A Birthday Cake

A small personality flaw both my husband and I display is haste. We fuck up otherwise simple tasks just by going at them fast, angrily, drunk, twenty minutes before we have to leave the house.

There are people in the world who do not do this. They plan everything out, get all the bits out of the box, remove all the plastic, smooth out the instructions, turn off their phone, put Classic FM on and proceed with great care and thought until the thing is done to a craftsman’s standard.

I find these sort of people quite annoying. I am usually hovering in the background shrieking “Just shove it all in and turn it on! It’ll be fine!”

Occasionally great haste doesn’t mater. You CAN do something in eight seconds flat and it works out well. I have never planned a piece of writing, for example, and neither has my husband. We both attack our keyboards in a great fury, writing as if we’re running after a bus on which we have left our wallet, phone, keys and firstborn. It’s always worked okay for Giles. I admit that I am more of a work in progress – but what I will say is that any variance in quality in my writing never has anything to do with how long it took me.

But anyway, because about 70% of the time, great haste doesn’t do you any damage, it’s never been a flaw I’ve sought very hard to correct. But in cooking, especially cooking things for the first time, that great haste can get you in the most serious amount of miserable shit. Haste and a new recipe do not work well together – an awful lot of stuff ends up in the bin, down the sink and you are left exhausted, eating mousetrap and crackers for dinner. Be as hasty as you like with something you’ve done a thousand times, but you rush a new foe at your own peril.

Like this birthday cake, which I made for Kitty’s 2nd birthday party this weekend. The base was a chocolate cake from Edd Kimber’s excellent book Say It With Cake. It is a terrific cake: it is plain, but delicious and not too sweet. I was very concerned that it would have a too grown-up, almost bitter flavour (due to all the 70% cocoa solids specified),but it went down very well with the six children under six at Kitty’s birthday tea.

The cake is also nice and solid, so takes icing and decoration well – and it keeps brilliantly and is completely edible for days afterwards, unlike a bloody sponge, which crumbles to dust within 24 hours and is fit for nothing but the bin.

The drawback is that it is not a dump-and-stir, there are various different moving parts, which require your attention for a few hours and must not be combined with drunkenness, childcare of the under 5s or a pressing need to be somewhere soon. It is not hard, you understand, but you do need to concentrate.

So here we go

For the cake
30g cocoa powder
50ml strong hot coffee (I used instant, which was fine. If you are very touchy about caffeine for children, just use hot water or decaf)
50ml hot water
200g butter
200g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids – I used Green & Blacks cooking stuff)
300g soft light brown sugar
4 eggs
175g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder

For the chocolate buttercream
NB – I baked the cake in one tin, rather than in 2 sandwich tins, so this quantity of buttecream was too much. If you are baking this in one tin, rather than two, I’d say to halve the buttercream quantities, or at least reduce buy a third.

100g dark chocolate, chopped
175g butter at room temperature
75ml double cream
375g icing sugar
a pinch of salt

1 Set oven to 180 and then grease/line either 2 x 20cm shallow sandwich tins or just one deep 20cm tin. Square or round, doesn’t matter.

2 Put the cocoa in a little bowl and pour over the hot coffee AND hot water and mix it to a sort of creamy liquidy consistency and then set to one side.

3 Set a heatproof bowl over a pan of water on the hob – so just not a metal one. The bottom of the bowl should not touch the water and the pan ought to be on the lowest setting of your smallest plate or burner. Now pile in the 200g butter, cut into chunks and the chocolate, chopped.

Now just leave this alone. Don’t turn the heat up, even if it looks like it’s not doing anything for ages and ages. Butter-and-chocolate splits incredibly easily and when it does, it’s completely unusable. I have seen otherwise excellent and competent cooks split butter-and-chocolate so it’s not just me being a bellend. So just let it sit there melting very slowly. It might take about 20 mins but that’s just too bad. You can stir it round a bit at the end just to encourage it to melt entirely.

An unsplit chocolate and butter mix

4 Whisk the sugar and eggs together until pale. Pour in your melted chocolate and butter and whisk to mix.

(NB do not bother to wash up this bowl now – just scrape it clean with a spatula because you might as well use it for the buttercream later)

5 Sift the flour and baking powder over this mixture and fold together until the flour has disappeared. Now stir in the cocoa mixture that you set to one side at the start of this little adventure.

6 Either divide this between two tins or put it in your one big one.

7 Two tins will take 30 mins to cook but one big one took nearly an hour. Start off with 40 mins and then keep testing with a skewer every 10 mins thereafter. Balance a sheet of foil over the top of the cake if you worry that your oven is too vigorous and that the top might burn.

8 To make the buttercream, melt the chocolate in your already-used heatproof bowl using the method described above. In a separate bowl whisk the butter for a few minutes until it is approximately “light and fluffy”. Pour in the double cream cautiously and whisk all this together.

9 Add the icing sugar, one large tablespoon at a time. I have never found a way of doing this that doesn’t leave your kitchen looking like a rock star’s dressing room – you might be more clever about it. Add the pinch of salt and continue to beat until it all looks like buttercream – about a minute or so. Now pour over the melted chocolate and beat a bit more. Quite hard on the old arms, this, if you are using a hand mixer.

Rock star dressing room? No, my kitchen while buttercream is in progress

10 To put this together, you can either sandwich the two halves together with the buttercream or just slap the buttercream all the way round one big one. Leave the buttercream to set for a bit on the cake before you lay the icing over.

11 I have never used this Playdoh-like icing (sometimes called “sugarpaste”) before, and I assumed it would be a nightmare, but it was quite straightforward. I bought one pack of white pre-rolled stuff, which was brilliant and one pack of ready-to-roll stuff, because I wanted to knead some food colouring into it.

Kneading food coloring into ready-to-roll is actually pretty easy BUT I found rolling it out in order to lay over the cake not so straightforward. It’s possible that it was because it was a bit warm from having the colour kneaded into it and needed to be chilled before the final application. I found some icing sugar dusted on to my worksurface helped.

So you just splosh or scatter over food colouring and knead the icing like you would knead dough

Decorate at will.

Anyway so like I said: not a cake to do in a hurry, but excellent for any birthday girl or boy of any age.

NB: all decorations for this Peppa Pig cake came from Waitrose – including wafer daisies, sugarpaste, food colouring and sugar butterflies. Peppa Pig herself is a fridge magnet that came free with a magazine.


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