Yellow cake elevated with fall flavors for a festive holiday feel: fluffy and moist, made with vanilla bean infused brown butter this cake is wrapped with a salted caramel chocolate whipped to produce the smoothest, most decadent ganache.
Classic birthday cake just got a major, major upgrade.
Traditionally, yellow cake is made with granulated sugar, eggs & yolks and vanilla extract. There are some really wonderful classic American birthday cakes out there, this one by KAF is one of my favorites. But even at its best, traditional yellow cake is just that, a sugar/butter cake with a hint of vanilla.
I wanted to take this basic flavor up a notch by browning the butter. I saw an IG demo for this recipe and knew I had to put one of these lovely beans into the butter. Buttermilk comes in to produce a tender texture, brown sugar adds a gentle note of caramel. The result? The very best yellow cake I have ever made, or tasted.
For this recipe you’ll need two types of vanilla: a vanilla bean and vanilla extract. The bean and it’s seeds (the caviar) cook with the brown butter to release the most amazing aroma and taste and really brings out the vanilla. Adding pure extract to the cake maintains that vanilla taste post-bake and as a result, you would never, ever call this cake simply ‘plain vanilla’.
We’ll begin by slicing open a vanilla bean pod, scraping the seeds and adding both to the butter. As you cook it, first the butter will melt, then begin to sputter and spit. It will then go quiet and you’ll smell nuttiness.
Careful not to burn the brown butter: as soon as the butter is browned, pour it into a heatproof bowl. If you leave it in the pan it is likely to burn from the residual heat.
Using browned butter isn’t just about browning: When the butter browns, it loses some of its water content, and many of us brown butter to different stages (so we end up with different quantities). From experience, I know that sometimes I brown it more than others and I can tell by the color how far it has been browned. This is why measuring it after you’ve browned it is important. You need to know exactly how much butter you have left.
Once the butter has set in the fridge, but can still be stirred, it is useable. Measure what you need and set that aside for the cake, and measure two tablespoons and set that aside for the caramel. Most likely you won’t have any left after this. If you have less than you need, use softened butter for the caramel and all of the browned butter for the cake.
Vanilla beans are pricey, and you’ll scrape your pod very well. We’re also using it in the butter but if you are like me, you won’t bear to throw it out just yet. Once you rinse it off, let it dry at room temperature. In pastry school, we took our scraped pod and added it with sugar to a food processor. Pulsed a few times and let it ‘infuse’ the sugar. When you want to use that sugar, sift it to remove any large chunks of the bean. It’s now vanilla sugar =)
This is a fairly simple cake, we’ve done most of the flavor work by browning the butter with the vanilla bean. The main thing to keep in mind when making the cake batter is adding ingredients carefully and slowly, and giving the mixer time to allow the air be beaten into the butter and sugar, and between each egg addition.
Another trick to a fluffy, soft cake is using a flour with a low protein content and sifting it in so that you don’t need overmix the batter once the flour is added. As soon as the batter looks smooth, stop mixing.
In addition to the stellar flavor of this cake, the texture is incredible too: it’s very soft and fluffy and very moist thanks to eggs, butter, buttermilk, oil and the way the flour is incorporated. The cake stayed moist for days – in fact, these photos were taken a full two days after the cake was made! And it was still wonderful to eat.
A typical ganache is made with just chocolate and heavy cream. The ganache we’re making here is much, much more interesting. Instead of using heavy cream, we’ll make our own salted caramel sauce. The sauce gets a little bit of the vanilla bean browned butter, and while the flavor isn’t pronounced, it definitely deepens the flavor.
To make the ganache, we’ll chop up some dark chocolate and set it in a heatproof bowl. Then, make caramel sauce with sugar, water, heavy cream and butter. The caramel is poured over the chocolate and the heat causes it to melt. You’ll have a very thin mix at first, and as it cools it will set into a thick ganache.
Once it’s thick enough to stay on a spoon when held above the bowl, it’s ready to be whipped. Whipping makes it soft and spreadable. Perfect for a cake. Use it to frost the cake immediately.
What if I don’t have vanilla beans?
You can skip the bean in the browned butter and use some vanilla bean paste instead. Alternatively, add 1 teaspoon more pure vanilla extract. It won’t have the full effect of the bean but it will do.
Can I use melted butter instead of browned butter?
No. During the browning, the butter loses a lot of its water and so using melted butter would add too much moisture to the cake.
Can I use a different oil rather than canola oil?
Sure! Any oil that is flavorless would work, grapeseseed or vegetable. Alternatively, if you like the flavor, olive oil could work too.
What kind of flour should I use for the cake?
I used a low protein all-purpose flour which is similar to cake flour. If you don’t have cake flour or a low protein flour, you can use regular AP. The cake may be slightly less tender but it will still be lovely.
How do I know when the butter is done browning?
By the way it looks, sounds and smells. When it’s done browning, the butter stops sputtering and goes quiet. The smell will be nutty and you’ll see brown bits at the bottom of the pan.
How do I know when the caramel is ready for the heavy cream?
The sugar/water mixture will first look like a light amber color in texture (this is when it has just begun to caramelize) and it will continue to darken. You want a medium amber. If it turns very dark then it may have burned (you’ll know by the smell), in this case you’ll have to start over.
What kind of chocolate should I use in the ganache?
Dark, at least 55% cocoa solids. I used 70%.
How do I know when the ganache is ready for whipping?
We’ll keep it in the fridge as it sets and check it every 30 minutes by stirring it with a rubber spatula. When it first goes in it’s liquid and as time passes slowly stiffens. You want to be able to stir it but for it to not run off the spatula. It shouldn’t take longer than 2 hours to set.
How long should I beat the ganache for?
Just until it lightens in color and looks smooth and spreadable.
Can I make any of this ahead of time?
The cake can be made a day or two ahead of time. Store it in an airtight container. To maintain its freshness, wrap each of the cake layers with plastic wrap and place them in an airtight container in the freezer. The caramel sauce can also be made ahead of time, but not the ganache. If you need to make the sauce early, store it in the fridge and rewarm it so that it’s hot enough to melt the chocolate. The ganache, once whipped, needs to be used immediately.
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