Last week saw me doing more baking than drinking, as I found myself entering the Great Chocolate Cake-Off taking place at Chocolate Unwrapped. Although I thoroughly enjoy baking, in recent years it’s tended to be more bread based, so the prospect of coming up with a chocolate cake worthy of being eaten by anyone other than my nearest and dearest – who are obviously honour-bound to tell me how delicious it is – was a little alarming. As a result, I was a little less than relaxed about the whole affair and even ended up making test cakes to make sure I wasn’t going to embarrass myself too much.
I knew roughly what sort of cake I wanted to make from the start; something along the lines of a Devil’s Food Cake, which is wonderfully chocolaty and dense without being heavy. But I wanted to bring a little something extra to the party and given my day-blog, beer seemed the obvious thing to add. Everything tastes better with beer.
The next problem was the basic Devil’s Food; it turns out that there are more versions of this cake than there are recipe books, none of which quite matched up to how I remember my mum’s version. Having culled all the recipes that involved coffee – which would have been too much with beer as well – I did my normal trick of taking the easiest bits from various sources and normalising it to easier-to-measure quantities. I’m nothing if not a lazy cook.
Having settled on the base recipe, I had to pick my beer. It clearly had to be a dark sweet beer, which really meant a porter. Given that they make the best porters I know, I had initially planned on something from the Kernel Brewery but I have to travel across London to get hold of Kernel beer, so for my first test I made do with some Fuller’s London Porter. My chief taster confirmed that I was on the right path and demanded further cake. One trip to the Beer Boutique later and I had my small supply of Kernel’s Export India Porter. Despite being (in my opinion) a superior beer, it turned out to be less tasty in cake-form than the Fuller’s – sadly I was therefore forced to drink the Kernel instead. Life as a baker is sometimes hard.
When it came to the cake filling, I quickly realised that despite my personal addiction to butter icing, something lighter was required to avoid everything getting too heavy. Clearly it needed to be a bit sweet and beery, which pretty much meant the recipe wrote itself. Having the design talent of an aspidistra, I went for the traditional, village-fete look of ‘cream in the middle, cream on top’, which my less talentless wife suggested improving with some grated chocolate.
I set off to the show feeling pretty good; although the cake hadn’t risen quite as much as the test runs I knew it was tasty and it looked more like a ‘proper’ cake than most of my efforts.
Imagine my state of mind, then, when I walked into the kitchen and saw the other 15 cakes. They had spun sugar. They had frosting. They had tiers. They had cake stands for heaven’s sake. I had what looked like a naked chocolate victoria sponge on a bit of foil board left over from Kavey’s birthday party. I skulked off to wander around the show (well ok, I also popped over the road to The Rake for a swift half) and waited to pick up my 16th place prize.
The results were announce at 4:30 that afternoon, the top five being presented to the audience and discussed by the judges. I think it’s fair to say I was surprised when among the spectacularly crafted things of beauty that appeared on the judging table was my effort – looking, if truth be told, on the amateurish side in such company.
Still, from the kind comments of the judges it seemed my cynical attempt to get them drunk enough to vote me the winner almost paid off even if, in the end, I was beaten by someone who clearly knows how to make spun sugar rather than just how to eat it. Oh, and her sponge was (annoyingly) bloody tasty too.
So, if you want to know how to make my second-prize winning (ok, there wasn’t a second prize as such but you could tell they all secretly liked mine second best) Chocolate Porter Cake, here it is.
Pete's Chocolate & Porter Cake
For the cake:
125 grams unsalted butter
150 grams granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large eggs
225 grams plain flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
75 grams of very good very dark chocolate *
100 grams dark muscovado sugar
250 ml porter **
For the cream:
100 ml extra thick double cream
4 tablespoons icing sugar
3 tablespoons porter **
10-15 grams grated dark eating chocolate
* I used Willie Harcourt-Cooze Venezualan Black 100% Caranero Superior, which comes in block form.
** I used London Fuller's Porter.
- Cream together the butter and sugar.
Recipes always tell you to use castor sugar. I never have castor sugar in the cupboard, so I always use granulated. It’s all going to end up in a liquid batter anyway, so it’ll probably dissolve and I can’t be messing about with stocking essentially the same product in slightly different crystal sizes.
I actually did this bit by hand (you can see my cake-making fork there in the bowl); I am sure you could use a stand or hand mixer but I’ve always done this bit by hand. It’s part of the cake making ritual, right up there with licking the bowl.
- Once that’s done, beat in the eggs one at a time with a spoonful of flour each time.
I think adding the flour a bit at a time is supposed to stop the mixture splitting or something, but I don’t really see why it matters. You’re about to beat the hell out of it anyway, which will mix it all back together again. Again though, it’s how my mum told me to make cakes so it’s what I do. By now I’d put down my cake-making fork and let Intergalactic Unicorn (our KitchenAid) do the heavy labour.
- Add in the rest of the flour, the bicarb and the baking powder and turn the machine up to high power for a bit, to mix everything in properly.
- In a separate bowl, melt the chocolate.
- Once it’s all nicely liquid, mix the dark muscovado sugar into the melted chocolate.
This seems to be the easiest way of evenly distributing the chocolate and breaking down the lumps you inevitably get in dark sugar; it also creates another bowl to lick clean.
- Add the chocolate sugar goo into the main mixture, along with the beer. Crank the machine back up to full power and give it a thorough whisking until it looks right.
It’s tricky to describe quite what you’re looking for – the mixture goes a little lighter in colour, and just gets to this perfect, thick cake batter consistency. Or, if in doubt, just give it a couple of minutes.
- And that’s it. Scrape what you can bothered off the whisk, and lick it clean.
- Divide the mixture evenly between two greased and lined 8” cake tins, and lick the bowl clean.
- Pop the tins into a preheated oven at 170C for roughly 30 minutes. Don’t overcook them; the cakes want to be a little moist.
- When you take them out, leave them in the tins for 10 minutes, then put them out on a cooling rack.
- Wait for the cakes to be completely cool before messing about with the cream – otherwise the warmth just makes the cream melt and go everywhere.
- Making the cream filling is properly easy. Chuck all the ingredients in a bowl and whisk until good and thick; properly, almost buttery-thick otherwise it will shoot out of the side of the cake when you cut into it.
- Use two thirds of the cream filling to sandwich the two halves of the cake together, and the remaining third to spread evenly(ish) over the top.
- Finish it off with grated chocolate to look pretty.
above images courtesy of Paul Winch-Furness
When discussing the five finalists, famous pâtissier and chocolatier Paul A Young said of my cake "the porter in this cake was *absolutely* beautiful... really intense, really moist... a cup of tea and a slice of that, a very big slice of that and you'd be on your way."