Cake in the shape of …

My son’s class is having a bake-off in aid of a cancer charity, and he has begged me to take part.

This is problematic. I don’t do pretty cake. I do tasty cake – I’ve shown you the brownie and the ginger cake; I also like making lemon drizzle or rice crispie cake (of which more later) or Victoria sponge or rocky road or millionaire’s shortbread. I like making these because I like eating them. I do the kind of cake that makes people say “Well, you can tell it’s home made. Is there any more?”

Occasionally I am called upon to make a cake in a Shape. Children have birthdays and ask for cakes with knights and dragons, or jungle animals, or a tv character. And we sigh, and remember that it’s an honour and a compliment to be asked … and stay up until stupid o’clock swearing we’ll never touch fondant again.

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However, there are some workarounds. Pictured is an example of a “jungle animals” cake as requested by my then-3-year-old. No fondant modelling, just liberal buttercream to cover up the architecture. A number three is relatively easily carved out of two round cakes – practise first using any paper you can find, cut into circles the size of your tins, then use that as a template and use a bread knife to cut the excess away.

Redundant cake. Oh dear.

It was also remarkably easy to slice because it was effectively a big long thin shape. Don’t try to be clever – slice a party cake into a grid, or for small parties send a chunk home so everyone gets some.

Or forget shaping altogether and go for a very few easy models and a bit of imagination. A few Lego men go a long way, as do fondant ants. Oh the ants.

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Since then, though, I’ve learned the trick for Making A Shape Cake: don’t use cake. Use rice krispie cake, greased foodsafe gloves (or greased sandwich bags but that’s more fiddly) and mould while it’s still warm.

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Two bags of dairy toffees, unwrapped (the most laborious part of the make)
One bag of marshmallows
Some butter
Box of puffed rice cereal

Melt the toffees in a large bowl – I used a microwave on one-minute blasts. When they are nearly melted, add the marshmallows and a knob of butter and heat again until all melted.

Quickly mix together, then fold in the rice cereal around 100g at a time, until the toffee mixture is well distributed.

Put on your plastic gloves (or sandwich bags) and rub on a further knob of butter as though you’re applying hand cream. Liberally, all over. Then take handfuls of the mixture and mould into the shape you need. Work quickly and smoothly, and leave to set.

This makes good rock, walls, clouds, etc. You can fondant or ice over the top if you are just using it architecturally, but you need to let it cool first.


My birthday cake? Listen: I have three sons. My next birthday cake is going to be a classic Barbie doll with a ball dress made of sponge and badly-piped buttercream, because I’m not sure I’ll get to make one otherwise. And it’s going to be a bit wonky, but it’s going to be tasty cake, too.



Happy Half Birthday

When you are small, it’s an awfully long time between birthdays, and the difference in age between four and four and a half is very significant.

In our family we mark half birthdays, so that the children know precisely when they can start to say “… and a half”. We mark the day with a half-birthday half cake.

The first time I posted about half-birthday half cakes on Facebook, a friend (who is an accomplished baker and usually quite bright) asked where I had bought my half-circle cake tins. I think she felt a bit daft when I said I had baked a round cake and cut it in half…

This week we are celebrating an adult half birthday – since ordinarily we adults avoid sugar where possible, we do tend to jump at any remotely legitimate excuse for cake.

The half-birthday boy or girl chooses the flavour and decoration of the cake. Previous examples have included a green-iced chocolate cake with fire-breathing dragon (optical illusion with a toy dragon and half a cake candle), and more recently a “Horrible Histories” cake – a chocolate cake with mint chocolate buttercream and “HH” in mini marshmallows (and mint green edible glitter, which isn’t really visible in the photo).

HH cake

One of the chief benefits of a half cake, incidentally, is that the two end slices of an iced half cake are extra frosted (top and two of three sides). I’m not a big fan of icing, but many people are.

To work, then. The cake is to be ginger, with chocolate truffle filling. I need to control the sweetness of the truffle, so it doesn’t overpower the ginger, so I shall be using dark chocolate and lemon essence. Alternatively, try whisky, or coffee and chilli. You don’t taste the latter two they just dial down the sugar and dial up the ginger.

The cake recipe is adapted from The Perfect Cookbook by David Herbert.


60g butter or baking spread

125g golden syrup

100g plain flour

25g self-raising flour

1tsp bicarbonate of soda

2-3 heaped tsp ground ginger

1-2 tsp mixed spice

1tsp ground chilli (optional)

100g caster sugar

125ml milk

1 egg

160ml double cream

75g dark chocolate

2-3 drops lemon essence or 5-10ml single malt

Preheat the oven to 170 C and line a 20cm (8″) round tin.

Melt together the butter and syrup.

Combine the flour, sugar, bicarb and spices. Mix in the milk and egg, and when well mixed add the butter mixture. Mix well – the result will be very runny, like cream.

Pour into the lined tin and bake for 50-55 minutes, when a skewer will emerge clean, and the top is dark, springy and shiny.

After five minutes, remove from the tin and cool on a rack. When cool, cut into two equal semi-circles.

Beat the cream to stiff peaks, then melt the chocolate. Fold the chocolate into the cream with the lemon essence (or whisky), then use the mixture to sandwich the cake.

Leave to set.

lucy cake

The cake can be baked into a large loaf tin (it goes sort of sticky like Jamaican Ginger Cake from a shop) or into individual bun cases (in which case cooking time is drastically reduced – check after fifteen minutes).

The basic truffle mixture (cream, chocolate, flavouring) can be used as a rich trifle layer or as tart filling (bake the case blind, fill with truffle filling and top with fruit or nuts as desired). With alcohol you need very little to flavour a large quantity so be frugal. You can use white or milk chocolate instead of dark, to taste or for visual impact – or even try marbling – but they are very sweet.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have spoons to lick.

Chocolate and cherries

I love playing with my food – that is, taking a recipe and messing with it and saying “hmm, what if…?” Having people over is a perfect excuse for experimentation, and most friends don’t mind being a guineapig.

We had a slightly retro Christmas as far as food went, and I was dying to make a proper black forest gateau, following Delia’s recipe from How To Cook. But too many people claimed not to like cream cakes, so I made a big vulgar trifle instead. It was amazing, though I say it myself.

But I couldn’t give up on the Black Forest completely, so when two friends came round for supper I decided to go for an unusual version I’d been building in my head – the Black Forest brownie.

This was the simple, last-minute version, involving a slab of normal chocolate brownie (using the Hummingbird Bakery Traditional Brownie recipe), a tin of black cherry pie filling, half a pint of double cream, and about 50g of dark chocolate. I dolloped the pie filling lumps on to the brownie, reserving some of the sludge. I whipped the cream to stiff peaks, then folded in the sludge, and carefully added this on top, before grating the chocolate over – I use a rotary grater for this kind of job, which incidentally is perfectly safe for the preschooler to use, when I feel inclined to let him join in.

Et voila! Not beautiful, not gourmet, but very rich and very tasty.

However, it did need tweaking, and was boozeless because of its audience. Here, therefore, is the recipe I would recommend if you feel tempted.

200g dark chocolate, roughly chopped
175g unsalted butter or baking spread
325g caster sugar
130g plain flour
3 eggs
a tin of black cherry pie filling
or a punnet of frozen black fruits
300ml double cream
100g dark chocolate
1tbsp cherry liqueur or brandy

Preheat the oven to 170C/325F/Gas 3.

Melt together the chocolate and butter using a bain marie or microwave.

Add the sugar and stir really well until incorporated, then add the flour and then stir really well.

Add the eggs and mix until thick and smooth, then pour the mixture into an 8″ round springform tin (preferably lined with silicon paper).

Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until it starts to crack and flake on top. Leave to cool and set.

If you have chosen to use fresh or frozen fruit, soften in a pan with a spoonful of sugar, then leave to cool.

Whip the cream to stiff peaks. Melt the chocolate, then fold it into the cream with the booze.

Carefully spoon out on top of the brownie, still in the tin.

Next, spoon the fruit mixture over the top.

Chill and leave to set. Just before serving, release from its tin, and dust with icing sugar or grated chocolate.

It will look more like cheesecake, but taste nothing like. Try it with me!