Tiramisu-Mocha Birthday Cake

Birthdays are celebratory for sure, but it doesn’t feel the same as when you were a little kid. You wouldn’t have thought about your parents growing old. Wouldn’t have considered that they aren’t as invincible as they appear to be. Wouldn’t have yet noticed the grey hairs springing up on their heads overnight.
But I have yet to see the day where my mom isn’t able to find something I lost. And my dad is still a superhero in every way possible.

On his days off, he puts in a huge effort cooking my favourite foods (eg. eggplant, curry-anything, salmon, spinach, scallops). He’s always so concerned that I don’t cook properly (#studentlife), so he makes a wide variety of dishes, even though I don’t usually eat that much. He taught me how to drive. He fixes my car. He’s my hiking budding– we’ve done the Grouse Grind every week since the end of July.
My dad’s birthday was a few days ago, and since he is both a coffee-drinker and wine-lover, I wanted to make him something tiramisu-y… also, I had some mascarpone in my fridge. I couldn’t find a recipe that I liked. Googling “Tiramisu Cake” yields Dorie Greenspan’s recipe, and while I adore her, I read in a few comments saying the cake layers were too dry.
So rather than risk dry cake layers, I turned to my tried and true chocolate cake recipe, courtesy of Ina Garten, and used Dorie’s mascarpone filling.
My cake layers look sloppy and uneven, which bothers me even just looking at the pictures… but anyway, I didn’t have enough time to freeze the cake before cutting the layers. The cake layers get soaked generously with an espresso-brandy syrup, and brandy is also incorporated into the filling. I really wanted the brandy flavor to be pronounced so that it kinda hits you in the face when you taste it. I also chopped up some chocolate covered espresso beans for textural contrast… (also, their best before date was a few months ago. Just keepin’ it real here.)
I wanted to assemble the cake as fast as I could, so the flavours would have time to meld before my dad came home. I put it in the fridge, and expected him to see it when he got back, but he didn’t, and I wanted him to discover it, so I didn’t say anything.
So we all went to bed.
The next morning I woke up, and he’d eaten a huge slice of it for breakfast.
Ignore the messy crumbs… I was going for that “rustic look”. Nailed it.
 The cake layers were light and moist. The crumb was quite fine, closer to a sponge cake than a butter cake. I cut the sugar in the cake portion by half, so the espresso and brandy flavour really shined through. But the superstar is seriously that mascarpone filling. For something that’s 99% fat (read: mascarpone + whipped cream) it sure was airy and light.

As far as how true it is to a tiramisu– it’s more of a mocha cake spiked with brandy. But it doesn’t make it any less delicious.

If anyone special in your life has a birthday coming up… you know what to do. Just make sure you a.) allow eight hours of melding time and b.) freeze the layers before cutting and c.) let that special someone know how special they are!

Tiramisu-Mocha Birthday Cake

  • Servings: 12
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

adapted from Dorie Greenspan and Ina Garten


For the cake

  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pans
  • 2 cups sugar (I reduced by half)
  • 3/4 cups good cocoa powder
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup buttermilk, shaken (I thinned out some creme fraiche with almond milk)
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup freshly brewed hot espresso

For the espresso extract

  • 2 tablespoons espresso powder
  • 2 tablespoons boiling water

For the espresso-brandy syrup

  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/3 cup sugar (I used maple sugar)
  • 2 tablespoons espresso powder
  • 1 tablespoon brandy

For the mascarpone filling

  • 1 cup cold heavy whipping cream
  • 8 ounces mascarpone cheese
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar, sifted
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon brandy
  • 4-5 ounces chopped chocolate espresso beans


  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter two 8-inch x 2-inch round cake pans. Line with parchment paper, then butter and flour the pans.
  2. Sift the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and mix on low speed until combined. In another bowl, combine the buttermilk, oil, eggs, and vanilla. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the wet ingredients to the dry. With mixer still on low, add the coffee and stir just to combine, scraping the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool in the pans for 30 minutes, then turn them out onto a cooling rack and cool completely. For cleanest results, freeze the cake before cutting.
  3. Combine the espresso powder and hot water to make the espresso extract, and set aside.
    In a small saucepan, combine the water, sugar and espresso powder and heat until everything’s dissolved. Set aside to cool. Stir in 1 tablespoon of brandy.
  4. In a large bowl, whip heavy cream until it forms stiff peaks. In another bowl, whisk together mascarpone, sifted powdered sugar, vanilla extract, and brandy. Whisk in the espresso extract. Fold the whipped cream into the mascarpone mixture.

To assemble

  1. Halve your cake into two layers, and place the ugly domed side face up. Or alternatively, cut the ugly dome off. Brush generously with your espresso syrup. Top with half of your mascarpone filling, and spread evenly, leaving 1/2 inch border of space to the edge. Sprinkle chopped chocolate coffee beans. Top with the second layer, pretty side up.
    Repeat the process, soaking generously with syrup, topping with filling and spreading it evenly, and decorating the top how you like. I kept it simple by just sprinkling the rest of the chocolate coffee beans.
  2. Again, it’s best to chill the cake for around 8 hours– but diving right in is perfectly acceptable. Enjoy!

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