I went to a small school. By the time I got to Sixth Form, our year group comprised twenty seven people. Everyone else had left, mostly to go to schools that offered either a) a greater variety of A Level subjects or b) boys.
I loved school. Of course, there were some awful times – being a socially awkward, overweight, shy, bespectacled, book-obsessed teenager isn’t exactly the stuff of fantasies – and I certainly had what we can euphemistically refer to as ‘rocky moments’ throughout my time there. But basically, overall, it was great. I was at the same school for thirteen years (the secondary school had a primary school attached), it was a five minute walk away from my parents’ house (which was excellent, as I am lazy), and I felt like I knew my place in my safe little world.
Of course, I then went off to university and became a tiny minnow in a roiling, cavernous sea and it was awful, but that’s for another blog post.
My school doesn’t exist any more, of course. I mean, the building is still there, and it still has the same name. But the school I went to is gone. I’ve been away so long that all of the students I knew, even from the youngest years, will have passed through. All of the teachers who taught me at A Level have left, either retiring or going on to new places. Even the building has changed: since we left, they’ve rebuilt the boxy little old Sixth Form centre and made something shiny and new and unfamiliar. I wouldn’t know my way around there now. If I wanted to visit, I’d have to make an appointment, and sign in at the office, and get an access badge from an unfamiliar face on the reception desk. It was like a little bereavement, realising I couldn’t ever go back to the place where I spent the best part of thirteen years.
In our final year of school, as each of the twenty seven of us turned eighteen, we celebrated birthdays together. Everyone in the year would often club together to buy a special joint birthday present for whoever was hitting adulthood (legally, anyway), and we’d go out drinking, proudly flashing our legitimate IDs. We’d all share birthday cake in the Sixth Form common room, bringing pieces to class and giving them to teachers in the hope that they’d forgive us for being especially rowdy.
Sometimes, I made the birthday cakes for my friends, and when I did, I always made this one. After a while, people started calling it ‘Hannah Cake’.
My family isn’t particularly traditional, but we do have one ‘family recipe’: this chocolate fudge cake. I am tempted to lie and say it was passed down from my German great-grandmother, my Oma, to her son, and then to my mother, who passed it on to me. However, the truth is that my mother found it in a recipe book who knows how long ago, and baked it sporadically throughout my childhood. It was one of the first things I ever learned to bake myself.
Source: Now, this definitely originally came from a recipe book, but I’m afraid I can’t cite the source as it was twenty-odd years ago and I never knew it myself. I fear it will have been lost in time, but if someone does recognise it (anyone with a specialist knowledge of 1980s Canadian cookbooks?) then do please let me know. I am going to write it down from memory, so it will be slightly altered in any case.
Notes: The cake itself is more like a torte than anything else, I suppose, lightened as it is by egg whites, with a dense and delicious base of ground almonds. It lacks the apricot glaze of a sachertorte, though, and the icing itself is not a ganache but a delicious hybrid of a thing that I have never come across in any other recipe. It’s also denser, moister, and more cake-like than a classic torte, because of the breadcrumbs. I suspect the inclusion of breadcrumbs will be frowned upon by purists, but it makes it a very stable cake and therefore practically foolproof. I am going to tempt the wrath of the baking gods by telling you that I have been making this cake since the age of about eleven, and it has never gone wrong. It’s dense and chocolatey and moist and lovely, and best served in small-ish slices for those who are say things like ‘ooh, that’s very rich’. I can eat great slabs of it.
You will also need one cake tin, preferably springform. I’ve used everything from an 18cm tin to a 23cm tin here and been fine – you just need to keep an eye on it if you’re using a bigger tin because it will cook more quickly.
For the cake
225g good quality dark chocolate (I use 70%)
225g butter, softened
225g caster sugar
6 large eggs, separated
1 tsp vanilla essence
110g ground almonds
150g fresh white bread (this will become breadcrumbs).
For the icing
175g icing sugar
50g cocoa powder
110g caster sugar
4 tbsp tepid water
- Grease and line your tin (yes, you do really have to do this. Yes, even if it’s non-stick). Preheat your oven to 180C/160C fan/ gas 4.
- First, make your breadcrumbs. Whack all your bread into your food processor and blend it until it you’ve got some lovely white crumbs. If you don’t have a food processor then good luck to you: I have previously made breadcrumbs in a tiny little food processor-less student kitchen, and we tried grating bread, shredding it with forks, and eventually tearing it by hand. Not a fun half hour.
- Next, got your chocolate in a glass bowl over a simmering plan of water to melt. Keep a vague eye on it and stir it occasionally while you get on with the other stuff.
- Cream your butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. If you have done your mise-en-place properly you will have already separated your eggs. If you are like me and forget every bloody time, do that now. Then add your egg yolks to your butter and sugar one by one, beating them in as you go. Add the vanilla essence, then your almonds, melted chocolate and breadcrumbs.
- Whisk your egg whites into soft peaks. Take about a quarter of them and whack them in with the chocolate and beat it any old how, just to loosen up the mixture. Then fold the rest in slowly and carefully so you don’t knock all the air out.
- Dollop the mixture fairly carefully into your beautifully lined tin (again, you’re protecting the precious air that you worked so hard to get into the egg whites). Use a spatula to smooth it out as best you can.
- Pop it in the oven. Now, my oven is fairly vicious and I use a 23cm cake tin, so it takes about 35 minutes to cook for me. If you have a gentler oven or a smaller tin then it can take up to an hour. After half an hour, keep an eye on it. You want it springy to touch and just starting to crack along the top. Take it out, let it rest for ten minutes, then get it out the tin and turn it upside down so it’s flat-side up, ready to ice.
- Once you’ve got the cake out, start making the icing. You want to ice the cake while it’s still warm so that it runs off nicely. Put the butter, sugar, and water in a pan on medium heat and heat until there are no sugar crystals left – it should be smooth, not gritty. Keep an eye on it, though, so it doesn’t turn into caramel. Sieve the icing sugar and cocoa together. Pour the liquid mix into the powder mix gradually and whisk until you have smooth, glorious, fudgy icing. Tip it onto your cake, and push it down the sides. Decorate however you wish, although it’s perfectly delicious as is.