Tuesday, November 19, 2013

a cake for fall: brown butter and toasted pecan

Always watch the sugar. 

That voice that tells you, when you put sugar in a dry pan on high heat, "Just go into the other room for just a moment, just turn away for a minute, you won't forget about the sugar, just leave it for a second, it'll be fine." That voice is a liar. Maybe you don't hear that voice, maybe you are better at recognizing that the voice is wrong, maybe you stay with your sugar. I listened. And of course I didn't come right back, of course I forgot there was sugar in a pan over an open flame cranked up to eleven. I started grabbing recipes, assembling supplies, puttering. By the time I remembered the sugar, my apartment was full of smoke. Can't-see-across-the-room kind of smoke. And the sugar wasn't just burnt, it was on fire. Flame actually leaping out of the pan: a blackened, charred, disgusting sugar inferno.  

And then all the fire alarms went off. In the whole building. On a Saturday morning. No one in the building could turn the fire alarms off, so the firepeople had to come, in a great big firetruck just to turn off the alarm. I'm pretty sure everyone who lives in my building hates me now.

So watch the sugar. 

I recovered from my sugar crisis, and the cake was alright despite its rocky start. This combination is one of my favorites. Brown butter has a cosy, warm, autumnal flavour. It goes really well with other cold weather flavours: nuts, pumpkin, sage, smoke, cinnamon, apples, caramel. You can actually taste brown butter in lots of pastries; when croissants, puff pastry, cookies or pie crusts bake, the butter in them browns. When you add brown butter to pastries before you bake them, that flavour is even deeper.

This cake layers brown butter: it's in the cake and in the frosting, with pecans and not-too-sweet caramel syrup. It feels like fall to me. 

brown butter:
1 pound salted butter

Heat butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat until you see the solids at the bottom of the pan turn golden and then brown. Remove from heat once the milk solids are deeply brown; the butter can burn very quickly. 

Set aside to cool and solidify. This step can be done well in advance; the butter stores well in the fridge in an airtight container. 

vanilla brown butter cake:
recipe adapted from baked

2 1/2 cups cake flour
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tbs baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup brown butter
1/2 cup lard
1 3/4 cup sugar
2 tsp vanilla or 1 tsp vanilla powder
1 large egg
1 1/2 cups ice water
3 egg whites

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl and set aside. Cream together the browned butter and the lard. Add the sugar and the vanilla and beat until fluffy. Add the egg and just combine. Turn the mixer to low and add the flour mixture and water in turns. Scrape down the bowl to ensure everything is mixed properly.

In a clean bowl, beat the eggs until soft peaks form. Gently fold egg whites into the batter until well combined. 

Divide batter between two 6 inch pans and bake at 325 degrees F for 40 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow cakes to cool completely and cut each cake into two layers, trimming off the tops if necessary to make even layers. Chill or, preferably, freeze cake layers, wrapped well in cling wrap.

This step can be done well in advance; the cake can last in the freezer if triple wrapped in saran wrap. Frozen cake is easier to frost and assemble than a cake at room temperature.

caramel syrup:

1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 cups water 
a pinch of vanilla powder or a teaspoon of vanilla extract

Melt the sugar in a small saucepan over medium high heat. Swirl the sugar in the pan frequently but do not stir. Watch the sugar carefully, it can burn very quickly once it melts (see introductory fiasco) Once the melted sugar is a deep caramel colour, remove from heat and add water. The sugar will bubble violently and seize up hard. Return pan to low heat until sugar melts again and dissolves into the water. Stir in vanilla. Set aside to cool. 

This can be done well in advance; the syrup stores very well in the fridge. 

brown butter toasted pecan swiss buttercream:

recipe adapted from smitten kitchen

1 cup egg whites

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup softened butter
1 1/2 cups browned butter
1/3 cup toasted pecans, finely ground
1 tsp vanilla or 1/2 tsp vanilla powder

In a very clean, dry stainless steel bowl, whisk together the egg whites and the sugar. Set the bowl over a medium saucepan filled with simmering water. Whisk constantly, scraping the bottom of the bowl all over. The eggs can cook if you allow them to sit still. The mixture is ready when the mixture is hot to the touch and the sugar is dissolved when you rub mixture between your fingers. Dry the bottom of the bowl containing the egg whites thoroughly and transfer the mixture to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Whip up the egg whites until they are white and have doubled in size. 

Slowly add the butter, a quarter cup at a time, mixing constantly and then add the brown butter in the same way. The icing may split, seize, and look grainy, runny or otherwise gross. Keep mixing until in comes back together. Once the frosting is smooth, add pecans and vanilla. 

This should be done right before you frost the cake.

Lay out the frozen cake layers on a large piece of parchment paper. Brush the layers generously with caramel syrup.

Using an offset spatula, spread frosting in an even layer over one cake layer, place another cake layer on top and continue to frost and layer the remaining cake layers. If you have one, place your assembled cake on a turntable or a cake stand. 

Crumb coat

Quickly and roughly frost the entire cake with your offset spatula. Don't worry about making this pretty; just cover the whole cake with frosting so no cake shows through. This will seal the crumbs in so your final coating of frosting won't be full of crumbs. Put the cake in the fridge for an hour or so to set the crumb coat

Smoothing with a bench scraper

Take the cake out of the fridge; the frosting should be set firm, if you touch it gently it should be slightly hard. This is the final coat and now you are trying to make it as smooth as possible. I use an offset spatula and a bench scraper to do this. 
Spread more soft, warm frosting onto the chilled cake with the offset spatula. Holding the bench scraper against the side of the cake (like in the picture above) and rotate the cake to even out the frosting. If you want to make a very smooth surface, take a long time with this part. I keep adding icing to areas that aren't smooth or even and smooth them with the bench scraper. When the cake is getting smooth and even, I like to finish it by running the scraper under very hot water, drying it well and smoothing the cake with it. The warmth smooths the frosting a little more because it very slightly melts the frosting. 

If you like, top the cake with some pecan halves or some roughly chopped pecan toffee.

photo credit: Tyrel Hiebert 

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