Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Chocolate-smeared cheeks

For non-religious types, like me, Easter is only really about one thing. And one gloriously decadent and indulgent thing at that. Chocolate! Chocolate eggs, chocolate cakes, chocolate shredded wheat nests and, possibly best of all, the chocolate-smeared cheeks of children. OK, so traditionally it's Simnel cake that people make at this time of year, but marzipan and candied peel just don't cut it for the under 10s. And I'm not sure they really do for me either, if truth be told.

I can't think of many greater pleasures than bursting open a hollow chocolate egg using only the power of your jaws. Which brings me on to one of my biggest Easter gripes. Why do so many eggs, nowadays, come in two halves? That's not the point at all! You're supposed to be able to bite the top off. AND this action absolutely must contain a small element of struggle (if only in the discovery of the least ungainly approach) to maximise feelings of chocolate-conquering pleasure. Once the top of your egg's off, you can push and pull at pieces of fractured chocolate, so that some fall inside and rattle around like loose change in a piggy bank, which can, of course, only be retrieved by holding the egg upside down and shaking it over your wide open mouth. I like Easter.

This year, I cooked for 13 (including two small boys) which inevitably included various hurdles concerning dietary obstacles: allergies, intolerances and general fussiness. There were at least two options for every course to ensure that everyone there could find something to sate them. Pea and ham soup or pea and mint soup to start. Kleftico lamb with lemon sticky potatoes or rosemary and garlic studded roast lamb with Madeira gravy and gratin dauphinois, both served with various vegetables, for main. Pistachio meringues with passion fruit cream topped with fresh berries, or vanilla roasted pears (made with xylitol - a natural sweetener made from wood or berries rather than sugar cane or beat). All of this was then followed by chocolate Easter cake.

Almost everyone loves chocolate cake and those that don't can't have had a good one. It is entirely possible to go your whole life in Britain, mistaking chocolate cake for that quintessentially British abomination that I like to call brown cake. Brown cake starts its sorry little life with great potential: butter, eggs, caster sugar and self-raising flour. If, at this point in its cakey journey, a slug of vanilla extract was thrown into the mix, I'd start to get interested. But, alas, it isn't to be, as brown cake has a far less joyous fate. Instead, a dusting of cocoa is added, just enough to dye the cake a pale and pathetic shade of brown, but not enough to actually add much in the way of flavour. I can't abide anything which tastes of nothing. Lemon cakes should be lemon-y, vanilla cakes should be vanilla-y and chocolate cakes should taste of chocolate and not of the colour brown. The chocolate cake below contains actual chocolate and actual cocoa and, as a result, actually tastes chocolate-y, but don't be scared. This cake is a crowd pleaser with all, from dark chocolate lovers and children, right through to the "everything's a bit rich" brigade. In essence, this cake targets a wide demographic. It is pleasingly dark in colour due to the dark muscovado sugar, which also lends a toffee-depth to its character. The cake is sticky, but in no way sickly and it is chocolate-y without a trace of bitterness. It is a cake as happily scoffed by two year olds as ninety year olds and has converted many over the years who have professed not to be chocolate cake fans. For Easter, there could only be one appropriate topper: an egg-filled chocolate (shredded wheat) nest. I couldn't seem to get my hands on any mini eggs this year, so I had to opt for mini salted caramel sugar coated eggs from Artisan du Chocolat instead. Shame. You can stick to mini eggs if economy is necessary, but if you have got the means to splash out a little extra, I'm not sure there is a more delicious way to spend it.

This cake is incredibly versatile and has been made for countless birthdays and parties and all the other times when nothing else but chocolate cake will do. Halve the quantity for 6" sandwich tins, double it for 10" or use the amount given below for cupcakes. It will make more than 12, but this cake batter is unusual in that it doesn't seem to suffer much for sitting around for a bit and, besides, this is a fast-cooking cake and if made into cupcakes, they won't need much longer than 10 minutes in a moderate oven.

Chocolate Easter Cake
Preheat the oven to 180 C/ 160 C for Fan-assisted. Grease and line two 8" (20 cm) sandwich tins.


for the cake

4 oz/ 100 g good quality dark chocolate
9 oz/ 225 g dark muscovado sugar
7 fl. oz whole milk
3 oz/ 75 g unsalted butter, softened
2 eggs, beaten
A generous splash of vanilla extract
1 oz/ 25 g good quality cocoa (I used Green & Blacks)
5 oz/ 125 g plain flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
A pinch of salt

for the buttercream

4 oz/ 100 g good quality dark chocolate, melted
4 oz/ 100 g softened, unsalted butter
7 oz/ 175 g icing sugar (made from sugar cane rather than beat)
A splash of milk

for the chocolate nest

2 oz/ 50 g good quality dark chocolate, melted
2 shredded wheats, broken up


for the cake
  • Place the chocolate, 3 oz/ 75 g of the sugar and the milk in a saucepan over a low flame, until the sugar and chocolate have melted. Allow to cool slightly.
  • Beat the butter with the remaining sugar.
  • Gradually beat in the eggs and stir in the vanilla and salt.
  • Whisk in the melted chocolate, sugar and milk.
  • Sift over the dry ingredients and fold in.
  • Pour the batter into your prepared tins and bake for 20- 25 mins, or until an inserted skewer comes out clean.
  • Leave the cakes to cool in their tins for 10 minutes on a wire rack, before turning them out to cool completely.
for the buttercream
  • Beat the butter until really pale and creamy.
  • Sift over half the sugar and beat again.
  • Sift over the remaining sugar and beat until thoroughly combined.
  • Whisk in the melted chocolate and beat with an electric whisk for a couple of minutes, add the milk to slacken the mixture if necessary and whisk again.
  • Place one sandwich of your cake on your serving plate and spread 1/3 of the buttercream over the top. Place the other cake on top and use the remaining buttercream to coat the entire cake.
for the chocolate nest
  • Stir the shredded wheat into the melted chocolate, until thoroughly coated. If you get a child to do this bit, make sure the chocolate has cooled sufficiently first.
  • On a piece of baking parchment, shape the shredded wheat to look like a bird's nest, with a hollowed dip in the centre to rest your eggs in.
  • Leave to set.
  • Once set, carefully transfer the nest to the top of your cake and place some pretty chocolate eggs inside.
  • The cake will keep in an airtight container for up to a week.

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