Remember the “friendship cake” furore a few years ago? When neighbours would appear on your doorstep with a tub of sourdough starter — bubbling after days of putrefaction — and press it into your hand along with photocopied instructions on how to nurture it into a neverending supply of confectionery?
If you missed out on Herman the German (as folklore says it was named by an American girl scout in the 1970s), don’t worry — there’s a new craze causing a commotion online, and this one won’t stink out your kitchen. It’s called “magic cake”, the name due to some strange sorcery that occurs during the baking process. In short, one simple, sloppy batter transforms itself into a three-tiered beauty with a smooth custard base, a sexy creamy midriff and a firm sponge top.
Who first discovered this alchemy? As with the “friendship cake”, the precise origin of magic cake is shrouded in mystery. A new book on the subject, Magic Cakes, written by Christelle Huet-Gomez, might suggest French provenance, yet a Canadian blogger named Jo Cismaru kick-started the interest on Pinterest, and she translated the recipe from a Spanish blog. With a little more detective work, Cismaru now concludes that “tarta magica” is a Romanian showstopper “called prajitura desteapta or prajitura inteligenta, which means smart cake or intelligent cake”.
The word “magic”, she says, is what sparked the internet sensation. “It’s totally the name of it that makes these recipes go viral,” she adds. “I’ve had a similar success with another recipe on my blog, called ‘sex in a pan’.”
I’m not quite ready to try “sex in a pan”, but yesterday, I did attempt to make some magic cakes. This arriviste is infiltrating kids’ parties from Caithness to Cornwall. It looked a cinch to make, until the instructions stated: “It is important the size of your baking tin corresponds exactly to the quantity of ingredients.” The ones I wanted to rustle up stipulated using a 24cm round cake tin and a 20cm rectangle tin. With due diligence, I drove around the home counties hunting for vessels of the correct dimensions.
Back in the kitchen, the mixing proved joyously simple. You whisk together a batter of egg yolks, sugar, butter and flour with shed loads of milk. My creations, taken from Magic Cakes, were to be caramelised apple cake (seasonal), gingerbread cake (autumnal) and lemon and poppyseed (pretty and, well, we all like drizzle), so flavours were added accordingly.
I detest washing up, so was soon cursing the kaleidoscope of tools that were called for: whisks, knives, weighing scales, separate bowls for whites and yolks, pans for melted butter, pans for caramelised apples, the list went on. Another niggly issue is the amount of fridge space required.
Cold, however, is your friend. The science behind the magic cake is it slow-bakes in the oven — 150C/gas 2 is obligatory — so the bottom of the cake cooks properly without cooking the upper echelons as much, hence the middle strata is moist and must set in a fridge. The top layer is made by the whisked egg white, creating a sort of Genoise sponge. Or that’s how it’s supposed to turn out. Not so for me. After removing my caramelised apple cake from the fridge, I was aghast. It had two layers, not three.
I called on Cismaru, a sage on such matters. “A lot of people have that problem,” she told me. “The secret is not overbeating the batter. There should still be white bits of egg whites floating on top. Also baking it seems to be a huge issue as each oven is different.”
On the cake failure Richter scale, the cheesecake — one many domestic bakers live in fear of for its propensity to crack — is highly rated. I’m also a little nervous of the baked alaska after “Iaingate” at last year’s Great British Bake Off, when viewers were left agog as he binned his creation. Now, I fear, the magic cake will cause widespread consternation — and, in some cases, tears — across the nation.
It’s clear for first successes, you need to be prescriptive (no libertine bakers allowed here) and have an oven that hits exactly 150C/gas 2, or 140C for a fan oven. My normally faithful but clonking old fan cooker with its slightly inaccurate temperatures had perhaps let me down. My gingerbread was next out the fridge. The outcome would probably make my Romanian counterparts balk as the middle was a tad squelchy — nevertheless, it had three very convincing layers. Of my experiments, the lemon and poppy seed was most magical. Fabulously sinful, it boasted a moist interior encased by a crusty covering.
Who knows if the magic cake is here to stay — whatever did happen to Herman the German? — but my five-year-old absolutely loved them, so they were definitely worth attempting. And now I’ve learnt what Romanian hostesses say when cajoling you to have a slice: “pofta buna”.
5 golden rules
1. The tin size
It is important that the size of your baking tin corresponds exactly to the quantity of ingredients in the recipe. If your tin is too small, you might not be able to pour all your beaten egg whites on top, resulting in a genoise layer that is too thin. If your tin is too big, each layer will be too thin and it will be difficult to tell them apart. For the majority of the recipes we use a 24cm round cake tin.
2. The egg whites
To incorporate the egg whites into the liquid mixture, it is best to use a whisk and work the mass gently so that it doesn’t dissolve into the batter: large lumps should remain. In fact it is difficult to incorporate egg whites into a liquid mixture using a wooden spoon. The whites floating on the surface of the tin will be smoothed with the blade of a knife before the cake is put in the oven.
If the cake is not fully baked it will not hold together. If it is overcooked the layer of cream will disappear. At the end of the baking time given in the recipe the cake should still have a slight wobble, which will set when it is chilled. The upper layer — the genoise sponge — should be well baked and golden. All the cooking times indicated in the recipes correspond to a conventional oven. If your oven is fan-assisted, you can reduce all the temperatures by 10C.
4. Turning out the cake
It is vital to wait for the magic cake to set before turning it out. It should be kept chilled for at least two hours. It will be easier to turn out if you use a silicone cake tin. Otherwise, it is best to line your tin with baking parchment.
The magic cake will taste better after spending a few hours, or even overnight, in the fridge, giving the flavours time to develop. So don’t leave it until the last minute to make, and be patient.