Ya, ya, Laurent Tourondel trained at Saint Vincent Ecole de Cuisine in France and did several stages at Michelin three star restaurants before building the BLT empire. But this time of year he's more likely to rifle through family recipe cards to find a comforting holiday dessert than dust off that fancy culinary school bûche de noël recipe. “My grandmother is actually the one who taught me how to cook,” says Tourondel, who grew up in Montluçon, a small town in central France. “My mom was a very good cook too, making very regional dishes like roasted squab and braised beef, salt cod and potatoes…but my grandmother had a very good palate. She always amazed me.”

A favorite is still his grandmother's chocolate mousse cake, really more of a chocolate tiramisu only sans the mascarpone and made with strega, an Italian herb liqueur that gets its yellowish color from saffron. Tourondel likes it so much that his mother has been known to make it for his birthday on the rare occasions they are together (she still lives in France). “But really, it's a Christmas cake — you should make it this time of year.” Get the recipe after the jump.

Chocolate Mousse Cake with Crème Anglaise

Adapted from Bistro Laurent Tourondel: New American Bistro Cooking by Laurent Tourondel and Michele Scicolone. You can find strega at well stocked local liquor shops, or you may substitute kirsch or rum. For a family style dessert, pass the crème anglaise separately as recommended below. Alternatively, you may pour the custard sauce on top of the cake before serving (be sure to chill the custard-topped cake again until set before serving).

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Chocolate mousse

7 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate

1 tablespoon instant espresso powder

1/3 cup Strega, kirsch, or rum

1/4 cup heavy cream

5 eggs, separated

6 tablespoons sugar, divided

1. Break the chocolate into small pieces and place it in the top half of a double boiler set over simmering water. Add the espresso powder and Strega and let stand uncovered until the chocolate is softened. Stir until blended. Transfer the chocolate to a large bowl to cool.

2. In a large, chilled bowl, whip the cream on high speed for 4 minutes, or until soft peaks form. With an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the egg yolks with 2 tablespoons of the sugar until pale, about 3 minutes. In a separate bowl, beat the whites (make sure your beaters are clean) on medium speed until frothy. Gradually add the remaining 4 tablespoons of the sugar and increase the speed to high. Whip until soft peaks form.

3. Add the egg mixture to the melted chocolate and stir to combine. Fold the whipped cream into the chocolate mixture, then gently fold in the whites.

Cake assembly

Chocolate mousse

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup Strega, kirsch, or rum

20 to 25 ladyfingers, cut in half

1. Combine the sugar and ¾ cup water in a small pot and bring to a simmer. Stir until the sugar is fully dissolved. Remove from the heat and allow the simple syrup to cool completely.

2. Mix together the simple syrup (you should have ¾ cup) and the Strega. Dip half of each ladyfinger in the syrup until slightly softened.

3. In a 2-quart glass serving bowl, alternate layers of 1/3 of the mousse followed by 1/3 of the ladyfingers, finishing with the mousse. Alternatively, you may make individual servings by layering the mousse and ladyfingers in large wine glasses. Cover and chill at least 8 hours or up to 2 days.

Crème anglaise

2 cups milk

1 vanilla bean, split and scraped

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

5 egg yolks

Chocolate curls or shavings, if desired

1. Bring the milk, vanilla bean scrapings and pod, and 1/2 cup of the sugar to a simmer in a large saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally. Immediately remove the saucepan from the heat and discard the vanilla bean.

2. In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks until thickened slightly and well combined. Gradually add about 1/2 cup of the hot milk mixture into the yolks and whisk until well incorporated. Pour the egg mixture into the saucepan with the remaining milk mixture, stirring constantly. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of the sugar. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until thickened slightly and the mixture lightly coats the back of a spoon, about 5 minutes. Alternatively, dip a spatula in the sauce and run your finger through it. If your finger makes a trail rather than causes all of the custard to run off, the sauce is ready.

3. Remove the sauce from the heat and strain into a clean bowl. Place the bowl in a larger bowl filled with ice to cool. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or overnight.

4. To serve, sprinkle the cake with chocolate curls or shavings, if desired, and allow your guests to scoop the cake into serving bowls at the table. Pass the crème anglaise separately.

LA Weekly