Before the age of about fifteen, I don’t think I’d ever made buttercream icing.
I’d eaten it, of course, at friends’ houses and birthday parties, spread over simple sponge cakes and smothered between the rounds of the ubiquitous caterpillar cake (one made an appearance at a 28th birthday we recently attended, clearly caterpillar cake will never go out of fashion in some circles), but I’m pretty sure I’d never actually made my own buttercream at home.
When my brother and I were growing up, my Mum always encouraged us to make our own birthday cakes. Some people might see this as a chore – I can remember school friends asking curiously if we were sad not to receive a shop-bought cake – but I always loved it: the baking, icing and decorating, time spent in the kitchen together and great big bowls of batter and sticky spoons to lick.
Our repertoire of birthday cakes was fairly limited, mostly revolving between three favourites: chocolate biscuit cake (made in a mould shaped like a giant rabbit and served surrounded by green jelly ‘grass’), chocolate and raspberry meringue layers (my brother’s favourite for several years) and a simple chocolate sponge, filled and covered with a thin layer of chocolate yoghurt icing. Made with nothing more than melted dark chocolate and thick Greek yoghurt, this soft, slightly tart icing was the taste of childhood birthdays.
Once I was let loose in my own kitchen and in possession of an electric whisk (my Mum only had an ancient metal one, and while I know people creamed butter by hand before the invention of electricity, it does seem like an unnecessary amount of effort), my attention turned to buttercream. I experimented with cream cheese and swiss meringue bases, various amounts of butter, different sugars and different ratios of chocolate and cream in a glossy ganache. That abstemious chocolate yoghurt icing didn’t really get a look in.
Which is a shame because it’s really very delicious. I may be the child who was reared on raisins over sweets but I promise it’s a lovely way to finish a cake in a paired back, subtly sweet, puritanical sort of a way. If you’re used to fluffy American buttercream or glossy cream-based ganache you might find it a little tart, but the sharpness works well with the soft, squidgy sweetness of these lovely little squares.
Ever since I made this pistachio and lemon loaf cake, I’ve been wanting to try a chocolate version. Chocolate and pistachio is a match made in heaven and combining the two in squidgy cake form is about as good as it gets. Ground pistachios add colour and flavour, almonds a little extra moistness and chocolate makes an appearance in both the batter and this chocolate yoghurt frosting. It’s a simple, afternoon tea kind of a cake, but also lovely served with a scoop of ice cream after dinner.
Sometimes (rarely) only a sickly-sweet cupcake, buried under inch thick fluffy frosting and a mountain of sprinkles will do. Most of the time, something a little simpler is what we want from life. These little cakes offer just that – nothing more than nuts, chocolate and a few good things bound together in a simple, squidgy square.
Squidgy Chocolate & Pistachio Squares (adapted from my Pistachio & Lemon Loaf Cakes)
(makes 16 squares)
For the cake
200g unsalted butter, softened
200g golden caster sugar
3 large free range eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
75g dark chocolate
65g light brown self-raising flour
For the icing
80g dark chocolate, chopped
80g milk chocolate, chopped
1 tbsp thick Greek yoghurt
50g pistachios, toasted & chopped
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C. Grease and line the base of a 20cm square, loose bottomed tin.
Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Gradually beat in the egg – adding a tiny bit of flour if the mixture starts to separate – followed by the vanilla and salt.
Blitz together the pistachios and almonds in a blender until a fine powder is formed (a few chunks of nut are ok). Add the chocolate and blitz a few second more until coarsely chopped.
Fold the ground nuts, chocolate and self-raising flour into the egg mixture until just combined then scrape into the prepared tin.
Bake for 35 minutes or until the top springs back to the touch and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out pretty much clean. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool then remove from the tin.
For the icing
Melt the chocolates together in the microwave or in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. Allow to cool slightly (about 4 minutes), then stir in the Greek yoghurt.
The mixture will start to thicken as soon as the chocolate and yoghurt combines so working quickly, spread over the top of your cake, smoothing with a palette knife. Sprinkle with the chopped, toasted pistachios.
Pop the cake in the fridge for 30 minutes to firm up then remove and slice into 16 squares.