‘The greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.’
Cake is as synonymous with birthdays as parties, presents and singing. That’s not to say it doesn’t serve a purpose at other occasions or celebrations – anyone who reads this blog will know I’m a strong supporter of cake consumption on a pretty much regular basis – but very little can compete with a cake baked specially for a birthday. Whether it’s a simple sponge cake or a more extravagant affair, there’s something incredibly indulgent about a confection created especially for you.
However, while cakes can be beautiful, delicious and a joy to eat, it’s sometimes hard to recreate the utterly magical birthday feeling you get as a child, that sensation of complete surprise and delight. When deciding what to make for a friend’s birthday last week, I wanted to inject just a little bit of that childhood magic back into my baking. A lovingly made cake is a good start, but I needed something to make it extra special.
The answer? Popping candy.
Popping candy has the extraordinary ability to turn sensible adults into excitable kids in a matter of moments. It’s the edible equivalent of helium, an unusual, transitory pleasure that never fails to bring a smile to the faces of even the most majestic and mature amongst us. Releasing carbon dioxide on contact with your mouth, it sizzles, pops, whizzes and bubbles, tickling your taste buds before fizzling out in a final crackle.
Taking my cue from the master of magic and big kid himself, Roald Dahl (the quote above is from The Minpins, for those who want to know), I disguised my little bit of fizzy fun, hiding it within the layers of a sticky-sweet toffee cake. A simple chocolate ganache is swirled with chocolate covered popping candy and used to sandwich the sponge together, while further shards of crackling crunch hide amongst the chewy chunks of toffee popcorn embedded in the buttercream on top.
It’s not a hugely practical cake – the cream in the ganache means you should really store it in the fridge, while the toffee popcorn will only retain its chewy crunch if kept at room temperature – but it’s fun. In fact I think this fleeting period of perfection when the cake has just been made is what it’s all about; an excuse to indulge in your most childish instincts, enjoy the moment and eat it all at once. In great big slabs. With a great big smile on your face. Because cake should be fun, because birthdays should be better, and because you’re eating a popcorn cake. . .that actually pops.
What magical moments do you remember from childhood? And what other desserts do you think would benefit from a bit of added ‘pop’?!
Toffee popcorn cake with chocolate ganache & hidden ‘pop’
(basic sponge & buttercream adapted from Fiona Cairns’ The Birthday Cake Book)
For the toffee sponge
280g unsalted butter, really soft & diced
280g self raising flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
5 large free range eggs, lightly beaten
160g golden caster sugar
120g light brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
Grease and line two 20cm and one 15cm pan. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C.
Sift the flour and baking powder into an electric mixer. Add the butter, eggs, sugars and vanilla and beat until well blended, without overmixing.
Divide between the three tins to equal depth then bake for 20-25 mins, or until a skewer emerges clean. Remove from the oven, leave to cool slightly, then turn onto a wire rack to cool completely.
Once cooled, slice the two 20cm cakes in half horizontally to make four rounds. You won’t need to use the 15cm cake in this recipe, so freeze for use at a later date.
For the chocolate ganache with ‘pop’
250g dark chocolate, minimum 70% cocoa solids
135 ml double cream
30g unsalted butter
50g popping candy
Melt 150g of the chocolate, cream and butter in a bain marie. Stir until smooth then set aside to cool and thicken slightly.
In the meantime, melt the remaining 100g of chocolate. Allow to cool slightly then stir in the popping candy. Stir the chocolate with ‘pop’ into your cooled ganache.
To assemble the layers
Place one of the four sponge cake halves on a cake board or serving plate, securing it with a little splogde of ganache. Smear ganache over this first layer, then repeat with the following three layers, topping the cake with a flat, un-iced sponge, good side up. Pop in the fridge to firm up while you make the toffee buttercream.
For the toffee buttercream
240g unsalted butter
60g light brown sugar
2 tbsp golden syrup
1 tbsp double cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
200g icing sugar
Simmer 80g of the butter, the brown sugar and syrup over a low heat in a pan until it is a deep caramel colour. Remove from the heat and add the cream and vanilla extract, stirring to incorporate. Allow to cool to a thick toffee.
Meanwhile beat the remaining butter in an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add the icing sugar and beat until creamy – this should take several minutes. Finally add the cooled toffee and beat in well.
For the caramel popcorn with ‘pop’
50g dark chocolate
25g popping candy
Drizzle of vegetable oil
50g corn kernels
125g brown sugar
50g unsalted butter
45g golden syrup
1/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
Melt the chocolate. Allow to cool slightly then stir in the popping candy. Spread over a piece of baking parchment and pop in the fridge to cool until set.
Preheat the oven to 150 degrees C. Heat the oil in a large pan then drop in the corn kernels, pop the lid on and shake the pan until all your popcorn has popped. Remove from the heat.
Melt together the sugar, butter and syrup over a medium heat. Bring to the boil then continue stirring for a few minutes more. Remove from the heat and stir in the bicarbonate of soda and vanilla extract. Pour over the popcorn and stir gently to coat, then lay the pieces flat on a tray and bake for around 10 minutes, stirring once in this time to ensure it cooks evenly. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
To assemble the cake
50g melted milk chocolate
Slather the toffee buttercream over the cake, ensuring it is equally distributed over top and sides with a smooth finish.
Remove your chocolate with ‘pop’ from the fridge and crush into fine shards. Scatter a few shards over the cake, then push pieces of cooled, crunchy toffee popcorn into the icing on top. Scatter the remaining shards of candy over the popcorn, then drizzle the whole thing with melted chocolate.
n.b. the popcorn will go a little chewy if you leave it in the fridge, so try to assemble the cake fairly soon before eating.