The only reason for being a bee that I know of is to make honey . . . And the only reason for making honey is so as I can eat it’ Winnie the Pooh
When I was a little girl, my parents were fairly sensible when it came to the consumption of anything sweet. My Mum’s a wonderful cook, and we were allowed to eat the odd pudding on special occasions, but day-to-day meals were more likely to end in a handful of grapes or a little pot of yoghurt than anything more exotic and sugar-laden. I’m not saying we were deprived – we ate the most incredible home-cooked meals – but let’s just say mine was the only mother I’ve ever known to put packets of Sunmaid raisins in the goody bags of trick-or-treaters come Halloween.
This abstemious approach to sugar may be partly to blame for the insatiably sweet tooth I have in adult life. I imagine it’s also the reason that one of my enduring childhood memories is of our au pair sitting down at the breakfast table, reaching for the honey jar and scooping out a giant spoonful, before sticking it straight into her mouth. I wasn’t very old at the time, and these were definitely pre-Nigella days, so such a display of indulgence was both surprising and enviable. When asked why she did it (I’m not sure my Mum was entirely impressed with the idea of her impressionable and sticky-fingered children following suit) our au pair‘s answer was simple; ‘I am a honey monster’.
The only other person I’ve ever known to love honey with quite as much passion is a friend from university. She loves the stuff, eating it on toast, pouring it over sticky sausages and I’m sure I’ve even seen her reading a book about the history of honey. It therefore seemed fitting that when her birthday came around this year, I made a honey cake. My other option was chocolate biscuit – one of her favourite kind of cakes – but as she’d had it at her wedding last year, I didn’t really feel the need – or want – to compete.
Honey is a wonderful ingredient. The first sweetener in recorded human history, its earliest use is thought to have been hundreds of years BC, and people throughout the ages have incorporated honey into their daily lives; from cooking to cosmetics, as well as using it for its soothing, medicinal properties. The appearance and flavour can vary depending on the nectar source, from a mild, almost clear liquid to an intensely amber syrup. If you’re into your honey, there’s a whole world out there to explore.
Doing a bit of research online, I discovered Nigella Lawson’s Honey Chocolate Cake, a gorgeously gloopy concoction decorated with little marzipan bees. It looks lovely, but I wanted to make something a bit sturdier; a cake that I could stack in tiers and ice in buttercream to survive my journey across London to the restaurant we were eating at. I realised that the answer was a simpler chocolate sponge, not too sweet so as to allow the rich, sweet flavours of a pure honey buttercream to shine through. The icing tastes like the best honey sandwich you’ve ever eaten – the perfect combination of slightly salty butter and smooth runny honey – while the cake is dark and moist. The decorations are all made of modeling chocolate as I’m not a big fan of marzipan, and it was so much fun rolling out the little bees before studding them with little almond wings.
This is such a perfect birthday cake – a little more exciting than your average chocolate sponge, but comforting in the familiarity of its flavours. And if you don’t have a bday coming up, I’ve read that honey cake (albeit not a chocolate one) is a traditional Christmas cake in Denmark, so with 25th December fast-approaching, you’ve got the perfect excuse to give this a try. The cake is also incredibly moreish, and I’m taking it as the ultimate compliment that the birthday girl wrapped the last remaining piece of cake in tin foil and wedged it into her handbag before leaving the restaurant.
Honey Chocolate Birthday Cake
Makes one 20cm round cake with 2 layers (I doubled these quantities for my cake)
All-In-One Chocolate Cake
200g plain flour
200g golden caster sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
40g best-quality cocoa
170g soft unsalted butter, room temperature
2 large free range eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
150ml sour cream
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C. Grease and line two 20cm round cake tins.
Blitz the flour, sugar, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and cocoa in a blender for 20 seconds. Add the butter and blitz another 20-30 seconds. Add the eggs, vanilla extract and sour cream and pulse until just combined.
Pour the batter into your prepared tins and bake for 30-35 mins, until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Don’t open the oven for the first 20 minutes, but after that do check your cakes as some ovens may cook them a little quicker.
Once cooked, remove from the oven and allow to cool completely.
300g unsalted butter, room temperature
200g icing sugar
3 tbsp runny honey
Cream the butter and sugar in a mixer for around 5 minutes, until light and fluffy. Add the honey and whip until fully incorporated.
To assemble the cake:
Dot a little icing on your cake board or plate and secure the first cake, smoothest side up. Spread approx. one third of the icing across this cake, then sandwich the second cake on top. Spread a thin layer of icing over the cake (your crumb layer) then pop in the fridge for around half an hour to firm up. Remove from the fridge and ice with the remaining buttercream, smoothing the edges with a knife dipped in hot water for a completely smooth finish.
If you want to make chocolate roses to decorate the cake, read the tutorial here.
For the chocolate leaves, roll out a thin layer of dark modelling chocolate. Cut into leaf shapes and score a vein patter with a sharp knife. Dust with gold dust, if you like.
For the little chocolate bees, take five marble sized balls of white modelling chocolate and roll into fat sausages. Cut thin strips of dark modelling chocolate and press into each sausage to make stripes. Roll two tiny balls of dark modelling chocolate into eyes, then take two roughly even sized flaked almonds and press into the bees’ back as wings. Secure the roses, leaves and bees to the cake with little splodges of buttercream.