We’ve just got back from two days in the beautiful county of Rutland celebrating a friend’s 30th birthday. With the recent bout of unexpected and unseasonally warm weather, he couldn’t have picked a better weekend for us to spend outside and out of London (or Leeds, where he lives), enjoying each others’ company, soaking up some sunshine and drinking in the country air.
I don’t really need to tell you that I offered to bring a birthday cake. That goes without saying and is pretty much what you’ve been waiting for, right?
When it comes to celebrating birthdays, a good chocolate cake is pretty hard to beat. Infinitely adaptable, almost universally enjoyed and available in a scale to suit your age range from mild milk chocolate to something altogether more darkly delicious, it’s a firm household favourite around the world for a reason.
For this particular creation, I had in mind a chocolate cake with a slightly grown up twist. The birthday boy in question is a big fan of whiskey, more specifically Jack Daniels, and I wanted to incorporate it into his cake in some way. After dismissing a whiskey and coke cake as a little too risky (I had some cola syrup left over from these cupcakes but it felt a bit too sticky and sickly with all that chocolate), I decided to incorporate the flavour using a simple whiskey syrup.
Rather than making my usual chocolate cake base, I decided this was the time to try that chocolate cake. The cake that you hear whispers about, that pops up everywhere online, that I first read about on the Tastespotting blog then discovered here and here on blogs whose authors’ baking taste I trust implicitly. I knew the high sugar and cocoa content would result in a richly chocolaty cake and was intrigued to try a recipe involving no butter and instead so much liquid in the form of oil, milk and butter. Surely so much moisture could only be a good thing?
Birthdays are a great excuse to try something new and this cake is no exception. The base of that chocolate cake is soaked in a whiskey syrup inspired by Peggy Porschen, sandwiched together with a condensed milk buttercream from this blog that I’ve been wanting to make forever and smothered in a chocolate ganache from the Paul A. Young cookbook. Totally over the top, deliciously indulgent and completely celebratory in the way that only a birthday cake can be.
As for the cake itself, you have to try it and see. Requests for seconds that afternoon and slices served up at breakfast the next day suggest that it’s a gift that keeps on giving. The crumb is amazing, almost damp in texture with a surprising lightness for something so dark, the whiskey syrup oaky and moist, the whiskey buttercream whipped to perfection and the chocolate ganache soft, thick and not too sweet.
One friend described it as ‘the best cake I’ve ever eaten’. Maybe he was just being nice. Maybe he’d heard the rumours about that chocolate cake. Or maybe, just maybe, it is the best chocolate cake you’ll ever eat.
It looks like a lot of ingredients but don’t be put off, the cake is a one bowl wonder and takes minutes to make. If you can’t be bothered to make buttercream and ganache, just up the quantities of one and use that to fill and frost the cake.
For the cake
340g plain flour
525g golden caster sugar
128g cocoa powder
2 ¼ tsp baking powder
2 ¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda
3 large free range eggs
375ml full fat milk
188ml groundnut oil
3 tsp vanilla extract
375ml boiling water
For the whiskey syrup
100g caster sugar
For the buttercream
150g unsalted butter, room temperature
350g icing sugar
4 tbsp condensed milk
2 tbsp whiskey, or to taste
For the ganache
250g dark chocolate, chopped
250ml double cream
100g light brown muscovado sugar
For the cake
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C. Grease and line three 20cm cake tins.
Sift the flour, caster sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda into the bowl of a stand mixer and whisk for one minute to combine. You could also do this using an electric whisk.
In a separate bowl, beat the eggs then add the milk and groundnut oil. Pour into the dry mixture and whisk for two to three minutes until well combined.
With the whisk running, add the boiling water to your mixture a little at a time until combined. The batter will be extremely liquid.
Pour into your prepared cake tins and bake in the centre of the oven for 25 – 35 minutes, or until the tops are firm and a skewer or toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean. Remove from the oven.
For the whiskey syrup
Combine the water and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Simmer for a couple of minutes until the sugar has dissolved. Add the whiskey and simmer for one minute more then remove from the heat.
Trickle the syrup over the top of each cake while still warm then set aside to cool completely.
For the buttercream
Make sure your butter is nice and soft. In a stand mixer or using an electric whisk, beat the butter until pale and fluffy. Sift in the icing sugar and whisk to combine, then add the condensed milk. Continue to beat until light and fluffy, slowly incorporating the whiskey until fully combined.
For the ganache
Place the chopped chocolate in a medium heatproof bowl.
Heat the cream and sugar until the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and simmer for one minute.
Remove the cream from the heat and allow to stand for one minute – pouring it directly over the chocolate will cause it to split. Once it has rested, pour over the chocolate and stir until smooth and glossy, using a rubber spatula or whisk.
Set aside for thirty minutes or until it has cooled to a spreadable consistency.
To assemble the cake
Smear a small amount of whiskey buttercream on a serving plate or cake stand. Place one round of cake on top. Slather over half the quantity of whiskey buttercream, top with a second round of cake and repeat. Top with the final round of cake and smooth any buttercream that has squidged out the sides.
Dollop your ganache on top of the cake then use a spatula or palette knife to spread it down and round the edges. Use a slightly heated palette knife for a smooth finish or do what I did and swirl the ganache for a more rustic, flicked effect.
This cake can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature for a couple of days. After driving it to Rutland in 26 degree heat I had to pop it in the fridge to firm the ganache, but unless it’s a very hot day you should be ok.
*This recipe makes one 20cm round, 3 tier cake. When baking this cake at 6am before work my half conscious brain couldn’t find the right tins so I made it in 3 tins of 23, 20 and 18cm, hence the slightly strange appearance of the slice in the photos. It will taste exactly the same, but for the best looking cake I’d suggest sticking with 3 x 20cm tins.