We are just under three weeks into lockdown proper, and I’ve noticed that we have begun to write about food in a different way. This is, of course, in part due to the fact that most of us have struggled to get hold of certain ingredients we previously took for granted, that the ability to ‘just nip to the shops’ to pick up a forgotten item is no longer there. But it’s more than that.
We write – I think, I hope – about food more carefully, more cautiously, more aware of our own privileges (knowledge, time, a full larder). Or at least we do if we’re doing it right. We carve up old recipes, caveat them. When I write about cooking now, I feel like I am scribbling handwritten annotations all over older, more formal typed work: drop this, swap that, don’t worry about these bits.
But it’s not all panic and compromise: there’s also a liberation, a generosity. Chefs and food writers have taken to social media, offering recipes up freely where previously they might have clutched them guardedly, in the hope that they might provide an answer, or a reassurance, or a small joy, maybe a distraction or just a form of sustenance. And there’s something rather nice about saying: OK, this is how I made it, but there are a dozen things you can do differently and still end up with something delicious. It might be different, but it will still be good.
It is in that spirit that this week’s recipe is for a chocolate cake that is not a terribly traditional chocolate cake. But that is its charm. It uses only one egg, no butter and, most magically, absolutely no chocolate. Instead, it uses cocoa powder and boiling water: the boiling water releases a deeper, rounder flavour from the cocoa, which is enhanced by vanilla, a little strong coffee, and a pinch of salt. The cake’s flavour is a little like that of a packet mix of brownies – which is not to diminish it, but to signal its fudgy darkness. Feel free to swap the sugar for whatever you have: caster, granulated, even dark brown sugar would work here, or a mixture of whatever’s in your cupboards. The flour can be swapped for plain flour with an additional two teaspoons of baking powder, and the cocoa powder can be reduced as low as 50g.
Unsurprisingly, given the 485ml of combined milk, oil and boiling, the batter is extremely liquid. Don’t be disconcerted by this, it will bake into a wonderful, tender, springy sponge. But, thanks to the thinness of the batter, you can’t make this cake with a loose-based cake tin, as the batter will slip out and coat the bottom of your oven. Instead you need either a fixed-base cake tin, or a cake tin which has suction between its base and sides. You could also use two 8 inch sandwich tins, divide the mixture between the two, and reduce the cooking time to 25 minutes.
This cake is delightful naked: almost black in colour, squidgy, and fragrant. But an iced cake is an inherently cheering thing – and there are a bunch of options for decorations. Make a simple buttercream with two parts icing sugar and one part butter. Flavour that with orange zest or rum, or fold through peanut butter, Nutella, or a shot of really strong coffee. If you have no icing sugar, you could try ‘Depression-era buttercream’, which I discovered through the food historian and former Great British Bake Off contestant Mary-Ann Boermans. It uses almost equal parts butter, caster sugar and milk, and thickens with plain flour: terribly clever. If you’re lucky enough to have chocolate and cream, heat the cream up to steaming and pour over an equal weight of broken-up chocolate, stirring to make a simple ganache. If you’re all out of dairy, try jam. Sachertorte shows us that apricot jam and dark chocolate is an excellent combination, although I’m rather partial to pineapple jam as a sandwiching layer. In truth, I can’t think of a jam you might have lying around that wouldn’t compliment the chocolate flavours (apart from perhaps onion jam; I’d give that a miss).
No-chocolate chocolate cake
Makes: 1 eight inch cake
Takes: 5 minutes
Bakes: 50 minutes
200g self-raising flour
300g light brown sugar
1.5 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
85g cocoa powder
200ml boiling water
85ml vegetable oil
½ teaspoon vanilla paste
25ml strong coffee
½ teaspoon salt
- Preheat the oven to 160°C and line a deep, fixed-base, 8 inch cake with greaseproof paper.
- Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and gently whisk together until the mixture is smooth. Pour the batter into the tin.
- Bake for 50 minutes, until the cake is risen, the top is taut and, when pressed gently with a finger, springs back.
While still warm, carefully run a knife around the edge of the cake, then leave to cool completely, before turning out of the tin.