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: brown butter cake instead of a plain yellow, and instead of just a chocolate frosting… a ganache with salted caramel that’s whipped until it’s super silky. This cake is the definition of DIVINE.
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.
Brown Butter Vanilla Cake
Vanilla bean: If you don’t have or want to use a fresh bean in the browned butter, you can 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.
Butter: Unsalted or salted. If using salted, halve the amount of salt added to the recipe.
Eggs: Whole large eggs. Extra large will be too big!
Sugar: Light or dark brown.
Buttermilk: Or kefir, full fat. I avoid milk/vinegar substitutes as they tend to be too acidic and lack the proper amount of fat to add creaminess to the recipe.
Sea Salt: fine sea salt. If using table salt, halve the amount.
Canola Oil: Or any oil that is flavorless would work, grapeseseed or vegetable.
Flour: 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.
Whipped Caramel Ganache
Chocolate: Dark chocolate, at least 55% cocoa solids. I used 70%. Chop it up so that it will melt nice and quick into the ganache (it doesn’t have to be finely chopped, just roughly). I’d avoid chocolate chips as they have added ingredients to stop them from melting.
Sugar: Fine granulated. Organic granulated takes a bit longer to melt as the granules are bigger.
Heavy Cream: Or heavy whipping cream. This cannot be substituted with half and half or light cream as neither has enough fat in them to thicken and whip the ganache.
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.
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.
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 =)
Once the butter has gotten to a solid but soft state we are able to cream it with the brown sugar. After about an hour in the fridge (quicker if you’re using the freezer) check it by stirring to see if it resembles ‘softened butter’.
Once it has, add it to the stand mixer (weigh it in!) then add the brown sugar and use the paddle attachment to beat it. The goal here is to “cream”: whip air into the mixture while dissolving some of the sugar.
It’ll start out pretty rough but gradually lighten in color and seem more fluffy as more and more air is whipped in.
With the mixer on you’ll add the eggs one by one, slowly. Allowing each to incorporate before adding another. Then let the mixer beat it on medium until it’s very light and airy (I didn’t get a pic of this but it’s in the video below).
Add the flour all at once then, with the mixer on, slowly pour in the buttermilk (or kefir).
Stop to scrape down the bowl to ensure that all the flour and butter bits are well mixed in.
Once you’re confident you have a nicely mixed batter, divide it between two 8 or 9″ cake pans (or three 6″ pans).
Bake until the top springs back when gently pressed.
Make sure the cake layers are totally cool before you frost the cake.
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.
Let’s start with the caramel: pour the sugar into a heavy bottomed pot and even it out so it’s in one layer.
Pour the water around it to push those sugar granules into the pot. Give the mix a couple of drops of lemon juice (this helps prevent crystalization).
Cover with a lid and cook on medium.
The sugar will start to dissolve into the water (melt) and then gradually begin to change color.
At first you’ll see it light amber and then it will gradually turn darker.
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.
Add the heavy cream very slowly, it will bubble up quite a bit. Once it ‘s all in you can add the butter and salt.
Then pour it over the chopped chocolate and stir until smooth.
Then set it in the fridge to chill.
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.
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.
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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