I think one of the best things about the internet is that it connects people who might otherwise feel like they are alone. If you have always wanted to re-enact the Battle of Hastings dressed as a Death Eater while reciting the closing speech from The Breakfast Club, then you can find the only other person in the world who wants to do that too, and make it happen. When I was a child, the internet made me realise how big the world is, and yet made it feel so much smaller at the same time.
Over the last week, the internet has reminded me that I am not the only person who is worryingly excited by the return of the Great British Bake Off to our screens. And yes, I do mean ‘worryingly’ excited. I spent the afternoon and evening last Wednesday in such heightened anticipation that I think I scared James a bit.
How can I explain the joy of the Bake Off to those who don’t watch it? For me, it’s a guaranteed hour of pure happiness and escape from everything else that’s making me stressed. The Bake Off of is an overwhelmingly positive programme. You can see that Mary and Paul, and Mel and Sue, really want the contestants to do well. It’s light-hearted, and funny, and charming. It’s about people doing the thing they love as well as they can. It’s about creating things that are delicious, beautiful, and inventive. It’s about baking, for god’s sake.
Anyway, the show started last week, and it made me just as happy as it always does. I am going to go on the record now, by the way, and say that my bet on the final three is Marie, Tamal, and Flora. Just putting it out there.
I will be doing the #bakeoffbakealong for as long as I can manage this year, before my schedule absolutely cripples me. The choice this week was between a Madeira cake for the signature challenge, a walnut cake for the technical, or a Black Forest gateaux for the show-stopper. For me, I want the bake along to be an excuse to try recipes I wouldn’t normally bake. I made a variation on a Madeira cake mere days ago, and I need absolutely no encouragement to make a Black Forest gateaux. So, down walnut way we went.
Notes: The recipe in the book is actually a bit different from the recipe that the contestants used in the show. Firstly, it doesn’t call for buttercream, simply advising you to use the frosting to sandwich the layers together as well as to coat the cake. Secondly, it doesn’t call for the walnuts to be caramelised. I was planning to do that anyway, but, as you can see, I didn’t in the end. I was making this cake to take to a party and we had to rush out the door: I simply ran out of time. Hard experience has taught me that you shouldn’t try and rush caramel, so I left it rather than risking burning myself dramatically.
Even though the recipe I was working from didn’t call for buttercream, and the bakers on the show used a plain vanilla buttercream, I went for an espresso buttercream. Just because, really. I felt like I wanted something to break up all the sweetness of the cake a bit. While I am happy with this decision taste-wise, it does mean the layers of the cake looked less distinctive, because the buttercream was a very similar colour to the sponge.
I am going to called this a marshmallow frosting, rather than a boiled frosting. This is partly because is tastes like marshmallow and partly because ‘boiled frosting’ sounds horrid.
for the cakes
225g butter, softened, plus extra for greasing
225g caster sugar
4 large eggs
225g self-raising flour
2 tsp baking powder
100g walnuts, finely chopped, plus extra for decorating
for the buttercream
100g butter, softened
200g icing sugar
2 teaspoons of espresso powder dissolved in 1 tbsp boiling water
for the frosting
2 large egg whites
350g caster sugar
4 tbsp water
¼ tsp cream of tartar
- Preheat your oven to 160C/ 140c fan/ gas 3 and grease and line three 20cm sandwich tins with baking paper. I don’t have three 20cm tins (or any three matching tins, for that matter), so I had to do the baking in two stages.
- Whack all your cake ingredients in a large bowl and beat them together with an electric whisk. The book specifies this all-in-one method, which is what I used, and it worked fine. That’s why you have two teaspoons of baking powder – you need extra rise because you’re not getting as much air into it through multiple beating stages. Divide your batter into three equal amounts and bake your cakes for 25-30 minutes.
- Once the cakes are completely cool, make your buttercream, Beat your butter and icing sugar together until smooth and fluffy, then beat in your espresso. Spread half of it over your bottom sponge, and top with your second sponge. Spread the second half onto the top of your second sponge, and top with the third.
- For the frosting, measure all of the frosting ingredients into a glass bowl set over a pan of simmering water and beat for 10-15 minutes with an electric whisk. This bit is really boring, but you do have to do it to make sure the frosting isn’t grainy with sugar. Check it about ten minutes in by rubbing a bit between your thumb and forefinger and seeing if you can feel sugar grains. It should be smooth.
- Cover the top and sides of your cake with the icing. You can either swirl it or leave it smooth(ish), depending on your preference. Decorate your cake with walnuts (or do it properly and caramelise some, if you are better at time management than me).