David Lebovitz once said that the best thing about being a pastry chef is that your kitchen colleagues have to be nice to you 364 days a year. Why? Because on the 365th they want you to bake them a birthday cake. While I’m no pastry chef and have never worked in a commercial kitchen, when it comes to baking cakes for friends, I know exactly where he’s coming from.
One of the things I love most about baking is being able to share what I make with those around me. A cake can be a talking point, a celebration in itself and (for me anyway) often a better way of expressing love for the person in question than any other present might be. Birthday cakes are particularly personal, the one opportunity each year to take centre stage, to call the shots, to cut yourself the biggest slice, eat seconds and thirds and lick off extra icing if you should so choose (not, of course, that I’d ever do something like that . . .)
Almost exactly a year ago, I drove this toffee popcorn cake over to Tooting to give to one of my oldest friends (in terms of how far we go back, rather than ‘oldest’ implying anything to do with her age). In the unseasonally warm sunshine we sat out in the garden and ate thick slices from pale blue crockery with silver teaspoons, enjoying the crunchy popcorn, the toffee sweetness, the surprising hidden pop.
Twelve months have passed and the girl in question is now not only an even older friend, but also one of my bridesmaids to be. As her birthday drew closer, the question of a cake came around and I asked if she had any particular flavour or inspiration which I could work with. The answer? Reese’s peanut butter cups, an absolute favourite of the birthday girl’s (and half of the rest of the world it would seem if you have a look online).
When it comes to peanut butter-based recipes, America reigns supreme. Stateside blogs are filled with amazing peanut butter creations, from the sublime to the ridiculous (think double Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup stuffed chocolate chip cookies), but after a lot of Googling (and a little drooling) I decided to stick with something that was classic, simple and delicious.
The chocolate cake I’ve used for the base is that chocolate cake. The first time I made this cake, I tarted it up with a whiskey syrup, wondering whether the extra soaking is what made it so wonderfully moist. It certainly adds a little something, but the unadorned batter is every bit as deliciously damp and darkly chocolaty, the perfect foil for a thick, creamy, slightly salty, whipped peanut butter frosting.
The frosting recipe comes from Annie’s Eats. If you’ve not yet discovered her blog, you’re in for a treat. Annie’s baking and cakes are second to none and her various buttercream recipes (chocolate chip cookie dough buttercream anyone?) are out of this world. This frosting is no exception: sweet and salty, light and fluffy, rich and nutty and utterly delicious.
After a couple of friends cancelled at the last minute, we were left with a whole cake to consume between just five people on the actual day. We made valiant inroads and the rest was wrapped up by the restaurant in giant parcels to take away. I can confirm that the (slightly squashed) cake was as deliciously decadent the next day. If not more so (though this may be something to do with the fact that it was eaten for breakfast).
Apologies for the slightly boring snaps of a single slice of cake and lack of a full photo showing it in all its peanut butter cup studded glory. I hadn’t actually planned to blog this recipe, but embarking on the final slice I realised it was too delicious not to share and quickly took a couple of photos before forking the remains into my mouth.
Chocolate Peanut Butter Birthday Cake
(makes one two tier 20cm round cake)
For the cakes
225g plain flour
350g caster sugar
85g cocoa powder
1½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
2 large free range eggs
250ml full fat milk milk
125ml vegetable oil
2 tsp vanilla extract
250ml boiling water
For the frosting (from Annie’s Eats)
175ml double cream, chilled
390g icing sugar, sifted
335g unsalted butter, at room temperature
255g creamy peanut butter
1 heaped tsp vanilla extract
Pinch of coarse sea salt
Peanut butter cups, quartered (or mini peanut butter cups, halved)
For the cakes
Preheat the oven to 180C. Grease and line two 20cm round cake tins.
Place all of the ingredients, except the boiling water, into the bowl of a free standing mixer. Beat until well combined. You could also do this in a large mixing bowl with an electric whisk or wooden spoon.
Add the boiling water to the mixture, a little at a time, until smooth. Don’t worry if the cake batter looks very liquid, this is how it should be.
Divide the cake batter between the tins and bake in the oven for 25-35 minutes, or until the top is firm to the touch and a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.
Remove the cakes from the oven and allow to cool completely in their tins before icing.
For the frosting
Combine the double cream and 30g icing sugar in a large clean bowl and whisk until light, fluffy, stiff peaks form. Be careful not to overmix.
In an electric stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the butter and peanut butter. (You could also do this with a wooden spoon and a bit of elbow grease.) Beat on medium-high speed until smooth, about 45 seconds.
Add the remaining icing sugar to the bowl a little at a time, mixing slowly so it doesn’t all billow up in the air. Once loosely combined, turn the speed to full and beat for 2 minutes.
Add the vanilla extract and salt, and continue to whip on high speed until very fluffy, about 4-5 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.
Using a large spatula or metal spoon, gently fold one third of the whipped cream into the peanut butter mixture before adding the rest and folding carefully to combine.
Place one cake on a serving plate or cake board, securing with a small amount of frosting. Spoon approximately one third of the frosting onto the cake and smooth over the whole surface, allowing some to spill over the edges.
Top with the second cake and spoon over another third of frosting, smoothing it flat to form the ‘crumb coat’. Pop in the fridge to firm up for 30 minutes or so, then apply practically all of the final third of the frosting to create a smooth layer. Reserve a little frosting to pipe round the top edges if you like then stud with pieces of peanut butter cup.
The frosting starts to soften if left out of the fridge for too long so serve immediately or keep somewhere cool, a larder would be ideal.