Mad Hatter’s Tea Party Cake: chocolate cake with Earl Grey tea buttercream

This is the cake I made for Sheila Dillon from BBC’s The Food Programme and a gathering of the 4th birthday meeting of the Clandestine Cake Club group I attend: the theme for this evening being Alice in Wonderland.

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Sections in this post

  • Tea with the Mad Hatter
  • Layers of cake
  • Shaping the hat
  • Hiding cracks & blemishes on a fondant-iced cake
  • Assembling the cake
  • Recipes for the cake and the Earl Grey tea buttercream
  • Other recipe links

This post gives the recipe for the cake, the buttercream as well as how to shape and assemble a cake such as this. Click here to jump straight to the recipe.

The theme for this meeting was Alice in Wonderland and as I am such a lover of Afternoon Tea, I had to go for my take on tea with the Mad Hatter!

Tea and chocolate go well together, so I the cake itself is chocolate cake, using Earl Grey tea butter in the mixture. A little sweetened Earl Grey tea is drizzled over each layer and the layers are sandwiched together with Earl Grey tea buttercream.

The cake was coated in fondant icing which I flavoured with pistachio powder, along with various Afternoon Tea and other Alice in Wonderland-esque features made mostly out of chocolate and marzipan: all edible, as should be the case with any cake.

Fondant icing is not to everybody’s taste, but the ones you buy in specialist kitchen shops are usually excellent – and they actually taste nice: not soapy and overly sweet as the more mass produced ones can taste.

I have since made a more day-to-day version of this cake using just the sponge and the buttercream: total simplicity and each time it is made, the cake vanishes quickly: always a good sign!

The recipes for the cake and the Earl Grey tea buttercream are later in this post.

Tea with the Mad Hatter!

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I have always been most emphatic that with any cake, and indeed with any bake, the flavour absolutely must come first: after all, once a cake has been cut into, the initial impact of the design has gone and you are left with the eating of the cake: ie) the best bit!

In keeping with the Afternoon Tea idea, and wanting all of the items, including the “plates”, to be edible, I made a selection of items out of marzipan, chocolate and some left-over shortbread dough that I bakes for something else, none of which took more than about 10 minutes to make. Each was very easy to make and very therapeutic.

  • sandwiches: using a little dough from a batch of shortbread I had made for something else, just with some caramel before baking, cooling and slicing
  • cake: made with marzipan and white chocolate
  • jam tarts: made with marzipan “pastry” and marzipan mixed with a little strawberry sauce and red food colouring for the jam filling. Quite rough looking, but then my normal baked jam tarts never look perfect!

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  • éclairs: also made with marzipan, with a little melted chocolate on top
  • macarons: made with fondant icing, flavoured with a little rose water and filled with chocolate

I also made a few marzipan and white chocolate mushrooms, a white chocolate playing card and some dark chocolate leaves, brushed with edible gold, in keeping with the Alice in Wonderland theme.

Layers of cake

I must confess that my ability to slice a cake in half horizontally for layering up is embarrassingly poor, so rather than bake deep cakes for slicing in half, I baked the cakes in 6 shallow cake tins.

I went for 8″, 7″ and 6″ cakes, which gives a natural tapering to help shape the hat, although you could make the cakes the same size and have a cylindrical hat.

It might seem a lot of cake but to make and bake all of the cakes took under an hour (plus cooling time) as I used the very quick and easy all-in-one method.

Now it turned out that I did not need all of the layers as I got enought height with five of the cakes, so I omitted one of the 6″ cakes, which then gave us a small cake to eat later!

Shaping the hat: use frozen cakes!

Top tip: the easiest way to shape a cake and cover it with buttercream is to freeze it, un-iced.  You then trim it from frozen and then fill and cover it with the buttercream. This also avoids the cakes falling apart as you trim as well as preventing crumbs from getting all over the place.

NB: the flavour and texture of the cake is not affected by the freezing: I have taste-tested cakes side-by-side that have been both frozen and had not been frozen, and I can never tell the difference.

To shape, simply stack the cakes without the buttercream: it is easier having the largest cake on the base, tapering upwards. Then with a serrated knife, gently trim downwards. You can trim off any rough-looking bits if you want, but it really does not have to be perfect as the cake will be covered with icing – besides, a hat with a few battered or uneven bits is no bad thing!

Once you have trimmed the cake, unstack the layers and use the buttercream to sandwich them together: you can either do this with the smaller cake on the bottom or the other way round: if you later need to invert the cake, it will do so effortlessly as will still be frozen and will hold its shape with ease.

You then apply a thin layer of buttercream all around the edge and the top of the cake while it is still frozen (it avoids crumbs everywhere!).

Now place the cake in the fridge for a couple of hours to defrost before placing the rolled out fondant icing over it, easing it gently in place. Don’t worry about any cracks or tears: see below!

I dabbed a little cocoa power lightly around the hat with a tissue for a slightly aged look.

NB: it is far easier to roll out fondant icing on a surface dusted liberally with cornflour rather than icing sugar, as the icing sugar can make things get very sticky.

Hiding cracks & blemishes on a fondant-iced cake

I am not the neatest when it comes to covering a cake in fondant: no matter how careful I am, I often get cracks or small tears, especially down the side. Or else gravity takes over when draping it over a cake as it rips before I get the chance to smooth it around the cake!

But I wanted to push myself with this cake by covering it with fondant icing rather than go for a chocolate covering or a buttercream covering (two of my customary ways to cover a cake!).

Top tip 1: spread over runny fondant icing

Put some of the fondant icing (the same colour you want to repair) in a small container and add a few drops of water to it. Mix well and within moments the fondant will dissove a little, giving a gluey paste. Add more drops as needed to get a spreadable consistency.

You then spread a little of this mixture over the blemishes or small tears and use a knife to smooth it out. Allow it to dry and the blemishes and the repair work are unnoticeable!

Top tip 2: patchwork cheats!

Well, this certainly goes well with a Mad Hatters’s cake where the battered look is absolutely acceptable!

Simply cut out squares and rectangles of fondant (the same colour as the hat or even different!) and stick it over any cracks, using buttercream or melted chocolate as an adhesive. Brush over a little melted dark chocolate around the patches for the stitches!

Assembling the cake

Once the cake has been covered with the fondant icing it is ready to fix to the board and finish decorating.

I cut out a circle of the fondant icing for the brim of the hat (about the size of the top of the hat) and stuck this to the board with a little buttercream to hold it in place. You can use melted chocolate for extra insurance that it will not slide off, but if you chill the cake the buttercream will set firmly, keeping everything stable!

I then put a little more buttercream in the centre of the “brim” and placed the fondant-covered hat on top, smaller face down. A fondant ribbon was wrapped around the base, which also hides any joins!

That’s it: the rest is just a matter of decorating it in any way you want.

Recipes for the cake and the Earl Grey tea buttercream

Chocolate cake layers

  • 600g unsalted butter
  • 600g caster sugar
  • 600g eggs (in-shell weight), at room temperature (it is about 10 medium eggs)
  • 400g self-raising flour
  • 200g cocoa powder
  • 6 teaspoons baking powder

Earl Grey tea drizzle

  • 4 teaspoons Earl Grey tea leaves
  • 250ml boiling water
  • 50g caster sugar

Earl Grey tea buttercream

  • 500g unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 tablespoons Earl Grey tea leaves
  • 600g icing sugar

To finish

  • fondant icing (about 1kg)
  • food colouring of choice
  • any decorative flourishes (see above)

You also need to grease and base-line two shallow 6″ tins, two shallow 7″ tins and two shallow 8″ tins, or if your cake slicing skills are better than mine (whose isn’t?), just use one deep 6″ tin, one deep 7″ tin and one deep 8″ tin.

(1) Preheat the oven to 160C (fan). Sieve the flour, cocoa powder and baking powder into a large bowl. Add the remaining cake ingredients and mix gently until everything is incorporated and there are no lumps: this only takes about 1 minute using a wooden spoon: don’t over-beat as the baked cakes will be dense.

(2) Bake for about 20 minutes for the 6″ tins; 25 minutes for the 7″ tins and 30 minutes for the 8″ tins. The cakes are ready when they are just shrinking away from the sides and a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean.

NB: if using 3 deeper tins, going to about 2-3cm deep in each with the mixture, but bake for about 10-15 minutes longer for each

Top tip: you can bake the cakes quite easily in two batches, depending on oven space: the tins filled with the uncooked mixture will sit quite happily until they go into the oven.

(3) Remove from the oven and leave the cakes in their tins for 5 minutes before turning out onto wire racks.

(4) Make the Earl Grey tea drizzle: pour the water over the tea leaves and leave to infuse until the water has fully cooled. Strain the tea into a small pan, discarding the tea leaves, and add the sugar. Bring to a simmer and let this sweet tea boil gently until reduced to about half its volume: it should be a little syrupy. This can be done several days ahead!

(5) Spoon a couple of tablespoons of the Earl Grey drizzle over each sponge while they are still warm: you can add more, but you don’t want the sponges to become sodden.

(6) To make the buttercream, make the Earl Grey tea butter first – which can also be done many days in advance and kept in the fridge until needed: heat 250g of the butter with the tea leaves until the butter has melted. Allow to simmer gently for a few minutes and remove from the heat. Leave to infuse for about 10 minutes before straining the butter into a bowl. Chill until needed: you want it soft but not runny. However, if making this Earl Grey tea butter in advance, remove it from the fridge to soften.

(7) Beat the Earl Grey tea butter with the rest of the butter and the icing sugar for several minutes until you have a very light, soft buttercream.

(8) Shape and assemble the cake as described above.

NB: I found there are logistics needed when cutting and serving a cake such as this! Thin vertical slices and then cutting each slice in two seemed easiest

Other recipe links:

Earl Grey tea cupcakes



Author: Philip

Finalist on Britain’s Best Home Cook (BBC Television 2018). Published recipe writer with a love of growing fruit & veg, cooking, teaching and eating good food.

8 thoughts on “Mad Hatter’s Tea Party Cake: chocolate cake with Earl Grey tea buttercream”

  1. What a cake! The little afternoon tea bites are brilliant, and I appreciate the tips about fixing little tears and blemishes in the fondant (the patchwork is very appropriate!). Bravo indeed!
    I also love the sound of a clandestine cake club. None near me at all…though for now maybe a small cake party with friends is enough 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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