Or How to bake a cake between 9:30pm and 11pm
There is something quite sad about supermarket birthday cakes. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve certainly bought them before now – but it’s just not the same as a homemade cake. There’s a particular large supermarket that sells a rectangular sheet cake, decorated with sweet chocolate buttercream and stars that often makes an appearance at my workplace. It looks so promising, with swirls of icing along the edges, but it always seems disappointing. The sponge is damp and collapses easily. The icing is gruesomely sweet. Even the chocolate stars on the top are have that waxy quality, more cake covering than chocolate.
I am an unashamed snob about birthday cakes. They need to be homemade, or from a good bakery. It’s not a celebration if the cake is going to coat your mouth, give you a sugar crisis, and is made of palm oil and emulsifiers. And it’s not too hard to come up with something better than those options.
Rectangular tins are perfect for low-hassle birthday cake. No complicated turning out or layering, just leave it in the tin, cover with frosting and then pop the lid on to take it to the birthday destination. I have an old traybake tin from Lakeland that I tried for the first time the other day. Although the tin is a little thin, and the non-stick looks a little fragile, its killer feature is a plastic lid with a handle that clips onto the edges for transportation. But even without a bespoke lid, if the tin is deep enough to allow the cake and icing to sit below the rim, the whole thing can be wrapped in cling film (plastic wrap) for transport.
It’s even possible to make a birthday cake if you’ve been to the pub after work and don’t get home until a bit late (as long as you’re fairly sober). Here’s how to make a late-night birthday cake:
- Get in the door at 9:20pm
- Immediately switch on oven, and get butter out of the fridge. Cold butter and sponge cakes don’t work well together.
- Find Smitten Kitchen’s cookbook because you remember she has a sheet cake recipe in there (basically this one, but scaled down).
- Find the weight of butter needed, and weigh it onto a plate. Put this into a microwave for two minutes on the lowest, lowest setting so it can soften.
- Go back to the book and check that you really do have all the ingredients called for before you go any further. Yes, it seems OK. The only tricky one is buttermilk, but that can be taken care of with the last of the yoghurt, combined with some milk.
- Dig out your traybake tin and check it is roughly the right dimensions. 20 x 30 cm is a typical size for a traybake recipe, but after last week and the coconut cake, I want to make sure this is deep as well. Put a piece of parchment paper in the tin – not only to stop sticking but to protect the non-stick from scratching when the cake is cut!
- (Remember you haven’t had dinner yet, and re-heat the leftover curry)
- Prepare the rest of the ingredients: whisk flour with the baking powder and salt in a bowl. Get the eggs from the fridge and immerse in a little bowl of warm water from the tap – everything as close to room temperature as possible. Whisk the yoghurt and milk together in a jug to make them smooth.
- Once the butter is soft, add it to the bowl and mix it a few times to make sure it’s creamy. Weigh the sugar straight into the bowl and set the mixer running for a good five minutes or so. The mixture needs to become pale and fluffy, not sandy, and as there’s a lot of sugar in proportion to the butter, this takes a while. Don’t rush this bit – everything else is easier if you get this right. Go and eat dinner.
- Once you have this fluffy state, add the eggs one by one (drying them so they don’t drip into the bowl). If you’re sensible, you would crack them into a cup or ramekin first, to make sure you don’t get shell in the mix. (I go for speed and crack them straight over the mixing bowl.) Mix in one at a time, until you get back to that fluffy looking mixture. Add the vanilla.
- Now the job is to get in all the flour and the yoghurt/milk without either a) overworking the mixture once the flour is in, b) leaving big patches unmixed, or c) having it all curdle. A good rule is to alternate the two – one third of the flour; mix; half the liquid; mix; one third more flour; mix; rest of the liquid; mix; rest of the flour. This makes sure that nothing overwhelms the mixture at any one time.
- Once it’s all in (and you’re sure that you got the edges of the bowl mixed in too), scrape it all into the tin, smooth to the corners and bake. By now it’s about 10pm.
- While the cake is baking, make some icing. The treacle chocolate fudge frosting on this page is a good option (I made it without the yolks and water, and with creme fraiche and 2 tablespoons extra icing sugar added). It uses a base of cornflour-thickened chocolate custard, with more chocolate mixed in while warm. Cover and leave until the morning. A simple buttercream of butter and icing sugar would also work.
- When the cake is evenly golden on top, and a cocktail stick comes out clean, take it out and put onto a cooling rack. After about 10–15 minutes cooling in the tin, turned it out to cool, leaving the parchment still on the bottom. Leave to cool overnight and go to bed.