This past Monday was my birthday. I always bake my own birthday cake, and this year I took the occasion to make my favourite – a vanilla butter cake with the most luscious salted, brown butter icing. Not that we should ever need an excuse to bake a cake, especially this one, but if we do, a birthday is a pretty good one. I love that this is a small, single layer cake, perfect for serving 6 – 8 people, with no leftovers. And though it’s small, it’s decadent in its simplicity. The crumb is moist and airy, but the real treat is pouring over the brown butter glaze in thick ribbons, flecked with vanilla beans and sea salt. I use a skewer to make several small holes in the top of the cake just before pouring on the glaze so it sinks deep into the cake. You can’t beat the sweet, salty and buttery combination. Of course you could serve it as is, but I love to dress mine up a little. In the past I’ve garnished it with candied oranges, pearly candy-coated chocolates and meringue mushroom cookies – the kind we make for our bûche de Noël at Christmastime. This time I covered it with raspberries. Nothing says “summer” to me like fresh raspberries. Walking through the market I could smell them before I saw them, (I shop with my nose just as much as my eyes) and I had to buy some.
Raspberries remind me of childhood summers spent searching for flecks of red within the leaves and branches of a rambling hedge of raspberry bushes which grew alongside our house. My brother and I would have to fight the birds for them and always ended up getting scratched by the thorns as we reached our little hands in to pick the ripe berries. But it was worth it – they were the sweetest berries I have ever tasted. As a girl, I always thought how lucky I was to have been born when the raspberries were ripe because, on my birthday I didn’t have the share quite as many with my brother. I got the lion’s share, which was fitting as I was born under the sign of Leo.
But back to the cake. I pressed the raspberries into the glaze while it was still warm, and served the cake on a board, charcuterie-style, surrounded by other berries and fruit. A slice of cake with twice as much fruit – that’s my kind of birthday cake.
*A note on baking: We live at an elevation of over 6000 feet (1830 m). This recipe works very well at high altitude, but I haven’t tested it at lower elevations.
Vanilla Butter Cake with Salted Brown Butter Glaze and Raspberries
for the cake:
1 1/2 cups all-purpous flour
1 1/2 tsp aluminum-free baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup (8 TBSP) butter, very soft
1 cup white sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup whole milk
for the icing:
1/4 cup (4 TBSP) butter, room temperature
1 1/4 cups icing sugar (confectioner’s sugar)
2 1/2 TBSP whole milk
1/2 vanilla bean
1/4 – 1/2 tsp medium-grain French grey sea salt
2 cups fresh raspberries
edible flowers and additional fruit, optional
Preheat the oven to 400 F (200 C). Trace the bottom of an 8-inch (20 cm) cake pan on a piece of parchment paper. Cut out the circle just inside the line. Butter the pan and press the parchment inside. Butter the paper, as well. Dust the inside of the pan with a few teaspoons of flour and set aside.
To make the cake: Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together into a large mixing bowl. With an electric mixer, slowly beat in the butter until just incorporated. Beat in the sugar and then the eggs, one at a time. Mix the vanilla with the milk and slowly beat this in until everything is just combined.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 28 – 30 minutes. Test for doneness with a toothpick or wooden skewer. Cool completely before unmolding and icing.
To make the icing: Place the sugar in a medium mixing bowl. Slice the vanilla bean in half lengthwise. With a small knife, carefully scrape the seeds from the pod and add them to the sugar. Break up any large clumps of seeds with your fingers and mix them into the sugar. Add the milk and sea salt, and whisk until smooth.
Meanwhile, cut the butter into even chunks and melt in a small sauce pan over medium-low heat, stirring often. Cook the butter slowly until it becomes a rich, golden brown and has a nutty aroma. Immediately remove the butter from the heat and pour it into the icing. Whisk until the butter is completely incorporated. This takes about 2 minutes.
Place the cake on a serving plate or board. Using a kitchen skewer, poke several holes in the top of the cake. Pour the icing into the middle of the cake and gently spread it to the edges letting some drip over the sides. Garnish the cake with fresh raspberries and flowers, if using. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Serve the cake with additional fruit, if desired.