Saturday, November 29, 2008

Really, sugar

November is an especially challenging month to be a Daring Baker. You know, with Thanksgiving and all.

There's an awful lot to cook and bake in November. And just when you think you can relax for a moment -- after the Thanksgiving feast has been enjoyed and the leftovers have been stored away and even the turkey stock has been made -- along come those wily bakers with their rules and confections. Hence I found myself, on the Friday after Thanksgiving, making a caramel cake when there were remnants of three pies covered in aluminum foil sitting on the counter. Talk about excessive. Good thing the SciFi Channel was airing a "Mork & Mindy" marathon; episode after episode kept me and Husband entertained as I caramelized sugar late into the evening/early into the morning. In fact, Mork and Mindy were already married and honeymooning on Ork by the time I was ready to frost the cake.

The caramel cake with caramelized butter frosting recipe comes to us from Shuna Fish Lydon. Our lovely hosts for this challenge were Dolores from Chronicles in Culinary Curiosity, Alex from Blondie and Brownie and Jenny of Foray into Food -- with an admirable assist from gluten-free goddess Natalie of Gluten-a-Go-Go. OK! With all those credits out of the way, let's get on with it.

The requirement this month was to make the cake and frosting. We were also presented with an optional challenge: Alice Medrich's golden vanilla bean caramels. Unfortunately for my own sugar skills, I ran out of time this month and didn't get to the caramels. I thought it more pressing to get the outside Christmas lights up, especially since today was a sunny and snow-less day. But I will be making them in the weeks to come, just for the challenge of it. Plus, I already have golden syrup on hand for when the ANZAC biscuit craving strikes. So I really have no excuse not to give these candies a whirl.

Now about that caramel cake. Man alive. It is delicious. And a textural masterpiece: crunchy, golden brown and caramelized crust; soft, light, moist crumb. It smells divine and tastes even better, sweet but not too sweet, sugary but not overwhelmingly so. I just couldn't get over the texture of the cake. Simply gorgeous.

The caramelized butter frosting is another story, at least in terms of sweetness. I suggest setting out your toothbrush and toothpaste preemptively. You will need it. The frosting has great flavor and texture, but, really, sugar. In fact, the next time I make this cake -- and there will be a next time, it is that good -- I think I might omit the frosting and mix a handful of toasted walnuts into the batter. That, to me, sounds perfect.

But that cake as I made it this go 'round was pretty perfect too. I cut it in half, filled it with melted apricot jam and garnished it with a few dried apricots that I chopped finely and rolled in a bit of sugar. (Sugar! Because there wasn't enough already.) Husband ate a piece this morning as an appetizer before his Belgian waffle, so you know the cake must be good. (Another thing that is good: the fact that Husband runs marathons! You can have a cake appetizer when you run marathons, you see.)

Although it's true I wanted to go to bed a little earlier than I did last night, I am grateful to the Daring Bakers nevertheless for introducing yet another magnificent baked good to my life. And I'm grateful that Orson didn't turn Mork into a shaggy dog before he married Mindy.


Adapted from Shuna Fish Lydon

As with any cake with multiple components, it's best to approach this recipe in pieces. First, make the caramel syrup. While it cools to room temperature, get all the ingredients ready to make the cake. Then, make the cake. While the cake is baking, brown the butter for the frosting and let it cool. Assemble the frosting while the cake cools. (It would be even better to make the caramel syrup and frosting a day ahead; store the syrup, covered, at room temperature and the frosting in the refrigerator in an airtight container.) It's all about dividing the work into small tasks.

For the caramel syrup:

2 c. sugar
1/2 c. water
An additional 1 c. water for "stopping" the caramelization process

It's best to have a small bowl of ice water nearby when you work with hot sugar; if any spatters and lands on your skin, you can cool it right away.

In a medium saucepan with tall sides combine the sugar and 1/2 c. water. Stir until the mixture resembles wet sand, brushing down any stray sugar crystals with a wet pastry brush. Cook over medium-high heat until the sugar is an amber color. Throughout the cooking process, brush down any sugar crystals that accumulate on the sides of the pan.

When the color is achieved, very carefully pour in 1 c. of water to stop the caramelization process. Whisk continuously to prevent crystallization. BE CAREFUL with this step: the sugar is very hot and the addition of the water will cause some bubbling and spattering. Be prepared to take a step back if you need to.

Reduce the heat to medium and whisk constantly until the syrup reduces and thickens slightly. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.

For the caramel cake:

10 T. unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 c. sugar
1/2 t. kosher salt
1/3 c. caramel syrup (see recipe above), at room temperature
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 t. vanilla extract
2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 t. baking powder
1 c. milk, at room temperature

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Spray a tall (2 - 2 1/2 inches deep) 9-inch cake pan with non-stick cooking spray.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugar and salt and mix until light and fluffy.

With the mixer on low, pour the caramel syrup into the bowl in a slow stream. Scrape down the sides of the bowl then increase the speed to incorporate the syrup. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla, then scrape down the sides of the bowl again and beat until the mixture is light and uniform.

In a large bowl, sift together the flour and baking powder.

With the mixer on the lowest speed, add one third of the flour mixture. When incorporated, add half of the milk. Then add the second third of the flour mixture, followed by the rest of the milk, followed by the remaining flour. Beat well between each of these additions.

Remove the bowl from the mixer and, using a spatula, fold the batter a few times to make sure it is uniformly mixed. Turn the batter out into the prepared pan.

Place the cake pan on a cookie sheet and bake for 30 minutes. Then, rotate the pan and bake for another 15-20 minutes, until the sides of the cake pull away from the pan and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Do not over bake!

Turn the cake out onto a wire rack and allow to cool completely before frosting. (The cake can be made up to three days in advance; store at room temperature wrapped in plastic wrap.)

For the caramelized butter frosting:

12 T. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 lb. confectioner's sugar, sifted
4 T. heavy cream
2 t. vanilla extract
2 T. caramel syrup (see recipe above)
Pinch fleur de sel or sea salt

In a small saucepan, cook the butter until it's brown. Strain it through a fine wire-mesh strainer into a heat-proof bowl; this will catch the browned solids and separate them from the browned butter. Set aside to cool to room temperature.

Pour the cooled butter into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the confectioner's sugar a little at a time. After adding about a third of the confectioner's sugar, add the heavy cream and mix well. After another third of the sugar has been incorporated, add the vanilla and mix well. When you have finished incorporating the sugar, add the caramel syrup and mix well to combine. Stir in a pinch of fleur de sel (or sea salt).

For the apricot filling and garnish:

1/3 c. apricot jam
1 T. water
A few dried apricots, chopped
1 T. sugar

Combine jam and water in a small saucepan over low heat. Cook until the jam is "melted" and thinned, about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.

And now, to assemble the cake! Cut the cooled cake in half using a serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion. With a pastry brush, brush the cut side of the bottom half of the cake with apricot filling. Place the two halves of the cake together and frost with the caramelized butter frosting. (Reserve a little of the frosting in a pastry bag for decorating, if desired.) Roll the chopped dried apricots in the sugar; garnish the top of the cake with the sugared apricots.

Makes one (1) hell of a rich cake.


Gretchen Noelle said...

Wonderful looking cake! The apricots were a nice touch.

Unknown said...

Your cake looks great! I'm glad that you made it even with those pies leftover...keep feeding the hubby those carbs! :-)

PS - we watched some of that Mork and Mindy-athon. I loved that show!

Dianne said...

Thank you, Gretchen! I had the apricot jam left over from a bout of hamantaschen-baking, and I thought a little fruit might be nice to break up all the caramel flavor. Not that there's anything wrong with a lot of caramel flavor!

Claire, I knew that there had to be some kindred spirits out there watching that marathon, too! And as for the carbs...maybe I should run more often so I can share all the confections with Husband.

Thank you both for reading and for your kind words!