In the midst of what my credit card company and many somber spam emails insist on calling this unprecedented time, I’ve found that it’s helpful to occasionally switch up the things you desperately miss from ordinary pre-pandemic existence. Friends, family, parties: those are a little tired as objects of longing, aren’t they? Most recently, I’ve chosen to obsessively fixate on something far more humble: the IKEA cafeteria, which remains closed due to COVID, the experience of eating therein and, above all, the weirdly good chocolate cake you can apparently only find in the store’s American restaurants.
IKEA calls this cake—I am not making this up—the Chocolate Conspiracy Cake, and despite my best and occasionally intrusive efforts, I cannot get them to tell me where it came from or what, precisely, makes it so delicious. In a fit of pique, I also attempted to make it myself. This was, as it would turn out, ill-advised.
I realize that all of this might sound like some poorly disguised attempt at sponsored content, so before we continue, a few points of order: no gigantic Swedish furniture companies paid me to write this, and, moreover, it is a mistake to say that IKEA’s food is, in any sense of the word, “good.” The cafeteria is a place where you eat 20 meatballs soaked in mashed potatoes to soothe what’s about to come next: a frustratingly long journey through a layout that is literally designed to psychologically manipulate you. First, you’re shown tantalizing glimpses of what your life would look like with a perfectly laid out home, minimal possessions and a functioning social safety net. That’s quickly followed by a descent into the bowels of hell, where you try desperately to find the enormous cardboard box you need, then maneuver it onto a wheeled cart without concussing yourself. While in said bowels, you’re also likely to discover that only about half of what’s supposed to be in stock is actually there, making the time you spent getting to the store more or less a waste. Defeated already, you’ll buy something else. You will then spend the next six and a half weeks constructing heavy yet still flimsy furniture you didn’t really want, made entirely of particle board and spite, using instructions only slightly more legible than the Zodiac Killer’s cipher. The experience is, overall, demonic, and I welcome the eventual life stage and income bracket where I no longer have to undergo it.
But the cafeteria has tremendous charms, particularly if you pretend to be a detective in a tidy Scandanavian detective novel, one where you meditatively eat a plate of plant balls and slightly limp green beans while pondering the tragic dismemberment of an elderly woman. The coffee is weirdly good, and very cheap, the food is plentiful, and the yellow cast of the lighting makes everything feel like a mundane yet alluring dream.
But the real charm, for me anyway, is the Conspiracy Cake, which is better than any cafeteria dessert has any right to be. It’s an unassuming-looking layer cake, with a dark chocolate ganache on top and inner layers that are exquisitely soft, not too sweet, and of a sort of mousse-like consistency. The allure of the cake is mainly in how different the textures of the ganache, the icing and the cake are; each layer is crisp and distinct. The less-sugary nature of the cake means that everything tastes more intensely of chocolate, as does the fact that it’s served slightly chilled, which also makes it unusually refreshing for something so rich. Unlike many chocolate cakes, it’s not super dense, but surprisingly light. While pie is undoubtedly better than cake any day of the week, this cake is always welcome to sit on my uncomfortable sectional couch.
Yet IKEA is weirdly reticent about this cocoa-flavored jewel in their crown, which, like everything else in there, I imagine is constructed with ten unnecessary screws and a tiny Allen wrench you’ll promptly lose. It’s not even findable on their U.S. website.
The cake has a very minimal online presence, confined mainly to a bunch of mildly puzzled Reddit threads (“What makes this cake a conspiracy??? I am confusion”) and some glowing restaurant reviews: Business Insider called it “the near Platonic ideal of the chocolate cake.”
The company does acknowledge selling a cake in their grocery section, but it’s a traditional Swedish one, a gooey seemingly flourless number topped with powdered sugar. It is not the conspiracy cake. Obviously, I suspected foul play.
I contacted IKEA, asking for more information about the cake, and, crucially, the recipe. After a day of chilly Nordic silence and a follow-up email, I finally received a response, attributed to Krista Boyer, IKEA’s U.S. Food Range & Supply Manager.
The cake, Boyer wrote, has been served in IKEA’s restaurants for the past four years, and it came with the name pre-attached. “We actually didn’t pick the name,” she explained. “It was set by the supplier and we loved it so we kept it. But I imagine it was named because a group of pastry chefs wanted to make a cake so delicious and rich in chocolate that people would stop buying all other cakes!”
Having spent the last few years writing about conspiracy theories, I had some darker imaginings, but I decided to let it go, for now. Boyer was also unable to say who’d come up with the recipe originally: “We couldn’t say. The product was introduced to us from one of our suppliers and we loved it and haven’t wanted to remove it from the menu.” (A followup question, about who the supplier is, went unanswered.)
Boyer did confirm the cake is only available in U.S. restaurants, confirming my suspicions: “One of the fun things we are able to do in the restaurant is to bring in certain dishes that are more unique to the U.S. that we only sell in the restaurant.” And she clarified precisely what’s in the cake: “The chocolate conspiracy cake is chocolate cake layers with chocolate buttercream and chocolate ganache, I don’t think we could get more chocolate on to a plate.”
Boyer/IKEA also politely but very firmly declined to reveal the recipe. “I absolutely cannot share,” she wrote. “But I can tell you that all our stores are selling whole Chocolate Conspiracy cakes starting this week for $34.99 out of the Swedish Food Markets!”
While I’m sure that is good news for many people, presumably ones who don’t have to shop at IKEA, for $35 a cake, I would prefer that it also self-cleans the dish it’s served on and compliments my hair. I’m also—excuse my bluntness—not setting foot in a crowded indoor space like a gigantic furniture store for as long as humanly possible, as though my life depends on it, which it very literally may.
And so—driven mad by pandemic monotony and the terrible feeling of craving a specific thing that I couldn’t have—I decided to make the cake myself. Given that this was a Conspiracy Cake, I decided to Do My Own Research, meaning that I did a bunch of extremely vague internet browsing to determine a recipe, rather than bother, say, my Munchies colleagues, who actually know what they’re doing.
Almost immediately, though, I was brought up short by a Tweet from a few years ago, from famous novelist Celeste Ng; she’d tweeted a photo of the conspiracy cake’s label in the cafeteria. Said label clearly describes the cake as being filled with mousse, not buttercream, as IKEA had claimed. This also accorded with my own memories of the layers of the cake. The plot—I’m so sorry—thickened.
The only solution here was—as with any good conspiracy theory—to go right to my weird little buddies and whip ourselves into a mutually confused frenzy. In this instance, that would be my former boss’s boss Derek Mead, whose credentials are that he “managed the UCSB bakery in college,” as he told me.
Mead said that buttercream actually sounded more likely to him than mousse, given that it’s relatively shelf-stable and available to buy on restaurant supply websites in gigantic quantities. “I don’t remember if you can get proper chocolate mousse in a big giant tub,” he wrote. “I mean I’m sure you can, and I’m not an expert here, but my gut says there’s something a little odd about mousse on a mass-produced cake available in a huge variety of regions.” Mousse is just more fragile of a commodity, he added: “Mousse feels more delicate like it’d have to be freshly made and stored. You can’t buy mousse from the frosting aisle at the grocery store and commercial high volume baking is just that with bigger tubs.”
Buttercream, he noted, is also significantly cheaper per pound. “And for a cake SO chocolate packed that it’s a CONSPIRACY, you’re getting way more flavor conspiracy per dollar with buttercream.”
That sounded reasonable; in the end, I chose to make Smitten Kitchen’s Double Chocolate Layer Cake, largely because I would die for Deb, the Smitten Kitchen lady, and replace the ganache icing she recommends with a Serious Eats chocolate buttercream icing. This was, I realized, going to require an eye-watering amount of chocolate—five semi-sweet baking bars, all told, one 70% cacao bar, two different kinds of cocoa powder (Dutch process and regular, non-Dutch process, unsweetened stuff) along with like five sticks of butter, heavy cream, buttermilk, corn syrup, and virtually all of my Sunday.
At the grocery store, working at Supermarket Sweep speeds due to the fucking pandemic, I got the requisite supplies, then staggered home and made the cake layers. Immediately, I sensed a problem: they were far too thick, easily twice the thickness of what I recall from my Proustian reverie of the IKEA cake.
The right thing to do here would’ve been to either saw the layers in half or bake two more and build a far larger cake; instead, as with many things this year, I chose to ignore it and pretend like everything was probably fine. The afternoon wore on; I melted baking chocolate and whisked butter and corn syrup into it and chopped more chocolate and sifted cocoa powder and powdered sugar with the only sifter I have in the house, a teeny tiny object from the Japanese home goods store Daiso, which is about the size of an American Girl doll’s clenched fist. It took approximately 45 minutes just to do the damn sifting. At one point, in a sulky mania, I paused to make an entire pizza from scratch, including the dough. It took roughly ⅓ as much work and tasted literally perfect.
Finally, at close to midnight, I had a cake: the ganache layer looked shiny and appealing, the cake itself was convincingly cake-like, and the icing probably would’ve smelled heavenly, in other circumstances. As it was, I’d been smelling chocolate for the better part of 12 hours, had a pounding headache and a strong desire to vomit; I thrust the cake into the fridge for a while, then thrust a piece at the closest available person, my partner, who’s also a Conspiracy Cake enthusiast, the person who first heard about its existence years ago and introduced me to it, and, if we’re being real here, the entire reason I have to go to fucking IKEA in the first place.
He took a bite, chewed thoughtfully, and then paused longer than any person in human history has ever paused.
“Do you want the good news or the bad news first?” he inquired, which is always exactly what you want to hear from your romantic partner.
The bad news, we both agreed, after I finally tasted the miserable life-sucking cake, was this: It tasted nothing whatsoever like the IKEA cake. The inner layer was too thin, and far too dense in texture, lacking the airiness of the Swedish retailer determined to ruin my life. The top ganache layer was tasty, but also too thin, and a little grainier than the IKEA layer, where the sugar particles are much better incorporated. The cake was also too dry, which is nobody’s fault but mine and an ancient oven that runs 50 degrees too hot and would be laughed out of any IKEA showroom.
Grimly, I sawed some of the cake in half and stuffed another layer of icing into it, Frankensteining it into something approximating a three-layer cake. I threw the entire miserable beast into the refrigerator—it took up most of a shelf—and made a donation to the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund, which has provided food and other emergency assistance to Navajo and Hopi families impacted by the pandemic. Then I went, grimly, to bed.
In the morning, I eyed the cake resentfully. I considered throwing portions of it out the window, for catharsis. Instead, I took my Frankenstein piece out, sawed an even smaller piece off, took a bite and discovered something astonishing.
It still tasted nothing like the IKEA cake. Instead—for reasons I do not fully understand and which I refuse to interrogate—it tasted exactly like a vanished cake from my childhood, from a restaurant called Dave’s Not Here, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (The lore goes that the place was called Dave’s, until the Dave in question either went to prison or skipped town; both pieces of information are more or less impossible to verify.) As a restaurant, Dave’s was always dripping in grease, buzzing with flies, and wholly delicious; it served mammoth burgers and, in my recollection anyway, consistently hot green chile, which is how it’s supposed to be. The cake that always sat on the counter under a large glass dome was a hulking, imperfect monolith with icing pitted like acne scars. It tasted like a dream. Through my own, bumbling efforts, I’d transported myself into a weird little corner of my childhood. It felt like a strange benediction, somehow, at the close of this nightmare year, to stumble, accidentally, into something halfway like our better, distant past. I shoved the cake into the furthest corner of the fridge, and my memory, and soldiered on.
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