Last Friday my company had a 'wine and cakes' party in our department, celebrating the first birthday of the imprint I work for. Now, as someone who often brings homemade baked goods in to the office, I expected to be asked to make something, which I was happy to do. What I didn't expect was being volunteered to bake a birthday cake, which to most people might just mean a cake but which translated in my head to many-layered cake of wonder with homemade icing and decoration, which is something I'd yet to attempt. Still, I figured it would be a good opportunity to try something new (namely, making a fancy icing).
But then two things happened to make the plans much more stressful. The first was that my friend Tess, who works in the marketing department, asked me to use a recipe from one of our books, which wouldn't in itself be a problem but I had been hoping to use a tried-and-tested American recipe, or at least one with tons of online reviews – of course I agreed, though. And the second thing was that my very well-meaning friends 'bigged up' my baking in a company-wide email. And of course, as we all know, there's nothing like a little outside pressure to make a cake fall flat.
Wouldn't you know, that's exactly what happened when I got home from work the night before the party (exhausted and wet after having been caught in a rain storm) and very carefully followed the first recipe I planned to try: my cakes smelled amazing, and I can attest that they did taste good, but they were only about 3/4 of an inch thick. Not exactly the wow factor I was looking for – and no, I won't tell you which book that recipe came from because apparently everything this cook devises is awesome and I must have just screwed it up somehow. Still, I wasn't about to try the same thing twice, so at 10:30pm, with time and ingredients running low, I pulled out another book we publish, which I just happened to have on hand (another book I had yet to bake from, which is always a good call when baking to impress!): The River Cottage Handbook.
I didn't quite have all the ingredients, and I wasn't at all sure it would work out, but I was quickly running out of time so I gave my dishes a wash and went at it again. The batter came together easily enough, but it didn't look right, so it was with a lot of wariness and not a little anxiety that I stuck the cakes in the oven. When they came out, it was 1am – they looked pretty good, and they smelled delicious, but they were too hot to shave off a bit and taste-test and I was falling asleep, so I set them on a cooling rack and went to bed.
When I woke up in the morning, to a pile of dirty dishes and four cakes (with the thickness of three), my apartment still smelled like chocolate and coffee and I was still extremely wary. I shaved a little bit of cake off one of the layers – it needed evening out anyway, or so I told myself – and tried it... it tasted good to me! Granted, I'm nowhere near as picky as Paul Hollywood, but then I also figured I could at least hope nobody else in the office would be that picky either.
The rest of the process was much easier, if a bit hectic. My friend Magda came over, bringing with her more eggs and butter and a sympathetic ear, and I helped her bake a lemon drizzle cake (not my recipe, but a similar one, without the almonds), then I whipped up the only recipe that has ever made me dream about buttercream: a cinnamon brown sugar frosting that I'd pinned months ago and hadn't had the chance to try yet. Magda, subtle as she is, made multiple disapproving faces about both the brown sugar ("it smells like cough syrup") and the cinnamon ("I have to be in the right kind of mood"), but I soldiered on, and by the time I was finished we were both eating the stuff by the fingerful. Oh. My. God. This frosting. I can't even tell you how delicious it was – creamy but light, sweet but dark, with just a little hint of cinnamon (I might actually put more in next time) to give it a bit more depth. I'm not usually a buttercream person but this stuff was dangerous.
The crumb layer – an idea I used to think was silly but it makes all the difference!
The final coat!
As for the reception from all those people with their heightened expectations? I think it went fairly well. There was only a third of the cake left by the end of the evening, which isn't bad considering how many other treats there were on offer (all homemade and all delicious, of course), and I think people were suitably impressed by the way it looked – or they were just being kind, but honestly by that point I was so tired I didn't care about their motivation. I choose to believe people enjoyed the cake, and while I didn't try any of it (the dessert table was kind of mobbed), I had enough cheeky slivers with dollops of frosting to know I didn't have to be ashamed of it.
So in summation, I suggest you make this frosting every time you need frosting for anything, and I also recommend this cake as a fabulous vehicle for said frosting (or, probably, any frosting... or just a sprinkle of powdered sugar). Recipes are below. Hey, why not make it for National Baking Week (which is coming up in two weeks, if you're in the UK)? You can make cookies or pound cake any old time – why not take this excuse to do something a bit more over the top? Just make sure you have people to share it with, or you'll end up on the couch with a bellyache from eating too much frosting on your own (I'm guessing – in no way do I have experience of this)...
Chocolate Espresso Cake with Cinnamon Brown Sugar Buttercream
cake adapted from River Cottage Cakes and frosting adapted from Foodie with Family
Preheat oven to 350F/180C and butter/line two 8in/20cm round cake pans.
In a small bowl, mix into a paste:
25g (4 tbsp) cocoa powder
25g (4 tbsp) hot chocolate mix (I only had 5g (well, I wasn't supposed to need this recipe!) but I made up the difference with cocoa and white sugar)
2 heaping tsp instant espresso powder
50 ml (about 3.5 tbsp) just-boiled water
Sift or whisk together and set aside:
200g (about 1.6 c) flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
Hefty pinch sea salt
In a large bowl, beat until creamy:
175g (1.5 sticks) butter, rm temp and cut up
Beat in, continuing until light and creamy:
100g (1/2 c) brown sugar
100g (scant 1/2 c) sugar
Beat in, one at a time, adding 1 tbsp of the flour mixture with each addition:
Fold in the remaining flour mix, alternating with:
150 ml (about 2/3 c) buttermilk
When the batter is soft and creamy, gently fold in:
100g (5/8 c) ground almonds
Spread evenly into prepared pans and bake 30-40 minutes, until a skewer inserted into the center of each cake comes out with only a few moist crumbs clinging to it. Let the cakes cool in the pans for 10 minutes before turning them out to cool completely.
With an electric mixer, beat together until fluffy and pale (well, paler – depending on how dark your brown sugar is, it may never really go pale):
4.5 sticks (510g) butter, rm temp
1 c (scant) brown sugar
3 tsp cinnamon
Scrape down the bowl and beat in:
6 c powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla
Scrape down the bowl again and beat in:
1/4 c milk
Mix well and check the texture. At this point you can add up to 3 more cups of powdered sugar (to thicken it) and/or another 1/4 cup of milk (to smooth it out) if you like, but I liked the texture as it was and I didn't want to risk making it any sweeter with more sugar, so I stopped here.