I recently offered to help out at a kid’s birthday party and somehow ended up with the task of making the actual birthday cake. My first thought was to make Nigella Lawson’s Old-Fashioned Chocolate Cake, a simple two-tiered chocolate cake covered in a thick, chocolate frosting with maybe some (shop-bought) sugar flowers for decoration. Simple. I had made this cake many times before and knew it to be a very reliable recipe.
But as ran my eyes across my sprawling bookshelf of cookbooks, the Miette cookbook caught my eye and, before I could think about it reasonably, I sent a link to my friend to see if she approved of the Tomboy Cake, to which she replied that it was the most beautiful cake she had ever seen. And so I had unwittingly set myself an almost impossibly high challenge and wondered over the coming days how I was going to avoid disappointing the birthday girl.
The Tomboy Cake is comprised “simply” of three tiers of chocolate sponge, separated by a piped layer of raspberry buttercream, and elegantly adorned with an understated rose in the centre of the cake. It is called a “Tomboy Cake” because the sides of the cake are left bare and unfrosted, and thereby does not appear as feminine as it would if the whole cake were to be covered in pink frosting. It is a stunning cake to look at and equally deceptive in the level of skill required to achieve such a simple look.
In fact, many of the cakes throughout the Miette cookbook are beautiful and understated. One flick through the book and you almost want to try and recreate everything in it because they look so simple and elegant. But the main flaw with the Miette cookbook is the fact that it is terribly unreliable. I first pre-ordered the book on Amazon in 2011, and within a few weeks of receiving it, Amazon had sent me an email to inform that the book contained many errors and that a corrected version would be sent to me free of charge later in the year. Silly me didn’t discard the first copy and so I had a trying time working out which was the incorrect or correct copy. The Miette website wasn’t too much help either. The publisher’s notice containing the corrections didn’t match either copy which I had, but it gave me a good idea of which was the more updated version. That said, to have published two incorrect versions of the book is fairly poor, in my opinion, not least because one recipe which is affected is the Vanilla Buttercream, a recipe which is referred to throughout the book. It is a bit like receiving a treasured secret recipe, only to later discover that a key ingredient or crucial step is missing, just so your creation will never be like the original.
So knowing that the Vanilla Buttercream would present me with some challenges (especially since it was essentially an Italian meringue buttercream which I had never attempted before), I opted not to make the Double Chocolate Cake from the Miette cookbook, which forms the main component of the Tomboy Cake. A skim through the recipe reveals that the batter needs to be pushed through a sieve to remove lumps and I instantly felt that was too much trouble for me.
So I settled on making Nigella’s Old-Fashioned Chocolate Cake, but to frost it with Miette’s Raspberry Buttercream which is made by mixing the Vanilla Buttercream together with some raspberry juice for colour and flavour. Hence the reason why I have called this cake, the “Old-Fashioned Tomboy Cake”.
The cake itself was relatively stress-free, having been a recipe which I have used for many years. The Vanilla Buttercream, on the other hand, was fraught with complications which I will detail below in the recipe.
And the end result? Not the fault of Nigella nor the authors of Miette, but a rather shabby looking Tomboy Cake, courtesy of my clumsy piping skills. Not matter how much practice I did beforehand on a sheet of baking paper, I just could not perfect the simple piping around the edges, nor the smooth swirl on the face of the cake, twirling elegantly towards the centre. It probably didn’t help that it was about 30°C in my kitchen so that the buttercream was probably too soft to work with.
Once I had assembled both layers of cake, I asked for my husband’s opinion, showing him the cover of the Miette cookbook as a comparison. One look at his face said it all and I was just about to slather the entire cake (including the sides) in Raspberry Buttercream to remove any evidence of my embarrassing piping skills, when my inner self told me not to be such a perfectionist. It was, after all, my first attempt at making an Italian meringue buttercream, and my first attempt at frosting a cake with such a luxurious concoction. But please do not examine the photos too closely …
The cake was, thankfully, gratefully received, and as the party took place outdoors in a picnic setting, no one was really clamouring for an up-close view of the cake. The cake was very delicious and, after all that effort, I’m very glad that I attempted the Tomboy Cake. I still have a long way to go but this has certainly opened up a whole new world to me.
Old-Fashioned Tomboy Cake
It is best to start this cake at least the day before serving. This will give the cake time to firm up so that it is not too crumbly upon serving, and this will also give you time to make the Vanilla Buttercream in advance, and to also pipe a buttercream rose if you are not using a shop-bought sugar rose.
If you are pressed for time, or simply wish to avoid buying specialist piping nozzles to make the buttercream rose, a shop-bought sugar rose would be the stress-free option. I bought some as a back-up, and also because they came with some green sugar leaves which I used on the cake.
I made the cake using the following steps:
1. Make the Raspberry Juice
2. Bake the Old-Fashioned Chocolate Cake
3. Make the Vanilla Buttercream
4. Make the Raspberry Buttercream
5. Pipe the Buttercream Rose
6. Assemble the cake
Steps 1 to 5 were done the day before the party, and step 6 on the day of the party.
Step 1. Raspberry Juice
Recipe adapted from Miette by Meg Ray with Leslie Jonath
500 g (or 2 cups) fresh raspberries
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon sugar
Place the ingredients in a small saucepan and cook gently over low-medium heat until the berries have all broken down. This will take about 10 to 15 minutes.
Step 2. Old-Fashioned Chocolate Cake
Recipe adapted from Feast by Nigella Lawson
Ingredients for a 2-tier cake
200 g (7 oz) plain flour
200 g (7 oz) caster sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
40 g (1.5 oz) cocoa powder
175 g (6 oz) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
150 ml sour cream
Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).
Grease and line the bottom of two 20 cm (8 inch) cake tins.
Place all of the ingredients into a food processor and blitz until well combined. The mixture should be thick and smooth.
Alternatively, if you do not have a food processor, cream the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Mix in the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and cocoa powder. In a medium bowl or jug, whisk together the eggs, vanilla extract and sour cream. Add the liquid ingredients to the mixing bowl and beat until you have a thick and smooth batter.
Divide the batter between the two cake tins (approximately 440 g / 16 oz each).
Place the cake tins in the oven and bake for about 25 to 35 minutes, until a skewer inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.
Remove the cakes from the oven and leave to cool on a wire rack in their tins. When the cakes are completely cool, invert them onto the wire rack and remove the grease-proof paper. If the cakes are removed from the tin when they are still warm, there is a risk that they will crack and fall apart.
The cakes can be made a day in advance and left uncovered on the kitchen bench overnight.
Step 3. Vanilla Buttercream (Italian Meringue Buttercream)
Recipe adapted from Miette by Meg Ray with Leslie Jonath
2 cups (14 ounces) sugar
1/3 cup water
5 large egg whites
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
3 cups (1 1/2 pounds) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1-2 tablespoons vanilla extract
Due to the errors in the Miette book and inconsistency with the publisher’s note (as mentioned above), I was not very confident in making this Vanilla Buttercream which is, in essence, an Italian meringue buttercream. So thank goodness for YouTube because I came across this wonderful tutorial by Warren Brown. Although the recipe he uses is different to Miette’s, the method is somewhat similar and I found it helpful to see how his version of an Italian meringue buttercream is made. The method below is a mix of Warren Brown’s instructions, together with those found in the Miette cookbook.
Place the sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium heat. Insert a sugar thermometer (I use a digital thermometer) into the mixture and cook gently until the syrup reaches 238°F. This will take about 5 to 10 minutes.
Once the syrup reaches 238°F, immediately take the saucepan off the heat and set it aside.
Meanwhile, make sure the bowl of your stand-mixer and wire whisk are both spotlessly clean.
Gently whisk together the egg whites and cream of tartar on low speed.
Once the mixture starts to froth a little, increase the speed gradually to medium.
Once the mixture is both white and frothy, increase the speed and continue whisking until you have soft peaks.
If you have finished making the syrup and it has decreased in temperature, put the saucepan back on the stove and bring it back to 238°F.
With the stand-mixed on medium speed, slowly and gradually pour the syrup into the meringue from the side of the bowl, taking care not to pour the syrup directly on the whisk.
Once all of the syrup has been added, increase the speed to very high and continue whisking until the meringue cools to room temperature, about 70 to 75°F. The book says that this will take about 5 to 10 minutes.
Perhaps it was the due to the hot weather on the day that I made this meringue, but after 30 minutes of mixing on very high speed, my thermometer hovered around 90°F and I saw little chance of it decreasing.
During this lengthy whisking time, the meringue both increased in volume and then decreased, possibly due to the over-whisking. Upon touching the sides of the bowl, I felt that it was at room temperature, albeit a high room temperature due to the scorching weather (and lack of air-conditioning).
So I proceeded with the recipe, despite the fact that the meringue was warmer than it should have been.
Once you think the meringue is cool enough, turn the stand-mixer on medium speed and gradually add the butter, one tablespoon at a time. Once the tablespoon of butter has been incorporated, add the next tablespoon. Continue until all of the butter has been added.
If the mixture starts to look curdled, increase the speed and continue whisking until the buttercream is thick and smooth. Whisk in the vanilla extract.
Thankfully, my buttercream did not curdle, although I have read that it is a common problem which many people encounter when making either an Italian meringue buttercream or a Swiss meringue buttercream. My guess is that the curdling can occur if the meringue is too warm, or if the butter is too cold. With thanks to the summer heatwave temperatures we’ve been having, I think I was lucky that both my meringue and butter were at roughly the same temperature when combined.
And there you have the Vanilla Buttercream which can be used right away, or covered and put away in the fridge or freezer to use later.
Despite the concern over my over-whisking in an attempt to bring down the temperature of the meringue, I was quite relieved that the finished product looked perfect and tasted delicious.
The Vanilla Buttercream keeps well in the fridge for up to 1 week or in the freezer for up to 2 months in a freezer-lock bag.
The Vanilla Buttercream should be brought to room temperature before using. This takes about 1 hour if chilled and you should beat it well with a spatula or with the paddle attachment in a stand-mixer to make it soft and spreadable before using. If the mixture has been frozen, you can defrost it in the fridge overnight or carefully soften it in a heat-proof bowl over a pan of simmering water.
*Note: If, after chilling or frosting, you find that your buttercream has curdled upon beating, my suggestion would be to keep beating vigorously (preferably with a stand-mixer) until the mixture becomes smooth. Much like if the buttercream curdles once you have added the butter, the trick is to keep on beating as the buttercream will eventually come together in a smooth, creamy mass.
Step 4. Raspberry Buttercream
Recipe adapted from Miette by Meg Ray with Leslie Jonath
To cover a 3-tier cake, you need about 3 cups of the Vanilla Buttercream.
To cover a 2-tier cake, you need about 2 cups of the Vanilla Buttercream.
For each 1 cup of Vanilla Buttercream, stir in 3 tablespoons of Raspberry Juice.
Alternatively, you can add as much or as little Raspberry Juice as you like until you achieve the desired colour and flavour.
Step 5. Buttercream Rose
There are, unfortunately, no instructions in the Miette cookbook on how to make the beautiful roses which adorn so many of their cakes. If you wish to try your hand at making a buttercream rose, I found this incredibly helpful tutorial on YouTube by The Cake Eccentric.
My best advice is to work with buttercream which is recently cold, or to turn on the air-conditioning if you are lucky enough to have it. Once the buttercream starts to soften in the heat, or after you have worked with it for some time, your roses will start to look more like mushrooms and there is no point in continuing until you have returned the buttercream to the fridge to firm up again.
It is also a good idea to make 3 or 4 roses so that you have a selection to choose from later. So save your best roses and pop them in the fridge to firm up overnight. Once they are cold, they will be firm like cold butter and so relatively easy to place on your cake.
Step 6. To Assemble
Place one layer of chocolate cake on a cake stand (or cake board). Use a revolving cake stand if you have one, or place a damp cloth underneath. Brush off any crumbs so that you don’t have flecks of brown through your buttercream.
Fit a piping bag with a medium (1/2 or 5/8 inch) star tip and fill the bag with some Raspberry Buttercream.
Hold the bag at a 90-degree angle and pipe a ring of buttercream around the outer edge of the cake, leaving about a 1/8 inch border at the very edge. Slowly spiral inward and fill the centre of the cake with buttercream.
Using a small spatula, smooth the buttercream on the inside, leaving the edges untouched. Push the buttercream out very slightly as you smooth the centre.
Use a small teaspoon to scoop out a little hole in the centre of the cake to make room for the Buttercream Rose. Carefully nestle the Buttercream Rose in the hole, and arrange a leaf next to it. I used a shop-bought sugar leaf (which was, incidentally, the first thing to disappear from the cake!).
The cake should be served at room temperature when the buttercream is silky and soft. You can keep the frosted cake in the fridge and take it out about 3 to 4 hours before serving.
And wait, there’s more …
If you have ever laid eyes on the cover of the Miette cookbook, you will see that the beauty of the cake lies in its simplicity. The chocolate layers are perfectly even, bulging and voluptuous in form.
Once in a while when I bake two cakes at the same time in the oven, something happens while they are sitting side by side and one will come out of the oven looking a bit uneven, failing to have risen properly in the centre. It is not usually a big deal for me if I will be covering the whole cake in frosting later, providing me with an opportunity to level out the cake with some extra icing.
But this posed a problem for the Tomboy Cake as I definitely could not present a lop-sided cake to my friend, especially since I could foresee that my piping skills were already going to be amateurish.
So I halved the recipe for the Old-Fashioned Cake and proceeded to make one more layer, intending to keep the dodgy one for us to eat at home. But upon staring down at the finished Tomboy Cake, I thought the least I could do was perhaps bring a second cake in an attempt to distract everyone from the main centrepiece.
So I proceeded to make half the quantity of chocolate frosting from Nigella’s recipe to cover the lone, uneven layer, and decorated it with Smarties, copying a pattern which I have always eyed fondly from a cookbook by Bill Granger. The second cake hardly took any effort and was a splash of colour and fun next to the Tomboy Cake, perfect for a kid’s birthday party. Be prepared for the Smarties to disappear before it is time to cut the cake!
Recipe adapted from Feast by Nigella Lawson
Ingredients to frost a 2-tier cake (halve the quantities to frost a one-layer cake)
75 g (2.5 oz) unsalted butter, softened
175 g (6 oz) dark chocolate
300 g (11 oz) icing sugar
1 tablespoon golden syrup (or corn syrup)
125 ml (1/2 cup) sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Melt the butter and chocolate in a bain-marie, or a heat-proof bowl over a pan of simmering water. Remove the pan from the heat and let it cool slightly. Whisk in the icing sugar, golden syrup, sour cream and vanilla extract until you have a thick, spreadable, consistency. If it is too thick, add a teaspoon or so of boiling water to thin the mixture. If the mixture is too thin, add some icing sugar. Use the frosting right away to ice the cake.