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Christmas Kitchen: Chocolate, Cherry & Cognac New Years Cake
As many of you probably know, cake baking is not really my thing. I can do loaf cakes that (mostly) come out cooked through without soggy middles, and if someone asks me to bake a cake, I can pretty much, 99% guarantee it will be some flavour variation on the classic Victoria Sponge. I’m a cook, not a baker. I do flavours, not sugar work. So, you’ll be really pleased to hear that this fun, festive New Years Eve countdown cake flavoured with chocolate, cherry and cognac can be mastered by even the most nervous bakers, and really is just an idiot-proof, decorated Victoria Sponge, inspired by my childhood birthday cakes.
Back when I was small enough to have the type of birthday party on the Saturday afternoon closest to March 21st with party dresses, pass the parcel and party bags, pretty much every year my parents made me what we called the ‘Hickory Dickory Dock Cake’ It was a square chocolate cake, with a white icing clock face, showing the age I was turning on the minute hands, with the rest covered in little chocolate buttercream stars. The sides of the cake were decorated with Cadbury’s chocolate fingers, and the cake board was also iced with plain white sugar icing. Leftover buttercream created a chain at the bottom with Tunnock’s tea cakes as the pendulum, and there were little meringue mice arranged around the cake. This is the grown up version.
I’ve sandwiched together my favourite Mary Berry chocolate sponge recipe with a traditional buttercream (spiked with a load of cognac, though you could also use brandy to the same effect) and a good dollop of cherry jam. The only delicate part is smoothing buttercream across the top to make a clock face, because it honestly does not matter how messy you get the sides of the cake as you’re ringing it with chocolate fingers (and trust me, my cake is a carnage of stray crumbs, mixed jam and uneven buttercream under there!) You want white fingers for the best flavour in your cake, but for full striking, visual effect try to get the Christmas edition ones that have milk chocolate bottoms. You could always alternate white and milk, but I always get scared I’ll have an uneven pattern at the end when I do that! Also, to do the numbers there was no way I was going to mess around with intricate piping nozzles. Buy a chocolate writing icing pen (the type you melt by putting the tube in hot water then snip off the end) and be done with it!
You can always make the sponges a day ahead, but be sure to keep them in a tin rather than wrapping them in kitchen wrap or cling film – this will only make them more moist, usually a good thing, but this will make it a disaster to decorate as your buttercream will keep on picking up crumbs! You can easily get up to 12 slices out of the cake. For even cutting, I use the fingers as a guide and allow four for each slice.
Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees (350 fahrenheit) and line two 2 x 20cm (8 inch) cake tins with a ring of baking parchment in the bottom.
Using a hand whisk or a food mixer, beat together the cocoa powder and boiling water until you have a smooth paste, then add the rest of the cake ingredients. Beat until the batter is just smooth, and evenly divide them between the cake tins.
Shake each tin a little to get rid of any air bubbles, and bake for 25-30 minutes until the sponge springs back from your touch and you can insert the tip of a sharp knife or cake tester into the middle, and it comes out clean. Only check the cakes by opening the oven door after 20 minutes, or they may sink in the middle. Set them aside to cool on a wire wrack, removing them from the tin as soon as the metal has cooled enough to touch.
Meanwhile, make the buttercream by beating together the room temperature butter, icing sugar and cognac with a wooden spoon until smooth.
To assemble the cake, place the flattest sponge on a cake stand. Spread over 1/4 of the buttercream, followed by an equal amount of jam, keeping about 1 cm clean around the edges. The jam will spread out when you put the other sponge on top.
Smooth another 1/4 of the buttercream over the top of the cake, trying to keep a clean, smooth surface, and bringing it over the edge of the sponge for a tidy finish.
Coat the sides of the cake with the remaining buttercream to create sides the chocolate fingers will stick to, and press them around the edge of the cake, taking care to keep them upright.
Follow the instructions on the chocolate writing icing to activate it, and draw on the clock face, and set the time at a few minutes to twelve. Sprinkle the clock face with edible gold stars, and serve.
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