A few months ago, I made a bunch of cakes for a friend’s Kickstarter campaign. To me, this was a task on par with that of an artist being commissioned to paint a fine portrait. I took it very, very seriously. I bought bakery boxes in which to present the cakes. I made house calls to each and every cake recipient, making sure to describe, in fine detail, the nuances of not only the cakes, but also their frostings and/or garnishes. I shaved chocolate to decorate the cakes, I made special cardboard cake stands on which to sit each cake in its box, and then I hand-stamped my name, along with the name of this very website, onto each cake box. Like I said, I took my task very, very seriously. Behold:
Remind me to tell you about this cake at another time.
Though I have encountered many people who simply cannot believe that I would go to such great cake-making lengths and not get paid a penny to do so, the fact remains that, incomprehensible as it may seem, I really enjoy making cakes. I also enjoy making salads, Indian food, bread, and…well, food. Just in general, I enjoy making food.
A couple of years ago, I agreed to make an enormous spread of food for my son’s school open house, and when, on the afternoon of the open house, it began to snow (which, just to be clear, rarely happens here), I was struck with both parts panic and delight when I realized that, my lord, what happens if the open house gets canceled and I get stuck with all this food. And then I realized that, hey, if the open house gets canceled, we get stuck with all this food. The samosas, the smoked salmon bruschetta, the caramelized onion flatbread, the lemon bergamot bars, the spicy brownies—all of it would have been ours and ours alone. Most of the time, when I prepare food in this manner, I never get to actually eat it. I just drop it off, then come back later on to retrieve the empty platters. For the first time ever, I was faced with the possibility of actually being able to eat the food I had spent the past two days making. It was equal parts exciting and confusing.
This is basically what happens when I make cakes for people, as well. I lovingly prepare the cake, frost it with the gentlest of care, then nestle it into a special box, never to be seen again. I suppose that is why, when I was scrolling through some old photos from the beginning of the year, I almost could not remember making this spice cake. The spice cake recipe from America’s Test Kitchen, packed with spices that get bloomed in brown butter, then perked up with a shot of fresh ginger, is an old favorite of mine. The frosting, dreamed up when I was looking for a way to really punch up the cake, is a new favorite.
The brown butter in this frosting is the perfect compliment to the brown butter in the cake, and the hit of sea salt contained within supplies the most wonderful undertone to the warm sweetness of the cake. How do I know this, having just admitted that I never had the chance to taste this cake, as it was meant for someone other than me? Well, I may have never tasted this particular cake you see in the picture, but you’d better believe that, as soon as I was able, I took the time to make another one of these cakes. And the second time, it never had a chance to leave the house.
Spice Cake with Salted Brown Butter Frosting Recipe
Adapted from The America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
¾ teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 16 pieces and softened
2 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, room temperature
3 large egg yolks, room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
2 tablespoons light or mild molasses
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 cup buttermilk, room temperature
Adjust an oven rack to the middle position. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease and flour 2 9-inch round cake pans, then line the bottoms with rounds of parchment paper.
In a small bowl, combine cinnamon, cardamom, allspice, and nutmeg. In a small skillet, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat and continue to cook, swirling the pan constantly, until the butter turns light brown (this should take anywhere from 3 to 6 minutes). Stir in the spice mixture and quickly cook until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Remove from heat and pour the mixture into a bowl to cool slightly.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolks, and vanilla.
In a large bowl, or in the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the remaining 12 tablespoons of butter with the sugar and molasses. Beat on medium-high speed until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 3 to 6 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then beat in the ginger, the cooled butter-spice mixture, and half of the egg mixture until combined, about 30 seconds. Beat in the remaining egg mixture until combined, about 30 more seconds.
Reduce the mixer speed to low, scrape down the sides of the bowl, and beat in one-third of the flour mixture, followed by half of the buttermilk. Repeat with half of the remaining flour mixture and the remaining buttermilk. Beat in the remaining flour mixture until just combined.
Give the batter a final stir with a rubber spatula to make sure it is thoroughly combined and there are no unmixed bits at the bottom of the bowl. Scrape the batter into the prepared pans, smooth the tops, and gently tap the pans on the counter to settle the batter. Bake the cakes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean with a few moist crumbs attached, about 20 to 25 minutes, rotating pans halfway through baking.
Allow the cakes to cool in their pans for 10 to 15 minutes, then run a small knife around the edges of the cakes and flip them out onto a wire rack to finish cooling completely. Peel off the parchment paper and allow cakes to cool for at least 2 hours.
Salted Brown Butter Frosting
3 sticks unsalted butter, cut into chunks and softened
2 tablespoons milk or cream
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
heaping ¼ teaspoon sea salt
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
In a large skillet set over medium heat, melt 2 sticks of the butter, then cook, swirling constantly, until the butter turns light brown and just begins to release a nutty aroma. Remove from the heat, then transfer to a medium bowl. Place the bowl in the refrigerator, and cool the browned butter for 30 to 45 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes, until the browned butter reaches the consistency of softened, room temperature butter.
Remove cooled browned butter to a large bowl, or the bowl of a standing mixer. Add the remaining stick of butter, milk or cream, vanilla, and salt. Beat together at medium-high speed until smooth, about 1 to 2 minutes.
Reduce mixer speed to medium-low, then slowly add the confectioners’ sugar and beat until smooth and incorporated, about 5 minutes. Increase mixer speed to medium-high and beat until the frosting is light and fluffy, which can take anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the power of your mixer.
Makes about 4 cups of frosting, enough to frost a 2-layer cake or one large sheet cake.