I have no words, for once.
Unusual, I know. This cake is just way too, too everything for me to try to say anything about it. I can start by saying that I made it a few weeks ago, however. It was an early birthday cake for Wynton before I left for Melbourne – Wynton being my youngest brother who turns thirteen (a teenager?!) on Thursday. Wynton loves food almost as much as I do, though I must clarify that we like very different types of food. He is a junk food man – give him cakes, lollies, ice cream and chips and he will be in heaven, but take him to a fancy restaurant and he will complain that he could have been much happier and spent less at home eating pasta (never mind that it is a family dinner and it is not like he is paying). When it comes to main courses, he is a person of simple tastes, and complains that when I come home, dinner is too different every night (mainly because I am trying out interesting recipes). My tastes are a little more adventurous, steering clear of junk food and searching for new ingredients, recipes from different cultures and flavour explosions, and love trying out new restaurants and cafes to experience new dishes.
However, we do cross over in one area – baking and desserts. He appreciates a good cake just as much as I do (even this Rhubarb, Caramel and Pistachio cake from a little while ago), will gobble brownies and chocolate biscuits, loves a chocolate caramel tart and will never turn down dessert, eating huge servings that I wish I was capable of without packing on the kilograms. When I am baking he often hovers nearby, waiting to subtly (or not so subtly) sneak bits of chocolate from the chopping board or swipe icing or cookie dough from the bowl when my back is turned.
I knew that his birthday cake needed to be something pretty special. Last year Mum had to resort to store-bought (horror of horrors, I know!) because they were so busy and I was away. That couldn’t happen for a second year in a row, so we had a special 2.5 weeks early birthday cake the day before I left. After a bit of research, I settled on Half Baked Harvest’s Chocolate Birthday Cake and assembled the rest of the components on the day.
Three layers of rich, fluffy chocolate cake with an ultra-tender crumb were sandwiched together with a salted caramel cream cheese buttercream: sweet and salty, tangy from the extra cream cheese, smooth, creamy and light. Rich dark chocolate ganache was poured over the top, dripping precariously over the edges, and topped with a pile of homemade crisp caramel popcorn and more drizzles of sticky salted caramel. I can’t even describe how good it was – you are just going to have to make it for yourself and find out.
The caramel cream cheese buttercream (yes, it is a mouthful!) was perfect – often I find that straight caramel buttercream can be sickly sweet, but I wanted something a bit lighter than the caramel cream cheese frosting on this rhubarb pistachio cake. I toyed with making a caramel swiss meringue, but was eventually put off by the colossal quantities of butter and the fact that (apparently) by the next day it can sort of solidify into a very hard, buttery frosting. Not what I was looking for – has anyone had success with a swiss meringue in getting it to last a few days? This cream cheese buttercream though, was ideal – the cream cheese balances the sweetness of the caramel and it is whipped for almost ten minutes to get it super light and fluffy, almost mousse-like in texture. Would highly recommend.
Although time consuming, the cake itself isn’t overly hard to make, even if my instructions look really long! Each component can be made ahead and save for construction time. The cake is a one bowl wonder that can be made the day before (and wrapped in cling-wrap overnight) or the morning of for ultimate freshness. The salted caramel is made once (and easily made the day before) then added to both the popcorn and the icing. The popcorn can be also be made the day before, but the buttercream should be made just prior to assembly for optimum fluffiness. Then all you have to do is pile up the layers of cake and frosting, drip ganache all over it, make a tower of popcorn, sticking it together with extra caramel as you go and then use any leftover salted caramel to drip over the cake. Rustic, yes, but everyone will thank you for it! The first cut through the cake can be a little tricky because of the popcorn, but just be gentle and maneuver your knife carefully through the popcorn layer and then you will be good to go.
So, to finish – a big happy birthday to Wynton from his sister in Melbourne! Enjoy the photos – but you might need to make the cake again now that you have the recipe (or convince someone to make it for you!).
PS – I guess that no words thing was a bit of an exaggeration… but I truly did have no idea what to say when I was staring at this blank page an hour ago. Does anyone else have that happen when writing blog posts?
If you have any questions about the recipe, please feel free to comment below. Happy cake making! X
- 2¼ cups plain flour
- 2¼ cups white sugar
- 1½ cups unsweetened cocoa powder
- 2¼ teaspoons baking soda
- 2¼ teaspoons baking powder
- 1½ teaspoon salt
- 3 eggs, at room temperature
- 1½ cups buttermilk
- ¾ cup canola oil
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 cup + 2 tablespoons hot coffee (I used a strong double shot of espresso topped up with boiling water)
- ¾ cup semi-sweet chocolate chunks or chips
- ½ cup water
- 1½ cups caster sugar (330g)
- 90g unsalted butter, cubed
- ¾ cup cream
- ½ -1 tsp table salt (according to your tastes)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ½ cup salted caramel
- a few cups of plain popcorn (1/4-1/3 cups of kernels)
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- 225g unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
- 120g Philadelphia cream cheese
- ½ cup salted caramel, at room temperature
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 3.5-4 cups icing sugar (430-480g)
- 200g dark chocolate (I use 60-70%), very finely chopped
- ½ cup cream
- Preheat the oven to 175°C. Grease and line three x 20cm round cake tins with baking paper.
- In a bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
- In a separate bowl (or a stand mixer if you have one), beat together the eggs, buttermilk, canola oil and vanilla until smooth.
- Gradually add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients on a low speed until almost combined. Add the hot coffee and mix until just combined. Gently fold in the chocolate chunks.
- Divide the batter among the three cake tins (I use a cup measure to try to make it as even as possible) and bake for 20-25 minutes or until the tops are just set and a skewer comes out just clean. Remove from the oven to cool. After 20 minutes or so, remove from the tins and place cakes on cooling rakes or paper-lined flat plates to cool completely. The cakes need to be completely cool before you start frosting - normally a couple of hours.
- Make the salted caramel and caramel popcorn in the few days before you assemble the cake, and make the buttercream immediately prior to assembly.
- Heat the butter and cream in a small saucepan over a low heat until the butter is melted and the mixture is combined. Remove from the heat.
- Place the sugar and water in a large pot over a low heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Stop stirring (as it can cause the sugar to crystallise) and cook on a high heat until the mixture reaches a dark amber colour (usually about 10 minutes and when it reaches ~175°C/350°F on a candy thermometer).
- Quickly whisk in the cream and butter mixture, but be careful here as it boils up vigorously with a lot of steam, so you may want to wear an oven mitt or similar to protect your hand.
- Remove from the heat and add the salt and vanilla extract, stirring to combine. Leave to cool and then taste to adjust the salt.
- Set aside in a jar or similar - you will be using this caramel in the popcorn, the buttercream and to drip over the finished cake.
- Preheat the oven to 150°C and line a baking tray with baking paper. Make the popcorn according to packet instructions, in a popcorn machine or in a pot (see here for instructions)
- Place popped popcorn in a large bowl.
- Heat the caramel until almost boiling. Add the baking soda, stir as it fluffs up and quickly pour over the popcorn. Toss the caramel through the popcorn until evenly coated and then spread out over the baking tray in an even layer. Bake for 10 minutes, turning once after 5 minutes. Leave to cool. Store in an airtight container.
- Using a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment or a handheld electric mixer, beat the softened butter until pale and creamy, about five minutes.
- Add the cream cheese, caramel and vanilla and beat at low speed until fully incorporated. Gradually increase speed and continue beating until light and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula, about 3-4 minutes.
- Add the icing sugar in three lots, beating on low speed until combined. Beat on medium high speed until smooth and fluffy while scraping down the sides (about 2 minutes)
- Make the salted caramel and the salted caramel popcorn. Just before assembly, make the salted caramel cream cheese buttercream.
- If your cakes have domed at all, cut off the top with a serrated knife to flatten.
- Place the first layer, flat side up (upside-down) on a cake stand. Cut out few strips of baking paper and slide under the edges of the cake (see picture above) to catch any drips, so when you have finished icing the cake you can pull them out and end up with a clean-edged cake stand/plate.
- With a knife or offset spatula, spread the top with caramel buttercream (use just under a cup, or enough to make a layer a similar size to in the picture). It doesn’t matter if the buttercream goes over the edge a little as it will be incorporated into the frosting on the sides of the cake. Place the second layer on top and spread evenly with frosting. Repeat with the third layer, but this time also frost the sides of the cake with the remaining frosting.
- If you are at all worried about the structural stability of your cake (which I almost always am, when I carry it around etc!), cut 3-4 wooden skewers to the height of your cake and poke them through the three layers to stop them from sliding over each other.
- Place in the fridge to set slightly while you make the chocolate ganache.
- Place very finely chopped chocolate a small bowl. Bring cream to boiling point and pour over the chocolate, making sure the chocolate is all covered. Leave for five minutes then stir with a fork until smooth and glossy.
- Once you have made the chocolate ganache, remove the cake from the fridge and pour the ganache over the top of the cake. Use a knife or offset spatula to spread it over the top, creating drips down the sides.
- Leave to set for 10-15 minutes. At this point you can remove the baking paper strips from the cake stand.
- Just before serving, stack the caramel popcorn on the top of the cake, interspersing handfuls of popcorn with drizzles of extra salted caramel to stick it all together. You will probably end up with extra popcorn.
- Drizzle any extra salted caramel over the sides of the cake however you wish.