Project Cook: Espresso Cake with Cardamom Buttercream

Theologically, pride is commonly understood as the most serious of the seven deadly sins. For medieval Christian thinkers, it was the wellspring: the sin from which all other sins derived. Some writers interpreted that Lucifer – the morning star, the best and most beautiful of the angels – was ousted from Heaven because he exhibited pride: in trying to rise above his station, rule over others, or see himself as equal with God, he was guilty of pride and thus cast out. In Paradise Lost Milton famously equates Lucifer with Satan, showing the extremes of pride as a sin: rather than simply being cast out of heaven, he is thrown all the way to Hell.

I think, though, that as dangerous as pride may be, I have a right to feel it about this dish. I’ve been rewatching the first two seasons of The Great British Baking Show with its new cast (quick assessment: I love and miss Mel and Sue dearly, but I think Noel and Sandi are doing a fine job, and I think I might prefer Prue to Mary Berry just a tad – she doesn’t let Paul get away with as much. Happy to hear your thoughts, fellow obsessors…), and I’m certain that was the source of my inspiration. Certainly it was how I came to the combination of coffee and cardamom.

This is a glorious play of flavors. Each component of the cake – the sponge, the filling, and the buttercream – has its own star. Together it is a layered, complex combination, but each part is uncrowded. The cake, one of the moistest I’ve ever made, pulls together buttermilk, vegetable oil, and eggs to ensure a tender, luscious crumb. Strong black coffee and instant espresso add flavor, but surprisingly, that flavor is subtle – a suggestion with a sneaky kick of caffeine rather than the bitter slap a cup of the stuff can have.

Cardamom flavors the buttercream, and here I decided I wanted something new. I’ve dabbled in American buttercream before, and though I’ve achieved praiseworthy fluffiness and pipe-able texture, it remains as a product overwhelmingly, tooth achingly sweet. There are other buttercreams out there – French and Swiss and Italian – that rely on eggs, rather than pounds of powdered sugar, for their structure. In part to assuage the sweetness problem but in larger part because I have all this meringue powder left from my royal icing experiment a few weeks ago, I decided to try one out, and I was magnificently rewarded: the Italian buttercream that enrobed the cake was fluffy and rich but surprisingly light, spicy from the cardamom and not overly sweet, and it spread and piped like a dream (the first time I typed cream. Appropriate I’d say, Mr. Freud).

Italian buttercream, for all its advantages, is a bit of a terrifying bother to make. I used a King Arthur Flour recipe, which worked perfectly, but this component is a project in itself as it requires bringing a sugar syrup up beyond boiling temperature, making a meringue, pouring the molten sugar syrup carefully into the bowl of meringue while mixing, and then running your mixer until the whole thing cools by more than 100 degrees. Even then, you aren’t done: you next have to incorporate masses of butter, which can be neither too hot nor too cold, and you have to sit patiently through what looks like certain disaster as the whole bowl you’ve now coddled along for the last half hour suddenly turns into a sloppy, almost curdled-looking mess. But you have to be strong, and keep mixing, and eventually it does start to smooth and fluff and turn into buttery clouds.

With all this richness, the filling in between needed to be sharp and fresh, to provide contrast and keep the dessert from getting sickly. I went with plums: stone fruit of any kind works beautifully with the slight citrus notes of cardamom, but I think plums, with their sometimes surprisingly tart bite that I’m convinced comes from the oh-so-thin layer of bright red in between their skins and flesh, are the best pairing. Simmered down with a bit of sugar and a healthy squeeze of lemon, they made a successful quasi-jam to spread between the layers.

You may have noticed there are no pictures of slices, or of the artful “cake with a section missing” to show off the layers. There’s a very good reason for this: I had no real occasion to make this cake. I just wanted to bake, and with a surprisingly free weekend as a result of – ahem – not very many assignments turned in on time, I launched into the creation of what sounded like a delightful dessert. To avoid, therefore, eating the whole thing ourselves, I took the whole cake to work and left it in the mailroom for my colleagues to enjoy. I left it there in the 7am hour, and when I went to pick up my dish in the early afternoon, only crumbs remained. Don’t feel bad for N. and me, though. I always carve off the rounded tops when I’m going to make a layer cake, and those can’t go to waste… we sampled and then resampled and then decimated them (pride giving way to gluttony?), with a fair sampling of both the jam and the frosting. And let me tell you something: for years, despite my experiments with whisky, with champagne, with fruit, with mousse, N. has demanded only one cake for every birthday, anniversary, or what have you. But after our sampling-turned-gorge, he said it might be okay to sub this in for The Cake once in a while. So sin or not, wellspring or not, I must admit feeling justified in my pride.

Espresso Cake with Cardamom Buttercream
Cake and buttercream adapted from Molly Yeh and King Arthur Flour, respectively
Makes a 4 layer cake from two 8 or 9 inch rounds
For the cake:
1½ cups sugar
2½ cups flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1½ teaspoon baking powder
2-3 teaspoons instant espresso powder
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon vanilla
¾ cups strong, cold coffee (I used a cold brew concentrate from Trader Joe’s)
For the filling:
6 plums
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ cup sugar
For the Italian buttercream:
¼ cup water
⅝ cups sugar
¼ cup meringue powder
½ cup water
pinch salt
3 tablespoons sugar
3 sticks butter (24 tablespoons or ¾ of a pound) at a cool room temperature, cut into chunks
1-2 teaspoons ground cardamom

 

  • To make the cake, first preheat the oven to 350F and butter or spray two 8 or 9 inch cake pans with nonstick spray. In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients: flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and soda, and instant espresso. In another bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients: eggs, buttermilk, oil, vanilla, and coffee. Carefully pour the wet mixture into the dry mixture and fold together just until everything is well incorporated. Be sure to scrape down the sides and check the bottom of the bowl for hidden clumps of flour.
  • Pour and scrape the batter into your prepared cake pans so each holds an even amount. Bake in the preheated 350F oven for 30-35 minutes, but begin checking for doneness at around 28 minutes. When done, a cake tester or toothpick inserted should have only a few moist crumbs. Remove from the oven and cool in pans for at least ten minutes, before removing from pans to cool completely on a wire rack.
  • While the cakes are cooling, make the filling. I opted not to peel the plums because I like the color and the texture the skins offer, but you can if you want: cut a small x in the bottom of each whole plum and immerse in boiling water for about 30 seconds. The skin should peel off fairly easily. Slice and pit the plums and dump them into a medium pot.
  • Skins or not, slice and pit the plums and add them, the lemon juice, and the sugar to a medium pot. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, and cook until the plums have broken down and the mixture has slightly thickened. For me, this took around 20 minutes. Scrape out of the pot and into a bowl (to cool faster) and set aside to cool completely.
  • Once both cakes and jam have completely cooled, you can set to work on the buttercream. Start the ¼ cup water and ⅝ cups sugar cooking in a small pot. Check the temperature occasionally – it needs to come to 240F. While that is heating, make the meringue by whisking together the meringue powder, the ½ cup water, and the pinch of salt in the bowl of a stand mixer on high speed until you can see tracks forming in the fluffy white mixture. With the mixer running, sprinkle in the 3 tablespoons sugar and continue beating until the mixture is stiff.
  • When the sugar syrup has reached 240F, carefully remove it from the heat and even more carefully, with the mixer running on medium-low speed, pour all of the hot syrup slowly down the side of the bowl. Once it is incorporated, turn the mixer speed back up to high or medium high and continue whisking until the meringue mixture cools to at least 80F. KAF suggests you can speed this up by wrapping the bowl in ice packs, and I found this worked well.
  • As soon as the meringue cools the 80F (and no sooner!), turn the mixer speed down to medium and begin incorporating the butter a few pieces at a time, allowing them to fully integrate before adding more. When most of the butter is in the mix, add the cardamom: 1 teaspoon if you want a mild flavor, 2 teaspoons for a more assertive flavor.
  • After all the butter is added, keep on whisking. At a certain point the mixture will collapse on itself and look like a greasy, clumpy mess. Don’t despair. Just keep on mixing. As long as your meringue was no warmer than 80F when you started adding and your butter wasn’t melted, eventually it will start to smooth and get fluffy, and you’ll have frosting.
  • To assemble the whole thing, use a long serrated knife to carefully carve the rounded tops off each cake, then slice each in half for four thin layers. On a cake plate or cardboard round, place the first layer bottom side down (that is, the side that touched the bottom of the cake pan). (Reserve the other bottom for the very top layer; this allows for a flat, less crumb-y layer on the top.) Scoop a generous amount of buttercream into a piping bag fitted with a tip that has a wide opening of any shape. Pipe a circle of buttercream around the top edge of the bottom cake layer to create a border so the filling won’t escape. Inside this border, spoon about ⅓ of the plum jam and use the back of a spoon to carefully spread it out just to the buttercream.
  • Place another layer of cake on top of this buttercream and jam, lining it up carefully so it’s even with the one below. Repeat the border of buttercream and ⅓ of the plum jam.
  • Repeat for the third layer – you should now have used up all of the plum jam.
  • Stack the final cake layer with the bottom side (that is, the side that originally touched the cake pan) facing up.
  • To create a crumb coat, use an offset spatula to smooth a thin layer of frosting all the way around the cake. The idea here is to catch any crumbs that detach from the cake in this thin layer so when you add the rest of the frosting it will not have any tell-tale cake crumbs in the smooth frosting.
  • Scoop and pile all but about 1 cup of frosting onto the top of the cake and use an offset spatula to gently move it toward, down, and around the sides, until you have a smooth, even layer all the way around. Scoop the remaining cup or so of frosting into a piping bag fitted with a tip of your choosing – I used a large star tip – and decorate as desired.

Mocha Ganache Shortbread

In thinking about baking lately, I’ve been attracted to layers. This could have been inspired by an outrageously good bar style dessert I had at, of all places, a training workshop on my campus. We changed catering companies in the last year or so, and the new service is unexpectedly good. The last day of this workshop, they brought in not only lemon bars, but a three layer concoction that, if memory serves, involved a thick chocolate layer on the bottom, a cream cheese layer reminiscent of cheesecake in the middle, and then a thin topper that might have been red velvet cake on top. All this with cherries dotted through. Immediately upon getting home that day, I emailed the catering service asking for more info. I have yet to hear an answer…

But anyway, layers: of course I instantly think of cake, but because I’m now back in school and am thinking about what treats I can leave in the mailroom, I need something smaller and more portable. Cake can be messy. As I was trawling my way around Pinterest I saw something that reminded me of that old classic the peanut butter blossom: Hershey’s kisses pressed into a soft cookie. Instead of the traditional peanut butter, I thought about shortbread: crisp, tender, crumbly, enhanced by browning the butter. The milk chocolate drop became a rich ganache layer spread over the top, not just chocolate but espresso too, for a mocha-like kick-in-the-pants to perk us up for a morning – or an afternoon, for that matter – in the classroom.

For shortbread, I borrowed from both Ruhlman’s bare bones ratio in, well, Ratio, and from Martha Stewart’s version, formulated for brown butter. A little milk gets added in to compensate for the water lost from the butter during the melting and browning process. I wanted some salt and some vanilla too, and then had to stop myself from adding all kinds of other ingredients: roughly chopped almonds, orange zest, a spritz of garam masala – because I wanted to focus on the buttery shortbread and its rich, caffeine-infused topping. But do feel free to experiment if you want; any of these would, I suspect, be delicious. I’ve used weight here to measure my ingredients, following Ruhlman’s formula: shortbread requires 1 part sugar, 2 parts fat (butter, in this case), 3 parts flour. This is more precise and, in a lot of ways, easier: you can pour directly into your mixing bowl, which means no one has to wash a stack of measuring cups.

A note on the ganache: this combination of semi-sweet chocolate and heavy cream can vary in thickness anywhere from a drizzling glaze to the dense squelch of a truffle. This one is fudge-like straight from the refrigerator, but it softens slightly as it warms and becomes more like a very thick frosting. It’s rich, but not overwhelmingly so because it is not overly sweet. The coffee flavor and the percentage of cocoa in the chocolate keep it away from toothache territory.

It took a while before we got to taste this; between the need to re-solidify the butter after browning, a friend in town, cooling the shortbread after baking, and time for the ganache to harden, 48 hours passed before N. and I finally stood anxiously over these little squares as I sliced. Yours needn’t take that long, obviously, but do be aware of the cooling time it requires.

Nevertheless, the wait was worth it. At first bite you taste sweetness, but it quickly develops into that deep, almost fruity taste coffee lends to chocolate. Then, as you crunch through the shortbread layer, you start to pick up on the buttery richness there. And then, while you are savoring all that goodness, you are somewhat surprised to see another piece already in your hand, ready for a repeat.

I’m delivering a tray of these to the mailroom at work tomorrow. N. and I are taking bets about how long they will last. He says 10 minutes. I’m thinking, given how early I get to work, that they may last an hour or two, but I’m certain none will make it into the afternoon.

Mocha ganache shortbread
Makes one 9×9 inch tray
About 3 hours including cooling time
For the shortbread:
4 ounces sugar (1/2 cup + 1 TB)
8 ounces butter (2 sticks or 16 tablespoons)
12 ounces flour (2-2½ cups)
2 TB milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ – 1 teaspoon salt, depending on your preference
For the mocha ganache:
8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped into small pieces
5-6 ounces heavy cream
3 tablespoons instant espresso powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
  • First, brown the butter: in a small pot, melt the butter swirling gently on occasion, over medium to medium-low heat. Once melted, the butter will foam up, then clear slightly, and then the magic: the solids will sink to the bottom of the pan and begin to brown slightly. At this point, turn off the heat. You want this beautiful browning, but you don’t want those solids to burn. There is only a small window between browning and burning, so watch carefully as the butter reaches this stage.
  • Pour the melted butter and browned bits (which you may have to scrape off the bottom of the pan) into the bowl you will use to make the shortbread.  I used my stand mixer bowl.  Stow it in the freezer for 10-15 minutes, just until the butter solidifies – you don’t want it to be liquid anymore, but don’t let it harden or freeze.
  • Preheat the oven to 350F and line a 9×9-inch baking dish with parchment paper, letting the paper extend over the edges of the dish to make a sling for easy removal later on.
  • Add the sugar, milk, and vanilla to the cooled brown butter and beat with an electric mixer or the paddle attachment of your stand mixer until well combined.
  • Add in the flour and mix again to incorporate. First the dough will be very crumbly, but then as the flour begins to hydrate it will take on the texture of damp sand. At that point, stop mixing. Yes, it is a crumbly mess rather than a proper dough. That’s okay. The more you mix it, the more the gluten develops and the tougher the end result will be. For maximum tenderness, be brave: dump the crumbs into your lined baking dish and use your hands or a rubber spatula to firmly press it into the baking dish like you would do with a graham cracker crust.
  • Bake at 350F for 30-40 minutes, until the top of the shortbread is golden and has only a very slight give when gently pressed. Allow it to cool completely.
  • To make the ganache, you have two options: you can use a double boiler, or you can use the microwave.
  • For the double boiler, heat water in a small pot to a simmer. Place a glass bowl over the pot but don’t let it touch the water below. Add the chocolate, the instant espresso powder, and the cream to the bowl and stir gently until it melts together smoothly. When the chocolate has completely melted, add the vanilla and stir to combine.
  • To use the microwave, pour the cream into a glass bowl and heat until it is barely simmering; depending on your microwave this may take 1-1½ minutes. When it is just forming tiny bubbles (you don’t want it to boil), stir in the instant espresso and let it dissolve, then add the chocolate and stir gently to combine. Be patient: the heat of the cream will melt the chocolate.
  • If the cream cools down too much and the chocolate doesn’t seem to be melting at all, return the bowl to the microwave and heat for 15-20 seconds, then remove and continue stirring. Repeat if necessary. When the chocolate has completely melted, add the vanilla and stir to combine.
  • Pour the ganache over the cooled shortbread, using a spatula to spread it evenly across the top. Let sit until cool, then refrigerate until the ganache hardens to the texture of cool butter: if pressed hard it will give, but it you gently touch it your fingertip won’t leave a mark.
  • When the ganache has hardened, you can use the parchment paper sling to remove the whole confection from the baking dish, slice into squares of your desired size using a very sharp knife, and try to resist eating them all in one go.

 

Miso Butter Broiled Shiitakes

It has been a busy couple of months. I’m getting used to the lack of cooking companion in my doorway, watching intently as food moves from countertop to stove (and sometimes to the floor – much consternation resulted!), and I’m slowly regaining that urge to putter around and experiment in the kitchen. I didn’t know how much this part of my life would be impacted by the absence of a big, golden dog.

But anyway, in addition to that change, we’ve also been busy planning our summer (more on that soon…), and working through the semester, and at the end of April, N. crossed a huge item off his bucket list as he successfully finished the Eugene Marathon! Not only was this a major accomplishment for him; it also provided the inspiration for this post. During that weekend, we stayed with our friends S. and M., and as part of a Friday evening happy hour spread, S. made these mushroom caps, smeared with a mixture of miso paste and butter, broiled until charcoal black but so savory and deep and perfect we could barely keep our fingers away long enough to let them cool. They were a restaurant recreation of hers, from an appetizer at a local izakaya, and I haven’t stopped thinking about them since. On a long, slow Saturday, punctuated by errands and an intense summer travel planning session, they seemed the right late-afternoon accompaniment to a glass of pinot noir.

The ingredient list here is unusually short, for me: shiitake mushrooms, miso, butter. Maybe a shower of chives, if you want a little color and hint of onion-y freshness on top. The mushrooms are stemmed, the miso and butter are whisked or smeared or stirred together, the mixture gets liberally frosted onto the gills of the shiitakes, and into the broiler they go. 5-10 minutes later, you are dispensing small, homely saucers approximately the temperature of the molten center of the earth, but so incredibly savory and chewy and crusty and almost too salty in just the right way, that if you are anything like me, you will already have eaten a few in the kitchen before anyone else knew they were ready.

When you broil miso and butter together, some of the intense mixture seeps down into the mushroom as it softens and barely cooks through, but much of it remains trapped in the enclosing folds of the cap, where the butter bubbles and the miso takes on an appealing char not unlike the crusty exterior of a grilled steak.

The trickiest part of the whole procedure is managing your broiler. You want the mushrooms to cook, but you also want the deep browning on top, and since every broiler is so different, I’ve included below only the most basic of instructions. Yours might do best on low, or on high, and it might take as few as four or as many as ten minutes for satisfactory results. In any case, I’d say to let them go a tiny bit longer than you think you need to, because I promise it isn’t burning; it’s just getting better.

Miso Butter Broiled Shiitakes
10-15 minutes, depending on your broiler
For 8 shiitake caps:
8 large shiitake mushrooms, stems removed
2 tablespoons red miso paste (or use white for a less intense miso flavor)
4-5 tablespoons softened (not melted) unsalted butter
sprinkle of chives to garnish, optional

 

  • Preheat your broiler. I set mine to low with the rack closest to the broiler element. Broilers are all so different, so you might need to experiment a bit.
  • In a small bowl, combine the miso paste and softened butter with a flexible rubber spatula. Mix and smash and stir until the butter and miso are homogenized.
  • Using the same spatula, fill each cap with the miso and butter mixture. Depending on the shape of your shiitakes, you might have more or less room to fill. Mine were quite roomy and I used almost all of the mixture. If yours are small or flattish, you will probably have miso butter left over. May I suggest an amazing spread for avocado toast?
  • Arrange the filled mushroom caps evenly, with space in between, on a broiler-safe tray or pan. Broil until the miso and butter mixture is bubbly and very, very dark – it will look a little burned – and the mushroom caps have softened and flattened a bit. Again, broilers are so different. On low, mine took about 7 minutes. Play with yours and judge accordingly.
  • Remove from the oven and let sit 1-2 minutes, until they are no longer the temperature of fresh lava. Sprinkle with chives if desired, scoop onto a decorative plate, and consume immediately.

Miso Brown Butter Krispie Treats

This one is, I have to admit, a bit of a cheat. But when it’s the day after the horror that is the spring time change, a fifteen minute “baking” project that barely adapts perfection is about all a person can be expected to churn out.

Have you had Smitten Kitchen’s salted brown butter crispy treats? Please tell me you have. It’s one of the recipes that was so successful on her blog that she put it into her first cookbook as a tried and true favorite. One of our friends calls them “the precious” and I have to say, he’s not far off. The same old gooey, crunchy squares from childhood, but bumped up with the nutty toastiness of brown butter, and a judicious sprinkle of sea salt that makes them fly. We first discovered them through a batch S. made, and she consequently became our dealer while we were in Oregon, though now that we’re so many miles separate from her I’ve had to take up the mantle myself.

I’m not sure what gave me the idea – perhaps seeing several miso caramels on Food Network, or maybe SK’s own miso caramel corn – but the idea of adding a scoop of miso paste to these already flawless squares seemed to toe the line between genius and potentially horrifying.

So I did it.

The result is, surprisingly, somehow butterscotch-esque, despite no brown sugar or vanilla in the mix, and completely addictive. There’s no flaky sea salt anymore – the miso has plenty of salinity of its own – although I think you could get away with a tiny sprinkle if you can’t do without so I’ve made it optional, and I don’t even think you’d need to brown the butter, but I still did because since it needs to be melted anyway, it’s not really that much more effort.

So here, backed by Deb’s ingenuity and a mere four ingredients (well, five if you add salt), is my offering for you today: all the goo, all the sweetness, all the crunch, but with a new twist that will, I suspect, leave you tasting, and tasting again, and suddenly wondering where the whole pan got off to, because you couldn’t possibly have just eaten the entire thing…

Miso Brown Butter Krispie Treats
Marginally adapted from Smitten Kitchen‘s salted brown butter crispy treats
15-20 minutes
Makes 8×8- or 9×9-inch square pan of treats
8 tablespoons unsalted butter (½ cup; 4 ounces)
1-1½ tablespoons miso paste
⅛ teaspoon salt, optional
10 ounce bag of marshmallows
6 cups crisped rice cereal

 

  • Butter or spray an 8×8 or 9×9 inch pan, then set aside.
  • Add the butter to a saucepan and melt over medium heat. Once it has completely melted, turn the heat down to medium-low and keep an eye on it as it foams up, then subsides, then starts to brown into toasty little bits on the bottom of the pot. It’s easiest to use a pot that does not have a dark surface, since you can see color changes in the butter more easily. If your pot has a black surface, though, and you think you’re there, you can quickly dunk in a marshmallow and see whether the butter it captures has brown flecks in it (then, if you must, you can eat it). The moment you discern these little brown flecks, turn the heat off so the butter solids won’t burn.
  • With the heat off, add the miso paste, the salt, if using, and the marshmallows. Stir firmly with a flexible rubber spatula, being sure to distribute the miso paste evenly. The residual heat should be enough to melt the marshmallows, and you’ll end up with a sticky, pale golden pool of goo. Add the 6 cups of cereal all at once and stir in. You’ll need to be quite firm, again, to ensure even distribution.
  • Dump and scrape the cereal mixture into the prepared pan and press down firmly into an even layer, being sure to push it into the corners as well. You can use the same rubber spatula for this, or a piece of waxed paper, or the bottom of the cup measure you used for the cereal – it shouldn’t stick too much.
  • Set aside until fully cooled, then cut into squares of your desired size and consume.

Brown Butter Apple Pound Cake

I’ve tried to start this post three or four times now. The first time I tried to skirt the events of the last week entirely, but that felt like lying. The second time I was overtly political, explaining exactly how I felt and why. That felt more honest, but it didn’t feel like the right move. The third time I tried to be conciliatory, citing concerns on both sides.

2016-food-blog-november-0385In the face of change, particularly because it is not the sort of change I agree with or was hoping for, I retreated to comfort. I know this is not particularly useful. I know I am reasonably safe for a number of reasons, and closing the blinds and wallowing is not helping the people who are – or soon may be – not so safe, but I did it anyway. Finally, I decided I need more time to process what I want to say, so I’ll offer this instead, as unhelpful and uninspiring as it might be: this week was rough. Let’s have cake.

2016-food-blog-november-03382016-food-blog-november-0329For me, the deepest and firmest food comfort is baking. It makes me think of being a child, it makes me think of warmth and sweetness; it makes me feel sound. In his examination of sugar and its coming to and impacts on Europe, particularly England, Sidney W. Mintz suggests that perhaps the reason we are so attracted to sugar, especially when we are young, is because human breast milk is sweet. So it makes sense that when we are troubled, or we feel that we need safety and security, we turn to sweet foods.

2016-food-blog-november2016-food-blog-november-0356The original inspiration for this cake came from Starbucks. A few years ago as part of their fall line-up of baked goods, Starbucks rolled out a brown butter pound cake spiked with Washington apples, and after sampling the dense crumb and the wet, almost too sweet apple chunks, I wanted to do my own version. For the base recipe, I went with that great baking bible Baking Illustrated, by the same cooks and recipe testers as Cooks Illustrated. Their pound cake uses cake flour for a tight but tender crumb, plenty of butter, and the richness and color and emulsifying power of extra egg yolks, rather than all whole eggs. Mine adds the extra step of browning the butter first (which then necessitates refrigerating it back into solidity before creaming it with the sugar), and a generous two cups of apple cubes – granny smith, for the tartness and minimal juice expelled during baking.

2016-food-blog-november-03462016-food-blog-november-0352Most pound cakes have a soft top that splits as it bakes, and this one did offer that classic cleaving in the center, but the rest of the top – the browned exterior on either side of that tender split, was crisp and delicate and almost wafer-like – think of the top shiny, flaky layer of an excellent pan of brownies – perhaps because I was so enthusiastic in creaming the butter and sugar and then beating in the eggs. My batter looked like a good fluffy buttercream in its initial stages.

2016-food-blog-november-0363I usually bring my baked offerings to work with me, leaving only a serving or two to enjoy at home, and this was no exception, but we were sorry about that. Especially as the week wore on, we wanted more of this comforting, moist-but sturdy, not-too-sweet confection, preferably in thick slices. But alas, it lasted only a few hours in our mailroom.

2016-food-blog-november-0368It’s funny in that uncomfortable way, but the last time I made a pound cake was also a heavy time. It’s an uncomfortable metaphor – perhaps I should start perfecting an angel-food cake recipe instead – but hindsight is what it is, and here we are. Cake.

2016-food-blog-november-0371Maybe the best way I can conclude today is with Kurt Vonnegut. In his novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, one character offers the following as a baptismal statement to a pair of brand new twins: “Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”

2016-food-blog-november-0386

Brown Butter Apple Pound Cake
Makes 1 9x5x3 inch loaf
About 90 min
16 tablespoons unsalted butter (2 sticks)
1⅓ cups sugar
3 large eggs + 3 large egg yolks, all at room temperature
1½ teaspoons vanilla
1½ teaspoons water
½ teaspoon salt
1½ cups cake flour
2 cups ½-inch cubes of granny smith apple; 1 large apple or 2 small

  • First, brown the butter. In a small saucepan, preferably with a light colored bottom so you can see what is happening, melt the butter over medium heat. As it melts, it will foam up. Keep swirling and checking the color underneath that foam; it will gradually darken from yellow to golden, and the foam will recede a bit. Watch very closely at this point, occasionally tipping the pot to see the bottom – little white solids will have collected. When these begin to turn brown, the butter will smell toasted and nutty. Take it off the stove and stow it in the refrigerator until it has solidified but is not too hard – your thumb should still press in easily.
  • While the butter cools down again, preheat the oven to 375F and prepare a loaf pan by spraying with non-stick spray and lining with parchment paper. Prep the apple by peeling it, quartering and coring it, and then slicing and cubing into ½ inch pieces.
  • In a mixing bowl (Baking Illustrated recommends using a stand mixer, but I used a glass bowl and my regular electric mixer and it was fine), combine the re-solidified butter and all of the sugar. Mix at medium speed until very light and fluffy, at least 3-4 minutes. Really. That long. It will take on a texture much like a slightly grainy buttercream frosting.
  • Beat the eggs with the egg yolks, the water, and the vanilla and, with the mixer still running, dribble in this egg mixture until all is well combined. At this point the batter will be very thick and glossy and still a bit reminiscent of frosting.
  • Now, sift in ½ cup of the flour with the salt right over the top of the batter. Once it is all snow-drifted on top there, use a rubber spatula to fold it in. Once fully combined, repeat the sifting and folding with the second ½ cup of flour.
  • Sprinkle the apple cubes over the batter, then dust with the remaining ½ cup flour. Giving the apple chunks a little flour coating helps them stay suspended in the batter during baking, rather than sinking to the bottom. Repeat the folding process one final time, being sure the flour is fully incorporated and there are no dry pockets.
  • With your rubber spatula, pour and scrape the batter carefully into the prepared loaf pan. Smooth off the top if you like, then stow in the preheated oven for 45-55 minutes, or until a toothpick insertted comes out with just a few damp crumbs.
  • Let the loaf cool in the pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes, then use a second wire rack placed over the top of the pan to invert. The loaf will plop right out, upside down, onto this second rack. Carefully remove the pan from the loaf and flip the loaf back over top-side-up to cool completely. Peel off the parchment paper, transfer to a cutting board, and slice up thickly to eat.

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