Gateaux-my-goodness: Coffee Caramel Cake

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It’s not often I go to town on a cake – generally I’m more of the school of thought which says “it tastes lovely – never mind about the weird lumpy bit“. However, once in a while I like to push the boat out, and Momma Lewishambles’ birthday is a good cause for this.

The flavour inspiration was simple – she loves coffee cake. Ideally, coffee walnut, with rich icing and a soft crumbly interior. But a birthday picnic on Hampstead Heath (yup, she’d come up all the way from Somerset for this) called for something a bit different, so I obliged.

I figured that instead of a teatime treat, I’d go full-dessert for this particular beast. The fact it was going to have to travel was no problem – I have a handy-dandy cake carrier with an insert for a cool pack (genuinely one of the most only useful things I’ve ever been given as a work gift)  and wanted to make full use of it.

So I turned to a couple of old stalwarts, Dan Lepard and Nigel Slater, to come up with a super-creamy, super-elegant cake for my Momma. I share the recipe here with you because it turned out really rather well (if I do say so myself).

Warning – you’ll need to bake the cakes the day before you ice – and there will be a load of washing up!

Coffee-Caramel Gateau

makes 12 dizzyingly rich slices for after a lightish meal – enjoy with freshly-brewed coffee and your impending diabetes

Adapted freely from recipes by Dan Lepard and Nigel Slater, the originals of which are fine things in their own right. I used cottage cheese in place of Lepard’s ricotta not to be contrary, but because my local Lidl is not great for Italian speciality cheeses (albeit it had mascarpone – who knew?). And on another note, while I get on fine with the Slater coffee cake recipe, I’m told by others that the icing “does not work”. I don’t necessarily think this is true, but it’s not an icing as you or I might recognise it, and needs chilling. As do you, if you lose your head over such pettishnesses! 

This gorgeous treat encompasses a damp marbled coffee and marsala rich sponge, heavy with cheese, and a light-as-air whipped coffee caramel cream which swirls onto the cake. Dusted with praline on the sides, it’s definitely for grown-ups… 

For the cake

3 tbsp ground coffee, wetted with around 40 ml boiling water and left to cool

190 unsalted butter, softened

300g caster sugar 

300g plain flour

a pot of cottage cheese

3 large eggs

3.5 tsp baking powder

1 glug marsala

First off, you don’t want lumpy cake. So blitz the cottage cheese until grainy rather than lumpy. You want it as fine as you can get away with.

Line 2 x 20cm cake tins, and turn the oven to 180c.

Then beat the sugar and butter until light and creamy. Take 4 heaped tablespoons of the flour and beat this in (it helps emulsify the mix before the cheese is added). Beat in the blitzed cheese, then the eggs one by one. Sift in the baking powder and flour, and fold in firmly. Divide the mixture between two bowls, and add the coffee to one, and the marsala to the other. Blob both cake mixtures into your tins, trying to keep it even. Swirl with a cocktail stick and bake for 30-40 min or until a skewer inserted comes out clean.

Cool for 10 minutes in the tins, then remove and let go completely cold. I prefer to leave the cakes overnight at this point.

…. and so the next day….

For the Coffee-Caramel Cream

100g unsalted butter, soft

100g light muscovado sugar*

1 tbsp maple syrup

225g mascarpone cheese

150ml double cream, whipped to soft peaks

2 tbsp instant coffee, melted in 1 tbsp boiling water and cooled**

Using an electric whisk or stand mixer (*le sigh* – I YEARN for a KitchenAid but I know it ain’t gonna happen), beat the butter until soft and airy – you’re looking for it to be fluffy and white, so don’t cheat! Then add your sugar a large spoonful at a time, beating well between additions. Your icing will look fudgy and delicious in no time at all. Beat in the maple syrup (an odd addition, but I think the sugar syrup stabilises the fat in the cheese).

In a separate bowl, beat the cheese until pliable (not too soft!), then combine into the icing firmly with a spatula. If you overbeat at this point, it will split and go runny, so GO EASY. Fold in the coffee essence, then loosen up with the double cream. Your icing will be moussey, soft and utterly delectable, with a rich toffee-coffee flavour. I’d refrigerate this for an hour while you make the praline before icing.

For the Praline

100g white caster sugar 

a large handful of toasted pecans 

half a handful of toasted slivered almonds

A baking tray, wiped over with a touch of neutral-tasting oil. Trust me and get this ready before you start. 

Put a heavy-based pan over a medium-low heat. I know, I know: what the heck is a heavy -based pan when it’s at home?! Put it this way – you’re about to attempt the controlled burning of sugar. It has to be low and slow, using a pan which isn’t like metal paper. So dig out something quality and preferably non-stick, unless you frickin LOVE scouring pans.

Scatter in your sugar evenly – ideally in a thin even layer. Then LEAVE IT ALONE. I know, it will look like it’s not doing anything. LEAVE IT ALONE. You’ll be tempted to give it a stir. LEAVE IT ALONE. You’ll see it start to melt in patches, but again, LEAVE IT ALONE. Have I made myself clear? If you need to move it at all, swirl the whole pan gently. This DOES NOT MEAN YOU SHAKE IT LIKE A POLAROID PICTURE, CHILD. The reason for this is that sugar loves ruining your life and turning into crystal sugar lumps. You want it to turn into a syrup, so you need to let it get on with melting rather than agitating it, which encourages crystallisation.

NOT LIKE THIS, FOOL
NOT LIKE THIS, FOOL

You want a golden-brown caramel, which looks rich and deep. Don’t be tempted to touch or taste it, because hot caramel sticks while it burns, and it also breaks the first rule, which is LEAVE IT ALONE. When is it done? When it looks done, but before you can smell it – invariably I’ve learned this means it’s already too late and the sugar is burned.

Now is the time to work quickly, because caramel sets FAST. Take it off the heat and toss in your nuts, then turn over with a spoon, thoroughly coating the nuts. DON’T TOUCH. Turn the whole lot onto your oiled sheet and press as flat as you can with your spoon. NOT YO HAND. I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH (*glances at healing thumb*).

Then – you may have guessed – you LEAVE IT ALONE to go completely and absolutely cold.

When totally cold (at least an hour), break into pieces. You may give some to the Lovely One in your life who will have magically appeared demanding “some of that stuff.” The rest, pop into a mini-processor and blitz into fine crumbs. Be aware that if you failed to follow my instructions and tried to do this while the praline wasn’t completely cold, one of the following things will be true:

  • you’ll have a horrible burn
  • you’ll have a useless lump of praline wedged to the innards of your blitzer
  • you’ll need a new blitzer because attempting to overpower the useless lump of praline caused the motor to break.

I did warn you.

Assemblage

Spread the bottom layer cake with the coffee cream and position onto your chosen plate. Top with the other and cover with a thick layer of coffee cream. Dust the sides with praline dust. This is all I think it needs, but by all means add some chocolate shards or whole caramelised nuts if you want to out-do me.

You gorgeous creature!
You gorgeous creature!
Al fresco, al freshco!
Al fresco, al freshco!

Things to note:

1. The cake needs to be refrigerated if you’re not serving it immediately – the cream is soft and wobbly and mousse-like. You want it to stay that way, bro.

2. The praline will not stay crunchy for long, and since the icing is quite high in moisture content, will bleed if you let it hang around for ages. It survived a few hours with a hot tramp across London with cool packs underneath, but I’d be wary of making it in the morning to serve after 7pm.

3. Due to the fat content, the cake is a damp, luscious wedge rather than a soft crumbly airy thing. So it will look rather wet inside – this is normal (I’ve made it a bunch of times and it never really goes crumbly). This, perversely, is exactly what you want – as you cut slices, the soft icing would lend itself to frustrating chunks going everywhere, but the cake is solid so it cuts beautifully sharply.

4. Overall, this is more of a gateau than a cake proper – it is designed to be served for dessert rather than an afternoon pick-me-up!

*Don’t be a clever dick – use the right sugar. Only muscovado has the right toffeeish depth of flavour here, and if you use normal soft brown you’ll end up with a flavour so sweet it will taste bitter. Ditto with using dark brown muscovado, which will be overpoweringly dense. 

**”But why use instant, Lewishambles?!” I hear you cry. This, reader, is because the flavour of espresso melts away in icing – and the icing is soft enough already without having to use a ton of liquidy coffee here. The trick is to treat your coffee granules like saffron or tamarind. You want to add just enough water to make it able to combine into the icing, but not to make a long drink, y’know what I mean? 

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