My mother-in-law's birthday is at the start of December, and I always make her cake. Due to my habit of keeping kitchen notes, I know that in 2009, inspired by the British classic, I made her a skyscraper of sticky toffee pudding. For those uninitiated, the dessert is an often (but not always) steamed cake, with caramel. Dates and nuts are traditional inclusions, so for my stacked production, I made sponges speckled with both, then soaked them with toffee sauce before assembly. A cinnamon-scented buttercream acted as mortar.
While I'm going in a different direction with her cake this year, a touch of nostalgia had me thinking of that old favourite, so I turned those flavours into a sturdy everyday cake with more than a little holiday edge. To bolster the festive feeling, I added a splash of rum, citrus zest and three types of ginger. The resulting effect is part sticky toffee pudding, part the best qualities of fruitcake, and, for cocktail fans, part Dark and Stormy. It is a cake suited for a cup of tea or coffee, for a moment's peace in the afternoon or a leisurely recline after dinner.
The cake is not markedly boozy once baked, but the rum complements the bristling warmth of the ginger and spices, while the dates and walnuts break up the perfectly stodgy crumb. The toffee sauce, which is stirred together while the cake bakes, is a twofold boon – brushed on the cake while warm, it soaks in and contributes to the aforementioned stodge, and shellacs the exterior in a shining glaze. The rest gets saved for serving, and the luscious amber looks especially pretty against a swirl of barely whipped cream.
Here I recommend a Pullman pan, for its neat corners and its depth, but you can use a well-greased and floured 9-inch bundt pan instead; the baking time should be similar, but start checking around the 60-minute mark. Also, the dates can be mashed with a fork once soaked, and the walnuts hand chopped, if preferred.
Butter for pan
¾ cup water
¼ cup dark rum
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, finely grated
Zest of half an orange, finely grated
Zest of a lime, finely grated
12 ounces (340 grams) pitted dates, Medjools preferred½ teaspoon baking soda
2 ounces (60 grams) walnuts, toasted and cooled2¼ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup dark brown sugar
¾ cup unsalted butter, soft
¼ cup candied ginger, finely diced
½ cup unsalted butter, cubed
1¼ cup dark brown sugar
½ teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
1 tablespoon black treacle or molasses, optional2 tablespoons dark rum
½ cup heavy cream
Seeds scraped from half a vanilla bean, or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 325 F. Grease a 9-by-5-inch Pullman pan with butter. Line with parchment paper, then butter the parchment.
In a saucepan, stir together the water, rum, fresh ginger and orange and lime zest. Bring to a boil over high heat, then lower the heat to maintain a simmer. Tumble in the dates, and let cook for 5 minutes. Pull from the heat. Stir in the baking soda, cover and leave to steep.
In the bowl of a food processor with the metal blade attached, roughly chop the walnuts. Scrape the nuts into a medium-sized bowl, then whisk in the flour, baking powder, salt and spices. Set this dry mix aside.
Check the dates to ensure they’re soft, then pour them and their soaking liquid into the food-processor bowl, with the metal blade again in place. Pulse the fruit to a coarse purée.
In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attached, cream the butter and sugar together on medium-high until lightened in colour and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Scrape down the bowl, beat for a minute more.
Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Turn the speed down to low and incorporate half the flour mixture. Scrape down the bowl again, then stir in the dates and candied ginger, followed by the last of the flour.
Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and bake in the oven until the cake is deeply bronzed and springy to the touch, 65 to 75 minutes. A cake tester inserted in the centre of the sponge should come out clean. When the cake is almost finished in the oven, make the sauce.
Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Thoroughly stir in the sugar and salt, then the treacle, if using. Once bubbling, carefully stir in the rum, followed by the cream and vanilla. Simmer for 5 minutes, swirling the pan regularly.
When the cake is ready, place the pan on a wire rack. After about 5 minutes, pour some of the warm sauce over the cake – you want it to puddle against the side of the pan. Using the parchment sling, lift the cake slightly so the sauce runs down its sides. Carefully lower the cake back into place. Let the sauce soak for 15 minutes. Place the rack over a rimmed plate or baking sheet, then remove the cake from the pan and pull away the parchment. Brush the sides of the cake with sauce. Leave the cake to cool until it has firmed up but is still warm, and the glaze to set, then serve with whipped cream and the remaining sauce.
Makes a tall 9-inch loaf.