This cake was more of a test of theory than a proper recipe to be written up. Which is another way of saying that after a certain point I had made so many tweaks and added so many pinches, dashes and soupçons that I had no clear idea of the recipe any more, and was too busy trying to make an actual cake to try and figure it out, never mind write it down. I assume this happens to other bloggers, too, but they have the good grace to cover it up.
The cake was inspired by my Foodie Penpals parcel from July. Two of the items in that parcel were speculoos related – a box of spice mix and a box of ‘shake bellies’, tiny speculoos cookies. In my mind, I combined then into one big cake, and when my dad’s birthday came round at the end of the month I had a great chance to make the idea-cake into a real-cake. I love it when that happens, especially when the real-cake turns out well and isn’t a sham of a mockery of the idea-cake.
I made a very basic white sponge, but added a couple of teaspoons of the spice mix to turn it into something special, spiced and fragrant. I baked the sponge in three thin layers, which I planned to sandwich together with buttercream. That was the easy part.
Side note: I’m writing this on my phone, and it corrected ‘buttercream’ to ‘Bhutan’. Autocorrect might stop being funny to me one day, but today is not that day.
I had two thoughts for the frosting – either a salted brown butter, like this cake, or a brown sugar variation, which I have often thought about but never tried. Much like Mae West, when faced with two frostings, I always pick the one I haven’t tried before, and I opted for the brown sugar experiment.
It worked out pretty well in the end, though it did take a few phases before it was complete, and didn’t end up with the texture I’d hoped for. Still, the taste was good, and as with all experiments – good and bad – the results gave me something to build on.
First, I knew I wanted to try and make brown sugar into something resembling icing sugar, which is fine, dry and powdery. One solution presented itself immediately – I put some dark brown sugar in the food processor, and whirred it. This had the effect of clumping it all together – not the desired effect, though perhaps predictable.
I had a think.
I took some of the sugar out, and added a sprinkle of normal icing sugar over the top of the remaining brown sugar. I thought that the powdered sugar would absorb some of the moisture, and make the brown sugar more likely to allow itself to be ground to a fine consistency.
I was right!
However, it was still nowhere near as fine as icing sugar, so I took it to phase two: the spice grinder.
In small batches, I put the partly ground sugar from the processor bowl into my spice grinder, and reduced it to as fine a finish as I could. More success! It was time consuming, as the grinder is designed for small volumes only, but I soon had a bowl of finely ground brown sugar. You can see that the colour gets much lighter as you reduce it to a powder, though of course the added icing sugar would have something to do with this, too…
The next step was to fish out any stubborn lumps of sugar – you know they’re always lurking in brown sugar, like delicious, tooth shattering rocks. I scooped some of the sugar up in a sieve and shook it until I only had lumps left. I discarded these and repeated, until nothing was getting caught up in the mesh. It was a little like prospecting for gold but without the hope of making my fortune. I think of it as practise – should I ever be in a real prospecting situation, I’ll be a millionaire by the end of day one.
I proceeded to use this ground brown sugar just as I would icing sugar. This turned out to be not exactly right – there was still more moisture in it than in real powdered sugar, so it needs less butter, if you want a dry to the touch icing. I added some extra icing sugar to thicken and stiffen the end result, though it was still softer than the buttercream I usually turn out. It held its own, though, and I knew it wouldn’t run right off the edges of the cake (or table). There is a little crunch to it, too, where some of the sugar didn’t submit to the spice grinder. This wasn’t unpleasant, but I’d like to take some steps to eliminate it, another time. Perhaps drying the sugar out in a really low oven first, or maybe melting then solidifying again would break up the sugar crystals?
Once I had got to the end of the brown sugar saga, I started icing the cake. This is where the ‘shake bellies’ come in – I added a layer of them between the layers of sponge, to add texture and a little height to the finished result. I spread the buttercream thinly on both layers of sponger, top and bottom, to cement them in. The biscuits absorb moisture from the icing and give a soft bite to each slice.
Once I had layered up all the cake and all the icing, I covered the outside in a final layer of frosting. The cake wasn’t exactly chilled when I did this, and the icing got a little melty – another lesson learned.
I finished the cake with more biscuits pressed round the edges. Again, these absorbed moisture from the icing – I served the cake the next day, by which time they were mellow, not putting up much of a fight to the bite. If I’d applied them just before serving, they would have had a much more assertive crunch. They were good as they were, but if I had the option of making and eating the cake on the same day, I’d take it.
I finished off with a wee bit of decoration on the top – the little cookies are a good size for spelling out names as well as making patterns or borders. You could also sprinkle them over cupcakes, if you were of a mind. In this case, I kept it simple, and also made it quite clear who the cake was for.
If there’s one thing nobody wants, it’s a cake ownership lawsuit.
This ends the story of my speculoos cake. ‘Story’ may be putting it a little strongly… It’s good to keep a note of these things. The next time I get it into my head to try brown sugar buttercream, I’ll be prepared.