A nest of very finely spun sugar on top of a cake is a real showstopper. Once mastered, it is a relatively quick, easy and inexpensive way to decorate a cake. However, it needs a little patience and it is essential to follow the instructions very carefully. Caramelised sugar reaches a temperature higher than boiling water and, if not treated with respect, can be very dangerous. Don’t try to do this with young children around! The spun sugar should keep for a few hours in a dry place. Keep it out of a steamy kitchen and away from all moisture; damp weather won’t help at all.
- Preheat the oven to 180°C/fan 160°C/gas 4. Butter two 15cm, 7.5cm deep round cake tins and line the bases with baking parchment. In a small saucepan, bring the milk and liquorice to a boil. Remove from the heat, stir and press on the liquorice to extract the flavour. Cover and leave to infuse for at least 30 minutes. Taste; the milk should be a ‘liquorice milk’, then strain. Meanwhile, in a heatproof bowl, pour 175ml boiling water over the dates and leave to soak for 20 minutes, then mash with a fork. Sift the flour and bicarbonate of soda into a bowl. Cream together the butter, sugar and vanilla seeds (or extract) for about five minutes in an electric mixer. Add the eggs gradually, with 1 tbsp flour to stop the mixture curdling. Fold in the remaining flour, date mixture and milk.
- Divide the batter between the tins and bake for 30–35 minutes, or until a skewer emerges clean. Leave in the tins for a minute or two, then turn out on to a wire rack to cool completely. Remove the papers. Trim the tops level, if necessary.
- Make the buttercream by creaming the butter and icing sugar for at least five minutes in an electric mixer (or with a hand-held mixer).
- To ice the cake, place one cake on to your board or cake stand and spread the top with a layer of the buttercream. Place the other half on top, flat side up. Spread the remaining buttercream all over the top and sides and smooth with a palette knife.
For the Cake
- 85g unsalted butter, softened, plus more for the tins
- 100ml whole milk
- 30g liquorice (I used 22 x 6.5cm lengths of soft, sweet Australian liquorice), roughly chopped
- 200g dates, pitted and chopped
- 175g self-raising flour
- 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- 140g golden caster sugar
- seeds of 1 vanilla pod, or 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
For the Buttercream
- 255g unsalted butter, softened
- 300g icing sugar, sifted
For the Spun Sugar Pile
- 225g caster sugar
- meticulously clean copper, or heavy-based, small pan
- pastry brush
- sugar thermometer (optional)
- sawn-off whisk, or two forks
For the Spun Sugar
- Have to hand a small bowl of cold water, a large bowl of cold water, and baking parchment laid over a rolling pin. Place the sugar and 225ml water into the pan and, on a low heat, allow all the sugar to dissolve, stirring a little with a metal spoon. Use the brush dipped in water to wipe away any sugar crystals around the side. You must make sure you can’t see any sugar granules in the pan before you turn up the heat to high and bring to a boil. The caramel will rise in temperature to 155°C! It is possible to make this without a sugar thermometer, you just need to learn to recognise exactly when to remove the pan from the heat… not too soon or too late. It turns quickly from a perfect golden molten liquid to a pan of burnt sugar!
- When you boil the caramel hard, it will go through various stages. The caramel will turn to a beautiful light golden colour. Test it by dropping a small piece into the small bowl of cold water. If it forms a ball, snaps and crackles, it is ready. Remove from the heat and plunge the pan into the large bowl of water to stop it cooking. Hold the sawn-off whisk (or the two forks back to back), dip into the caramel and flick backwards and forwards over the rolling pin. The caramel strands will dry very quickly. Loosely gather up and mould the strands to suit the top of the cake.
- When ready to serve the cake, take the spun sugar and cup loosely in your hands. Press ever so gently to form a ball and place on top.
- A quite stunning cake for any age!
Recipes are from Celebration Cakes by Fiona Cairns, with photography by Laura Edwards. Published by Quadrille and available from all good booksellers