If I’m craving a cake, chances are I’m craving chocolate cake. Were someone, well Fran probably, to ask me what kind of birthday cake I want, I’ll say chocolate. Yes, I like chocolate. I like cake. I like chocolate cake.
But strangely, despite decades of baking and consuming chocolate cakes, I’ve never found a go-to recipe. A recipe so easy, reliable and rewarding that I don’t even have to think about it. Discussing this with my mum the other day, she asked if she’d ever given me an old Katie Stewart recipe called Quick-mix chocolate cake. Not that I recalled.
I like Stewart’s recipes. She died in 2013, and was somewhat out of fashion. But if you’ve ever seen or owned one of her recipe books, chances are it’ll be well-thumbed. She was one of those British writers food writers of a certain age, along with Prue Leith and Delia Smith1, born in or just before the Second World War, who produced practical, no-nonsense recipes.
Sometimes I like my recipes with a little more context and colourful images, but often I just want to reach for the recipe, forgo any preamble, grab the ingredients from store cupboard and fridge and get on with it. Stewart wrote for The Times from 1966, a year before my parents married and four years before I was born. She continued to do so until 1978, and my mum assiduously collected the cuttings in a yellow ring binder and used them a lot during my childhood. She still has it, still uses it. So yes, I had to try this recipe. Stewart was a big part of my upbringing and food education.
What is buttermilk?
Buttermilk is readily available from supermarkets these days – or at least the cultured version, as opposed to the liquid left from churning cream to make butter. This is what I first learned was buttermilk, when making butter while living at Newton Livery then Old Man Mountain farms in New Zealand in the early-mid 1990s. This is called “traditional buttermilk” and is unlikely to be available to you unless you’re churning cream.
If you really can’t find cultured buttermilk, I suspect (though I’ve yet to try. Watch this space*) you could make this using yogurt. A little Googling suggests a ratio of three parts yogurt thinned with one part milk. As you’re using alkaline baking soda as a raising agent, it needs an acid to react with, to produce the carbon dioxide that gives lift. Both cultured buttermilk and yogurt are acids, though they’re fermented with different bacteria giving rise to their different qualities2.
Here’s the recipe. I’ve converted it to new money and reduced the sugar.
225g plain flour
55g cocoa powder
5g bicarbonate of soda
2g fine salt
250g caster sugar
112g butter, softened
2 large eggs (about 120g beaten egg)
1. Grease and line two 18 or 20cm. (Smaller will be taller, larger will be flatter.)
2. Preheat the oven to 180C.
3. Sift the flour, cooca and bicarb into a bowl.
4. Beat together the sugar and softened butter.
5. Add the buttermilk and beaten egg.
6. Add the sieved powder and stir in.
7. Beat to combine thoroughly, for about a minute.
8. Divide between the tins.
9. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until firm to the touch.
10. Cool in tins for 10 mins then turn out and cool on racks.
11. “Sandwich the layers with buttercream or chocolate frosting.”
I had some chocolate frosting in the freezer. I can’t remember what recipe I’d used to make it. I also had some cream cheese frosting left over from the Raver’s birthday. Both needed using up. I mixed them and added a dash more cocoa. Twas delicious, and probably fairly unrepeatable. I love those using-up-leftovers accidents. Any good frosting or buttercream will do.
I’m not entirely sure this will become my go-to chocolate cake recipe. As Stewart said in the cutting, it’s a “light-textured cake”, and sometimes I want rich and fudgy, sometimes I just want the ground nuts goodness of a Sachertorte or torta caprese. But I will be using this again, as it is indeed easy and reliable. Good old Stewart.
1. Obviously not everything. The earlier stuff by Smith, notably The Complete Cookery Course (c1980) is essential. How to Cheat at Cooking (2008) not so much.
2. Lactococcus lactis or Lactobacillus bulgaricus for buttermilk, Lactobacillus delbrueckii subspecies bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus and others for yogurt.
* I tried it. 105g yogurt mixed with 35g milk. It worked fine. Can’t quite put my finger on how different it was.