Autumn has always been my favorite season, perhaps just a little because my birthday is in September. But I also love the cooler “sweater weather,” the changing leaves and — when I was younger anyway — the excitement of a new school year. I always enjoyed getting new school supplies, perhaps picking out a new outfit, and figuring out my class schedule. (Yeah, I’m a little nerdy that way.)
And then there are all the scents and flavors associated with the season. Besides the smell of new erasers and freshly sharpened pencils, there’s the warm, slightly sharp scent of mulled apple cider sprinkled with cinnamon; the sweet, comforting smell of hot chocolate topped with whipped cream; the spicy aroma of a chai tea latte made with fresh cardamom and ginger; and the deep, rich smell of hot coffee laced with a hint of brandy or Irish cream.
Okay, maybe I’m obsessed with fall beverages specifically, but there’s just something about having a hot drink waiting for you when you come in from raking leaves or picking apples on a crisp fall day, wrapping your cold hands around a warm mug, and breathing in the scent of its contents before sipping on the sweet, pungent liquid that warms your whole body from the inside out.
Favorite Fall Flavors
You’ll see a strong influence of these beverages on this, my showstopper entry for the final challenge of the 2013 season of The Great British Baking Show: a three-tiered wedding cake. In this final episode, Frances and Kimberley both had themes for their cakes. Kimberley’s was a “Languages of Love” cake, and Frances chose “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I’ve dubbed my cake the “Falling in Love with Fall Flavors Cake.”
Here are my flavors, starting from the bottom tier and working my way up: (1) chai spice cake with caramel apple filling, (2) coffee-flavored cake with chocolate ganache and walnut filling, and (3) Mexican hot chocolate cake with pecan praline powder and coffee buttercream. And covering the whole thing is a brown butter Swiss meringue buttercream.
The chai spice cake is adapted from an old recipe of my mom’s — but I’ve substituted my own chai masala for the spices in the original recipe — and the caramel filling is a fudge-like frosting that she always used to put on top. I chose to use it in between the layers instead, along with an apple filling from this recipe I found on LivForCake.com.
The coffee cake recipe is adapted from that of a U.K. baker I follow on Instagram, Thida Bevington. She makes coffee and walnut cakes every week (or did, before the pandemic hit) for a little volunteer-run tearoom in Norfolk, England, near where she lives. I could only find her recipe on her Instagram stories, but I see that the tearoom, North Lodge Park Café, offers a cookbook of some of their most popular offerings. Might be worth the cost of international shipping! I opted to omit the walnuts from the cake and put them in the filling instead, the recipe for which I found on TheSpruceEats.com. The chocolate ganache came from my go-to recipe, which I’ve used in my Chocolate-Orange Torte and my Goose That Laid the Golden Egg Cake.
The Mexican hot chocolate cake is adapted from a chocolate spice cake recipe I found here. I increased both the chocolate and the spices, even adding a pinch or two of cayenne for a bit of a kick. I used the French meringue coffee buttercream recipe I keep coming back to after adapting it from LittleFrenchBakery.com. It’s so creamy, and so coffee-y, I could eat it all day!
To add a bit of crunch and another autumnal flavor to the top tier, I decided to make praline powder. If you’ve been following my blog for a while now, you may know that I’ve struggled in the past with making caramel. Well, after this bake, I think I can finally say that I’ve got it licked! Maybe everyone has to figure out which method works best for them. For me, it’s the dry method (no water added), and I’ve found that a little bit of stirring (or at least swirling the pan) keeps my caramel from cooking unevenly. So I used this recipe for praline, and then blitzed it in the food processor to make a delightfully crunchy, caramelly confection!
Decorating From the Inside Out
Aside from the flavor combinations, however, when describing this challenge, GBBO host Sue Perkins said they wanted to see an “immaculate” design and an “incredible finish.” And as I’ve said before to anyone who will listen, cake decorating is not my forté. Put a piping bag in my hands and I may be able to pipe a few stars, but my scallops, rosettes and even swirls leave much to be desired. I knew I would need to come up with some creative decorating ideas that didn’t involve piping skills.
So I decided to give a hint of what was inside the cake by decorating the outside of each tier with an element of what it contained. The bottom tier, with its caramel apple filling, would get a salted caramel drip. The middle tier, with a chocolate ganache and walnut filling, would be adorned with a chocolate collar. The top tier, with its praline powder and coffee buttercream filling, would be topped with praline shards.
As always, I didn’t put the same time constraints on myself that the contestants had in the Great White Tent. True to form, it probably took me twice as long as the six hours they were given, and I spread it out over two days. I prepared the cakes and fillings the first day; then the second day I frosted, assembled and decorated the tiers.
I’m not going to go into great detail here about my decorating techniques. I followed several YouTube videos and tutorials from other bloggers, for which I will provide links.
Overall, I was pretty satisfied with the results. While I still need to work on my icing techniques, the finished product bore a semi-professional rustic look that would have been appropriate for an informal outdoor or barn wedding.
In this age of the coronavirus pandemic, I couldn’t have a lot of people over to share it with us, but we did invite a few friends to our back porch for a final outdoor, socially distanced get-together of the season before the weather turns too cold. Everyone had their favorite when it came to the different flavors. As for myself, while I’ve always loved my mother’s spice cake with caramel fudge-y frosting, I think I’d have to choose the coffee cake with chocolate and walnut filling. First because I love coffee, but also, the combination of chocolate and walnut with a hint of caramel took the cake to the next level. On the other hand, as I sit here with a piece of the Mexican hot chocolate cake, that coffee crème au beurre with a ripple of crunchy praline running through it is calling my name…
Falling in Love with Fall Flavors Cake
The beauty of these recipes is that you can make one, two or all three cakes separately. You don’t have to make the full, three-tiered cake to enjoy these wonderful fall flavors. You could also mix and match the fillings, if you want. The caramel filling would go great with the coffee cake or the Mexican hot chocolate cake. Love the flavor of coffee? Double up the coffee buttercream with the coffee cake. The possibilities are up to you! (If you choose to use different size cake pans than those specified, adjust baking times accordingly.)
Chai Spice Cake with Caramel Apple Filling
For the cake:
For the caramel:
For the apple filling:
- Grease and line the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper, and heat oven to 350°F.
- To make the cake, sift together flour, sugar, spices, salt, baking powder and baking soda, and pour them into a large mixer bowl. Add powdered buttermilk, brown sugar, butter and tea (or fresh buttermilk, see note*), and mix for 2 minutes at medium speed, scraping bowl occasionally. Add eggs and beat 2 more minutes, scraping bowl as needed.
- Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 45-50 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Let cake cool on a rack for 15-20 minutes before removing from the pan. Cool completely before making the caramel filling, as it must be spread quickly, as soon as it is done, before it hardens.
- When cake is completely cooled, slice it in half crosswise to create two identical layers. Place the bottom layer onto a 9-inch cardboard cake board.
- To make the caramel filling, add sugar, buttermilk, brown sugar, butter and baking soda to a heavy saucepan. Stir with a wooden spoon over low heat, bringing to a boil slowly, and cook to soft ball stage (235-240°F). Cool slightly, then add vanilla and stir vigorously with the wooden spoon until the texture is thick and creamy, like fudge. Pour the mixture out of the pan directly onto the bottom cake layer and spread quickly before it hardens.
- To make the apple filling, toss sliced apples and lemon juice in a large bowl and set aside. In a large saucepan, combine sugars, cornstarch, spices and salt. Pour in water and whisk to dissolve the sugars. Bring to a boil over medium heat and cook for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add apples and bring back to a boil. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until apples are tender (10-15 minutes). Cool completely, then spread on top of caramel filling. Place second cake layer on top of apple filling.
*If you don’t have a favorite chai spice blend, use ¾ t. cinnamon, ¾ t. ginger, ¼ t. cloves and ¼ t. cardamom.
**If you can’t find powdered buttermilk, you can substitute 1 cup fresh buttermilk for the tea. There isn’t a great discernible difference in flavors.
Coffee Cake with Chocolate and Walnut Filling
Credit for ganache: PrettySimpleSweet.com
Credit for walnut filling: TheSpruceEats.com
For the cake:
For walnut filling:
For chocolate ganache:
- Heat oven to 350°F. Grease and line the bottom of two 8-inch cake pans with parchment paper.
- To make the cake, cream butter and sugar together in large bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. When butter mixture is light yellow and fluffy, add eggs one at a time, mixing after each one.
- Dissolve coffee in boiling water, then add to butter and egg mixture. Mix until well combined. Add flour and baking powder and mix well, starting mixer slowly to avoid spillage.
- Once the mixture is well-blended, divide batter between prepared pans. Bake for 30 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. (To make sure they bake evenly, rotate pans halfway through if needed.) Cool cakes for 15 minutes before turning out of pans onto a cooling rack. Cool completely before filling. Trim cakes to flatten tops, if necessary.
- For the filling, toast the walnuts by spreading them in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and bake at 350°F, stirring occasionally, for 10-15 minutes until brown and fragrant. (Be careful not to let them burn.)
- Combine brown sugar, butter, water and salt in a large heat-proof bowl over a pan of simmering water, making sure the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water. (This is called a bain-marie.) Heat until sugar is dissolved.
- In a small mixer bowl, lightly beat the egg yolk, then slowly pour the hot sugar mixture over egg yolk, whisking continuously. Return mixture to bain-marie and cook until thickened, stirring constantly. Cool, then stir in walnuts. Cut out an 8-inch circle of wax paper and spread the filling evenly onto it. This will make it easier to apply it to the cake.
- To make the ganache, place chocolate in a medium-sized, heat-proof bowl and set aside. In a small saucepan, heat the cream over medium heat just to the boiling point. Immediately pour cream over chocolate and let it sit without stirring for 1-2 minutes, then whisk gently until chocolate is completely melted and mixture is smooth. Cool for 15-30 minutes until thickened but still pourable. (If made ahead, ganache can be kept in the fridge, covered, for up to a week and then reheated gently — to avoid burning — in the microwave or in a bain-marie.)
- Place one cake layer on an 8-inch cardboard cake board. Pour ganache on top and spread to within ½ inch of the edges. Leave to set for a few minutes, then place walnut filling over ganache, wax paper side up, and peel off paper. Carefully place second cake layer on top.
Mexican Hot Chocolate Cake with Praline and Coffee Buttercream
Credit for Praline: Epicurious.com
Coffee buttercream adapted from LittleFrenchBakery.com
For the cake:
For coffee buttercream:
- Heat oven to 350°F. Grease and line the bottom of three 6-inch cake pans with parchment paper. In a large mixer bowl, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each.
- Sift together flour and spices and add to butter and egg mixture. Mix well.
- Dissolve baking soda in sour milk and mix into the batter.
- Put chocolate in a microwaveable bowl and heat at 50% power for 30-second increments, stirring well in between. When chocolate is all melted, mix it into the batter.
- Pour batter into prepared pans. Bake for 20 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Let cool for 15 minutes before turning cakes out onto cooling rack. Cool completely before filling. (NOTE: You will only need two of the three cake layers for the 3-tiered cake. If desired, wrap the extra layer in plastic wrap and put in a zip-lock bag and freeze for later use.) Trim cakes to flatten tops, if necessary.
- To make the praline, line a baking sheet with parchment paper and spread pecans in a single layer on parchment. In a dry, heavy saucepan, cook sugar over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until melted. Cook, without stirring but swirling contents in pan, until it turns a golden caramel color.
- Immediately pour melted sugar over pecans on parchment paper. Tilt pan to spread caramel in a thin layer. Cool completely, about 20 minutes.
- Carefully break hardened caramel into shards. Place the larger shards in an airtight container and save for top of cake. To make praline powder, break the smaller shards into pieces and transfer to a food processor. Pulse until coarsely ground. (Praline may be made up to two days in advance. Store ground praline in an airtight container at cool room temperature. If it clumps, regrind it in food processor before using. Shards should be stored between sheets of wax paper in another airtight container at room temperature.)
- To make the coffee buttercream, first, make a French coffee extract. (NOTE: This will make more than you’ll need for this recipe. It keeps well in the refrigerator, so you can use the leftovers in other recipes.) To do this, dissolve the instant espresso in the water in a small saucepan and bring it to a boil. In another saucepan, add 1 cup of sugar and heat until the sugar melts and turns a dark amber color. When the sugar is the right color, slowly pour in the hot coffee. It will bubble and sputter, so be careful to protect your hands and fingers. Stir until all of the caramel dissolves. Cool and store in the refrigerator.
- For the buttercream, combine egg yolks with 3/8 cup sugar, brandy (or other liquid), vanilla and salt in a heatproof mixer bowl. Use stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment to whisk until completely blended together.
- Find a saucepan that will hold 1½ inches of water and will support the bowl without the bowl touching the surface of the water. (Alternatively, use a ring of crumpled aluminum foil in the bottom of the pan to keep the bowl above the water’s surface.) Place the pan of water over high heat until steaming; then adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Put the bowl of egg yolk mixture over the pan of simmering water, stirring and scraping the egg yolk syrup constantly with a flexible spatula until the mixture reaches 155°F. This should only take about 5 minutes; if it seems to be taking too long, simply turn up the heat.
- Transfer the bowl to the stand mixer again and whisk at high speed until mixture is fluffy and stiff and beginning to ball up around the whisk — about 8 minutes. By this time, the bottom of the bowl should be cool to the touch.
- With the mixer still running, add butter, 1-2 tablespoons at a time, waiting only a second or two between additions. This should result in a thick, creamy and spreadable texture. (If the mixture seems to break apart, keep mixing; it will come back together.)
- Add 1 tablespoon of the coffee extract and mix well. Taste to see if the coffee flavor is rich enough. If not, add another tablespoon or more, to taste. The buttercream should be a creamy coffee color with a nice coffee flavor. (Leftover buttercream can be refrigerated for up to two weeks or frozen for up to two months. To reuse, bring to room temperature and rewhip before using.)
- Place one cake layer on a 6-inch cardboard cake board. Top with a ¼-inch layer of coffee buttercream. Sprinkle a generous layer of praline powder over it. On the BOTTOM of the other cake layer, spread another ¼-inch layer of buttercream, then position it on top of the first layer. This will create a thin ripple of praline running through the buttercream filling.
Brown Butter Swiss Meringue Buttercream
- To brown the butter, place 1 cup of butter into a large, shallow, light-colored saucepan. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently until the butter starts to brown and smell nutty. (Be careful not to burn it. It will go from brown to black very quickly.)
- Immediately transfer browned butter to a bowl or large measuring cup. Be sure to scrape in the brown bits. Measure out ¾ cup into a separate container and let cool to room temperature and solidify.* (Any extra can be stored in the fridge. It’s great on veggies, pancakes, muffins —anything you’d normally put butter on!)
- Place egg whites and sugar into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment and whisk until combined.
- Put about 1½ inches of water in a saucepan that will support the bowl without the bowl touching the surface of the water. (Alternatively, use a ring of crumpled aluminum foil in the bottom of the pan to keep the bowl above the water’s surface.) Place the pan of water over high heat until steaming; then adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Put the bowl of egg white mixture over the pan of simmering water and whisk constantly until the mixture reaches 160°F.
- Return the bowl to the stand mixer and whisk on medium-high until the meringue is stiff and cooled (about 5-10 minutes). (The bowl should no longer be warm to the touch.)
- Switch to a paddle attachment and slowly add the 1½ cups of regular butter, about 1-2 tablespoons at a time, and then the ¾ cup browned butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, and mix until smooth. (The buttercream may look like it’s curdled at some point. Keep mixing until it is completely smooth.) Add vanilla and whip until smooth.
*Once the butter is at room temperature, you can place it in the fridge to speed up the solidifying process. Be sure to bring it to room temperature before making the frosting.
To Assemble and Decorate Three-Tiered Cake
- Using the buttercream, frost each of the tiers separately, following a tutorial like this one: https://www.cakecentral.com/tutorial/29596/buttercream-smooth-cake.
- Insert plastic straws in the bottom two tiers to stack them. I followed this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gVrKDmJZEX4. (While she goes into much greater detail and uses a wooden center dowel through all three tiers, I only followed the part starting at about 6:30.)
- Melt chocolate according to this tutorial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5_kheJtQO4.
- Make chocolate collar and apply to middle tier. I followed this video (without the white chocolate polka dots): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7v6BfGDdA1k.
- To make the caramel sauce, add sugar to a heavy saucepan and heat on medium heat until fully melted and amber in color. (Once it starts melting, you may swirl the pan around to help it melt evenly.)
- Take pan off the heat, then carefully add butter, cream and salt. Return pan to the heat and whisk continuously until all the sugar has melted, about 5 minutes.
- Cool slightly, then pour caramel into a drip bottle. Allow to cool until it has a thick but pourable consistency. Test it by putting a single drop on the edge of the cake and give it a few minutes to drip down the side. If it reaches the bottom, it may still be too warm. (The caramel sauce will keep for several weeks in the fridge, and you can reheat it in the microwave for a few seconds before using.)
- When ready, apply caramel drip to bottom cake tier, following this video: https://mediavine-res.cloudinary.com/video/upload/sp_mediavine_hd_h265/v1566301217/fbj1xvrxghno1ogb02ur.m3u8. (Instructions for applying the drip begin at about 0:34.)
- Decorate top tier with praline shards.
- Keep cake cool until ready to serve, then bring to room temperature to allow buttercream to soften before eating. Keep leftovers refrigerated in airtight container for up to a week.