Cook your book: ‘Matilda’ and a childhood-defining chocolate cake

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Roald Dahl’s Matilda is full of memorable moments, and brings back to me many wonderful memories. Picturing the terrible ‘Chokey’, the charming Miss Honey, and Amanda Thripp’s long, blonde pigtails has been a repeated habit of my mind since reading the book as a child. 

The book also left a mark beyond the visual. At school, I was often called a “boff”, a trendy term which now fortunately seems to have disappeared from schools. This was never serious bullying, but over the years I began to realise that my reputation for always putting my hand up and scoring highly in tests, was taking a toll on my self-confidence. 

Matilda’s voracious appetite for reading and her excellence at school taught me that being conscientious is no bad thing. When I watched the film, which is remarkably similar to the book except in its shift of location from England to America and in some aspects of the ending, I became obsessed with Matilda’s persona. My lilac cardigan became an outfit staple and I began to use ribbon to create head-bands. The one thing that I longed for, but sadly never purchased, was a trolley to carry my books in. I thought that was the coolest thing ever. At a time when I was shy and self-conscious, Matilda gave me courage. I may not have had supernatural powers, but I certainly felt empowered. 

At a time when I was shy and self-conscious, Matilda gave me courage.

To me – an avid baker – Miss Trunchball’s multi-layered, irresistibly moist chocolate cake was enrapturing. The joyous triumph of the students when Bruce Bogtrotter stuffs the final slice in his mouth sparked in me huge amounts of elation, even more than the hatred I felt towards the Wormwoods for their cruel treatment of Matilda. 

Looking back on this scene as a young adult, I find that concerns begin to poke at me. Firstly, the fact that the scene depicts a teacher publicly humiliating a child through force-eating is itself troubling. Our modern education system prides itself now on holding teachers accountable for abuse of students and the relationship between teachers and students is carefully monitored. Miss Trunchbull’s behaviour would certainly now never be tolerated. 

As Boris Johnson launches a campaign against obesity, the portrait of a child being forced to consume food also becomes problematic. Over-eating is a form of disordered eating, often overlooked as a result of the greater visibility and awareness of anorexia. During lockdown, I myself found that my relationship with food became complicated when I began to seek snacks for self-comfort whenever feelings of anxiety or sadness intensified. This resulted in stomachaches and a negative cycle of over-exercising after feeling like I had over-eaten which has now led to severe back pain. 

As these thoughts continued to escalate, however, I stopped myself. I was looking too deeply into the scene. The book is designed for children, and the message of the cake scene is how resistance against unfair authorities and mutual support are vehicles for immense joy. The reason I find this scene problematic now is a result of my mind having been conditioned by the problems of our society to look deeper into even the most delightful of children’s books. 

The message of the cake scene is how resistance against unfair authorities and mutual support are vehicles for immense joy.

Now, I compel myself and others to relish the wonders of this engaging, instructive novel – including a scene involving one of the most scrumptious chocolate cakes to be painted in literature. Someone very wise (my mum) once told me that if you want the piece of cake, have the piece of cake because it will bring you joy. This book, and Bruce Bogtrotter’s chocolate cake, will only certainly do so. I will reignite my childhood emotional reflexes, the fear I felt of ‘the chokey’, the tenderness I felt for Miss Honey, and the envy I felt for Amanda’s pigtails, and cherish this book for all its memorable and emotive scenes. 

I had a go at making this whopper of a cake. I didn’t have 3 cake tins available to make the full 3 layers, but it was definitely rich enough. With plenty of bowl and spoon-licking opportunities, this cake is guaranteed to make any hungry family members or friends very happy! 

Recipe taken from Delicious Magazine https://www.deliciousmagazine.co.uk/recipes/bruce-bogtrotters-chocolate-cake/

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For the sponge

330ml whole milk (gold top is best)

200g dark chocolate (around 60% cocoa solids), broken into pieces

65g self-raising flour

200g ground almonds

55g cocoa powder

1 heaped tsp baking powder

165g unsalted butter, softened

330g light muscovado sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

4 medium free-range eggs, lightly beaten

For the icing

330ml double cream, plus extra if needed

500g dark chocolate (60 per cent cocoa solids), finely chopped

200g icing sugar

130g lightly salted butter, melted and cooled

  1. To make the icing, heat the cream and chocolate together in a large heatproof bowl and set over a pan of barely simmering water (don’t let the water touch the bowl). Stir occasionally until melted and smooth. Remove from the heat, leave to cool to room temperature, then, using an electric hand mixer, beat in the icing sugar. Add the melted butter in a thin stream, beating all the time, until combined. If the icing looks greasy, add a glug more cream, beating the mixture to bring it back together. Once all the butter has been incorporated, cover the icing with a piece of cling film touching the surface, and put somewhere cool (but not the fridge) for 4-5 hours to firm up.
  2. Heat the oven to 180°C/fan160°C/gas 4. Lightly oil and fully line 3 x 23cm sandwich tins with baking paper and set aside.
  3. For the sponge, heat 100ml of the milk with the chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water (don’t let the water touch the bowl), stirring occasionally, until the chocolate has melted. Cool slightly.
  4. Sift the flour, almonds, cocoa and baking powder into a bowl with a good pinch of salt. In another large mixing bowl, beat the butter with the sugar using an electric hand mixer until pale and soft. Beat in the vanilla, then the eggs, a bit at a time, alternating with a spoonful of the flour mixture to stop the mixture curdling. Once all the eggs are incorporated, whisk in the chocolate milk, then fold in the rest of the flour mix with a metal spoon or balloon whisk. Finally, fold in the remaining whole milk.
  5. Divide the cake batter evenly among the 3 tins. Bake for 30-35 minutes until a skewer pushed into the middle comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tins for 10 minutes, then turn out and leave to cool completely on wire racks.
  6. Once the icing has set, put one of the sponges on a cake stand or platter. Spread with a thick layer of icing, top with a second sponge, then repeat, finishing by spreading icing all over the top and sides. Leave somewhere cool for the icing to set, then slice and serve.
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Tips

  • To make a taller cake use 20cm diameter tins instead, but cook for the same time.
  • You’ll only need around two thirds of the icing, but the chocolate topping freezes well and can be used for cupcakes, or chilled and rolled in cocoa, nuts or desiccated coconut for rich truffles.
  • The sponges will freeze, un-iced and well wrapped in cling film, for up to a month. Defrost thoroughly before icing. The finished cake will keep in the fridge for up to 4 days. Bring to room temperature before serving.
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