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Put the chocolate (if using) in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of gently simmering water, and leave to melt. Stir until smooth and set aside to cool slightly. In a separate bowl, gradually mix the milk into the cocoa powder to make a thin paste.
Grease and base-line 2 x 18cm loose-based sponge tins. Preheat the oven to 190°C, fan 170°C, gas 5.
Cream together the margarine and sugar until light and fluffy, using an electric hand whisk. Add the beaten eggs and vanilla, a little at a time. Fold in the sifted flour and a pinch of salt, then add the cooled melted chocolate, if using, and the cocoa paste, and continue to fold in well using a large metal spoon. Don’t be tempted to beat the mixture, as you will lose the valuable air incorporated during the creaming.
Divide equally between the 2 tins, level the tops, then bake for 15-18 minutes until the cakes are risen and springy to the touch. Cool in the tins for 5 minutes, then loosen the edges with a knife and turn out onto wire racks. Remove and discard the base paper.
For the buttercream, melt the chocolate as before, then cool. Cream the butter until really soft, using an electric whisk, then add the icing sugar, milk, coffee and a pinch of salt. Beat until smooth, then mix in the cooled melted chocolate. Add a little more milk if the icing seems too thick.
Sandwich the cooled cakes together with the chocolate buttercream and spread more on top and the sides. Use a vegetable peeler to shave some chocolate over the top of the cake to decorate, if you like.
BLACK FOREST CAKE
Make the 2 x 18cm cakes as above. Instead of the buttercream, spread one sponge with 150g cherry jam, then cover with 200ml whipped double cream. Dust the top with cocoa powder or icing sugar, if you like. SERVES 8-10 V ❄
CHOCOLATE AND ORANGE CUPCAKES
Omit the vanilla from the sponge mixture and add 1 tsp orange extract plus the finely grated zest of 1 orange. Divide the mixture between 12 cupcake cases and bake for 18-20 minutes. Omit the melted chocolate and coffee from the buttercream and replace with ½ tsp orange extract. Pipe or spread onto the cooled cupcakes and decorate with chocolate sprinkles or orange zest. MAKES 12 V ❄
Bake the chocolate sponge mixture for about 25 minutes in a lined 20cm-square cake tin, then turn out and cool on a wire rack. For the topping, put 100g chopped dark or milk chocolate in a heatproof bowl with 50g butter, 1 tbsp water and 1 tsp vanilla extract. Melt over a pan of gently simmering water and stir until smooth. Pour over the cake (with a tray under the wire rack), spread out, then leave to set before cutting into 12 slices, using a large knife dipped in hot water. MAKES 12 V ❄ ■
‘The perfect chocolate cake is dark, rich and yet light. It took me many attempts but I have finally achieved it! Adding melted chocolate to the sponge mixture gives it a fudgier texture, but you can leave this out and simply use the cocoa paste for a lighter (and cheaper) cake.’