed until the chocolate is well incorporated.

Pour the filling into the cake bowl, leaving enough clearance for a slice of cake to fit on top of the filling that it will sit flush with the top of the bowl.

Cover the mousse with some more cake layers until no filling is visible. Wrap the long plastic wrap over the top of the cake bowl tightly and put in the fridge to set for at least 4 hours. I let mine sit overnight.

For the outside:

When you're ready to decorate, make the mousse for the outside. It's basically the same process as for the filling, but double the ingredients.

You want to whisk the heavy cream with the dissolved gelatin and vanilla until you get almost firm peaks.

Reserve about 3/4 cups of the plain mousse in a separate bowl. Set aside in the fridge.

Sift about 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder and add it to the remaining mousse. Whisk until well incorporated. You should have a light brown colour. Scoop out about 1/4 cup of the light brown mousse and place it in a small bowl. Add another 1 tablespoon of sifted cocoa powder to this small amount of mousse. You should have a small amount of dark brown mousse now. Set that aside in the fridge.

When you're ready to decorate the chocolate mousse Totoro cake, remove the top layer of plastic wrap and place a plate or cake board on top of the bowl. Holding the two together, turn the whole thing upside down and place the plate or cake board on the counter top. Carefully lift the bowl off the cake and remove the plastic wrap. Push the cake down towards you so that it is off centre.

To make the Totoro design, use the plain mouse to pipe his belly area first (save some for his eyes). Then use the light brown mousse to pipe the rest of his body colour and his ears. Use some plain mousse to pipe large circles for his eyes. Use the darkest mousse to pipe the details like his pupils, the markings on his belly, and his nose. Add a green (edible) leaf to his head and you're done! Chill the cake until ready to serve.

I had made eyes with white chocolate wafers and dark chocolate but sadly, the I knocked the plate over in the fridge and broke one. So I had to go with plan b, which worked out okay too. I also made a little sootball buddy and his nose out of chocolate for the cake as well.

I hope you give this chocolate mousse Totoro cake a shot. It's not as hard as it seems! Let us know how it goes by leaving a comment below or share with us on Instagram by tagging @pepperwsalt in your photos.

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