I've done quite a few birthday cakes around these here parts (Chocolate Guinness, Chocolate Fudge, Coconut Cream, Vanilla with Double Cream and Raspberries) but this was a big one. For Mr Dine at Mine, Greedy Gusto himself, it had to be something special and it had to be good. In previous years he's always demanded Nigella's Old Fashioned Chocolate Cake but this year he gave me full licence to surprise him. And it was tough. I ummed and ahhed, researched and daydreamed, thought and thought - and ended up making his favourite cake. But this year, there were three important changes. I topped it with a plain chocolate ganache rather than the chocolate fudge icing. I added little sweet biscuits, spelling out a suitable message (and suitably insulting portrait). And I filled it with something I absolutely adore, but have always been too scared to make. Caramel.
Salted caramel, to be specific. We are bandwagon-jumping, trend-following salted caramel fans in this house and I knew that it would be an amazing addition to any chocolate cake. I've always been terrified of all those hot sugar shenanigans - everything seems to burn or seize or explode or "argh, that was my hand" - but I did a bit of googling around, found a few recipes, and decided just to go for it. I had a dream that was birthday cake, and I had to try! The Birthday Boy deserved it.
The cake itself - fine. I'm still getting used to this oven and it wasn't my best ever, but it was still a very respectable chocolate sponge. The sugar biscuits? They'll get a post of their own but spoiler alert - they were fine. The chocolate ganache wasn't as silky smooth as it could have been (I accidentally used the sour cream instead of double, which might have had something to do with it) but it was still fine. But the caramel? Oh my god. The salted caramel. Where do I start? Heart in my mouth, 999 at the ready, I started melting and swirling and much to my surprise and delight, it worked! Nothing went grainy, or exploded; I cooked it until dark golden brown and no more; whisked and whisked to combine the butter and cream until, yes, it turned into caramel! Salted butter and an extra grind or two from the salt-mill gave it the extra depth of flavour I wanted and, giddy with relief and sugar, I trilled with glee when I poured the golden, gooey mass into a jug and set it in the fridge to cool. I'd done it! I'd turned sugar into caramel - and survived! Seriously, I've never been prouder.
When it came time to assemble the cake, the caramel was pretty solid - as in, almost the texture of a Werther's Original - but I walloped it onto the cake, plonked the sponge, ganache and biscuits on top and merrily went off to lunch, basking in my Salted Caramel success. We returned to find the cake sitting in a buttery amber puddle. All the caramel had oozed, oozed, oozed out of the middle and pooled around the foothills of the cake. Uh oh.
We cut and served it and..oh my gosh, the caramel was amazing. But there was no denying that it had made a break for the exits, and was halfway out of the door. So what had happened? Was the texture wrong, or the concept flawed? Would any caramel be able to withstand the weight of the cake on top, or should caramel be reserved for drizzling on top of stuff? I don't know.
So in conclusion - taste good, appearance bad, overall mark - hand waggling in a horizontal position. But at least I conquered the caramel fear! We're already plotting new reasons to make it. And at least Mr Dine at Mine had a birthday cake, even if it wasn't as perfect as he deserved. There's always next year...
Adapted from here
- 100ml water
- 450g caster sugar
- 2 tablespoons of golden syrup
- 115g salted butter
- 125ml double cream and 2 tablespoons of creme fraiche (or I used sour cream left over from the chocolate cake)
- a few grinds of salt
Put the water, sugar and golden syrup in a large saucepan and cook over a gentle heat until it's melted. DO NOT STIR! That does something terrible, apparently. It's all a bit complicated for me but you can swirl the pan every now and then, just keep all utensils out of that pan.
Once it's melted, turn up the heat a bit and cook until the caramel is dark golden-brown - try not to be too much of a scaredycat here. Then turn off the heat and carefully whisk in the butter and cream, being prepared for it to bubble up quite high and alarm you. Whisk until smooth then leave to cool. It'll last a couple of days in the fridge if you want to make in advance.