Episode 1, GBBO 2016, technical challenge

Jaffa Cakes

I love chocolate and orange together, I really do. Give me one of those chocolate oranges that breaks into segments when you tap it on a table any day. Or those Orange-Chocolate Milanos from Pepperidge Farm that seem like the overlooked country cousin to the more popular Mint-Chocolate Milanos and Dark Chocolate-Sea Salt Milanos, who ends up outshining her debutante city cousins and marrying the prince.

So when Jaffa cakes popped up as the first technical challenge in the 2016 season of the Great British Baking Show, I was more than ready to give them a go. In fact, having never eaten a Jaffa cake (They’re not easily found this side of the Atlantic.), I committed myself to doing some in-depth research before actually making them. So I hopped on the Internet to find out how to get my hands on the real thing.

Backing up a bit, if you’ve lived in the U.S. all your life, perhaps, like me, you’d never heard of a Jaffa cake before seeing them on Bake Off. You might be wondering what they are and where they come from. They were introduced by the iconic McVitie’s biscuit company (then McVitie & Price) in 1927. Named after the Jaffa orange that flavors its jelly center, the Jaffa cake consists of three layers: a tiny Genoise sponge for the base, topped by a layer of orange jelly, which is then covered in chocolate. It has been called the best-selling biscuit in the U.K.

But that leads to an age-old conundrum: Is it a biscuit (i.e., a cookie) or a cake? More than a philosophical riddle, this question has real, financial consequences, since in the United Kingdom, value-added tax (VAT) is applied to chocolate-covered biscuits, which are considered a luxury, but not to cakes, which are considered a staple food. (Oh, to live in such a fantastical kingdom!) So in 1991, McVitie’s went all the way to a tribunal to defend its humble Jaffa cake as a cake and not a biscuit.

For the biscuit side, it was argued that Jaffa cakes look like biscuits in size and shape; are eaten as finger foods, like biscuits; and are displayed on store shelves with other biscuits. Ultimately, however, the company was able to prove that the Jaffa cake’s base layer is made with a mixture that is more like cake batter than cookie dough; the sponge layer makes up the biggest portion of the confection; and — here’s the kicker — when a Jaffa cake goes stale, it hardens, like a cake, instead of going soft, like a biscuit.

The closest thing I could find to McVitie’s Jaffa cakes.

In spite of the fact that it defended its right not to pay VAT on the mini cakes, McVitie’s never registered the name “Jaffa cake” as a trademark, so other snack companies are free to market their own versions under the same name. I wasn’t able to find McVitie’s Jaffa cakes in any stores near me, but I did find Milka brand Choco Jaffa orange jelly–flavored , milk chocolate–topped biscuits (Yes, they call them biscuits!).

At the risk of being banned from the British Isles for life, I have to admit I was underwhelmed. A nearly flavorless cookie/cake base layer topped with the equivalent of a squashed orange gumdrop and covered in a too-sweet coating of milk chocolate, the overall effect of which I found a bit cloying. I’m willing to reserve judgment, however, that the original McVitie’s Jaffa cakes, which I understand are covered in dark chocolate, would offer a better balance of sweet and bitter, which might be closer to my beloved Orange-Chocolate Milanos.

Nevertheless, this technical challenge involves recreating (or at least creating Mary Berry’s version) of this classic British treat. So I gathered my ingredients in hopes of discovering a better iteration of the disappointing cake/biscuit I had purchased at the store.

The trickiest part was figuring out what was meant by a “packet of orange jelly.” A little internet research helped me determine that jelly in the U.K. is what we in America commonly call Jell-O®. The difference is that jelly is sold in blocks of concentrated gelatin, which is then dissolved in hot water, while our Jell-O is sold in powdered form. I had to do a bit more research and compare the directions on the packages to find out how much Jell-O to use to make it equivalent to the jelly packet the recipe calls for. Fortunately, the ratio of water to concentrated jelly in Mary’s recipe turned out to be the same as the recipe for Jell-O Jigglers® that is printed on every box of Jell-O gelatin.

Once that was sorted, the rest of the ingredients were pretty straightforward. It’s a short list. The sponge is made of egg, sugar and flour. Instead of leavening, the egg and sugar are beaten together for 5 minutes to incorporate lots of air, then the flour is folded in gently so as not to lose the aeration. The gelatin is dissolved in hot water, and the zest of one orange is stirred in at the last minute before pouring it into a shallow pan to chill and set. The only other ingredient is chocolate. Mary prefers milk chocolate so as not to “overwhelm the orange flavours.” I might beg to differ, but since this is her technical challenge, who am I to argue?

Once my gelatin was chilling in the fridge, I made the cakes, using a muffin tin to substitute for the “12-hole shallow bun tin” that the recipe calls for. I lined each well with a circle of parchment to make sure the cakes would come out cleanly. The recipe only makes enough for about a tablespoon of batter in each cake, so I had to spread it out to make sure it covered the bottom of each well evenly. Obviously, they don’t take long to bake — about 7-9 minutes. Once they’re cooled, and the gelatin is set, it’s time for assembly.

Ready for the chocolate.

It was a little difficult getting the gelatin out of the plastic container that I chilled it in. In hindsight, I should have lined it with parchment paper. Despite dipping the container in warm water, mine wouldn’t turn out, so instead I cut 2-inch circles with a cookie cutter and then used a metal spatula to remove each gelatin disk from the container, just like you would to serve brownies directly from the pan. 

I melted the chocolate over a double boiler (i.e., bain marie) and let it cool slightly so it wouldn’t melt the gelatin. Placing one gelatin disk on top of each mini cake, I then spooned some chocolate over each disk. The hardest part was adding the criss-cross pattern that Mary’s recipe calls for. She recommends using the tines of a fork or a skewer. The problem was that the chocolate would stick to the fork instead of the gelatin, leaving holes in the top where the gelatin would peek through. That meant I had to patch the holes with more chocolate, which covered up the hatch marks I had already made, so I used more chocolate to drizzle on the pattern instead. 

I stuck them back in the fridge to firm up before trying them. I was really hoping these would deliver the chocolate-orange flavor combo I love so much, with a more delicate, flavorful sponge than the store-bought ones offered. I took a bite and …

The best way I can describe it is that the sum of its parts are just that — its parts. Rather than a cohesive dessert, it just seemed to be a layer of cake with a layer of jelly with a layer of chocolate. It even fell apart when I bit into it. Worst of all, in my opinion, the texture of the gelatin was too much like biting into a Jell-O Jiggler, which is something I might have enjoyed as a kid, but not something I look forward to in a homemade pastry. I think I would have liked it better if it just had a spoonful of marmalade instead. For real Jaffa cake lovers, perhaps a slice of those orange jelly candies (called, ironically, orange slices) would give it a more authentic flavor and texture.

If you are a Jaffa cake afficionado, maybe you can tell me what I’m missing. Are the McVitie’s brand the only way to go? Does dark chocolate make all the difference? Is it just one of those nostalgic childhood treats that you have to grow up with to really appreciate? Please let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Side-by-side comparison. Which would you choose?

If you’d like to decide for yourself whether these made-from-scratch Jaffa cakes are better than store-bought, you can find Mary’s original recipe here, although I have adapted it for American bakers below.

Mary Berry’s Jaffa Cakes

Source: BBC.co.uk
Adapted for American Bakers

For the jelly:

  • 3-oz. package orange Jell-O
  • 10 T. (5 fl. oz.) boiling water
  • Zest of 1 small orange

    For the sponge:

    • 3 T. all-purpose flour
    • 3/8 t. baking powder
    • 1 large egg
    • 2 T. superfine (baker’s) sugar

    For the topping:

  • 6 oz. milk chocolate (I used 1 c. milk chocolate chips)

  • Directions

    1. To make the jelly layer, pour the Jell-O powder into a small heatproof bowl. Pour the boiling water over it and stir for 5 minutes until the powder is completely dissolved. Stir in the orange zest and pour into a 12×8-inch pan or plastic container. (NOTE: For ease in removing the gelatin once it’s set, line the container with parchment paper first.) Chill in the fridge for one hour or until set.
    2. To make the sponge, first grease a 12-cup muffin tin and line the bottom of each cup with a circle of parchment paper cut to fit. (NOTE: I recommend spraying the parchment lightly with vegetable oil spray so the paper won’t stick to the sponge.) Preheat oven to 350°F.
    3. Sift together the flour and baking powder and set aside. Whisk the egg and sugar together with a handheld electric mixer for 4-5 minutes, until pale and fluffy, then gently fold the flour mixture into the egg mixture.
    4. Divide the batter evenly among the wells of the muffin tin (about a tablespoon per well) and use the back of the spoon to smooth the tops. Bake for 7-9 minutes or until cakes are well risen and the top springs back when lightly pressed. Leave to cool in the pan for a few minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.
    5. To assemble, remove jelly from the fridge and set the pan in a larger pan of warm water for about 15 seconds, being careful not to get any water inside the jelly pan. Turn the jelly out onto a sheet of parchment paper and cut out 12 circles of jelly with a 2-inch round cookie cutter. (NOTE: If the jelly doesn’t turn out of the pan, use the cookie cutter to cut circles in the jelly, and then use a metal spatula to remove the jelly disks from the pan.) Place a jelly disk on top of each of the cakes and put them in the fridge while you melt the chocolate.
    6. Break the chocolate into pieces and put into a heatproof bowl that fits over a pan of simmering water without touching the surface of the water. With the heat under the pan on low, stir the chocolate until it’s completely melted. Remove bowl from the pan and turn off the heat. Leave to cool slightly.
    7. Spoon the melted chocolate over the jelly disks on top of the cakes, spreading it with an offset spatula to smooth it out and completely encase the jelly. If the chocolate begins to get too thick, place the bowl back over the pan of hot water. Reheat the water if necessary.
    8. Using the tines of a fork or a skewer, draw a criss-cross pattern in the chocolate on top of the cakes. (Alternatively, drizzle a little more chocolate over the cakes in a criss-cross pattern). Then leave to cool and set completely. Store jaffa cakes in the fridge.

    Up next: Iced Biscuits

    3 thoughts on “Jaffa Cakes”

    1. They sell Jacob’s Jaffa Cakes at our HEB (big grocery retailer in Texas). I was able to try them before I tried to make this recipe, and I am very behind in doing their bakes, so I won’t even bother making their recipe since reading this post.

      I thought they were underwhelming when I first tried them, but I had to eat them rather than throw them away. By the end of the package, I had oddly become hooked enough to try to make them LOL.

      I would definitely stick to the darker chocolate. I have to be honest, I never paid attention to what Jacob’s chocolate was because it is spread on so light in the first place. The orange doesn’t remind me of Jello Jigglers thanks for small favors there.

      I don’t buy them in the store any longer because I eat the entire package in one sitting; however, I hope the HEB doesn’t quit carrying them either…just in case I get a hankering.


      1. Thanks for letting me know! I purchased the Milka Jaffa cakes at World Market here in Wisconsin. It’s funny that they got you hooked! It must be something that grows on you, or it’s some secret ingredient they put in them… 😉


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