Basic Brown Butter Vanilla Pound Cake

by Carilyn on November 16, 2020

Calling something “basic” these days is seen as an insult. Pejoratively, basic connotes “bland,” “uninteresting,” or, at its worst, “unworthy”. But the reality is, without “basics” nothing else could flourish and become unique and interesting. We need to understand basic techniques and foundations, both as humans, and as bakers, before we can go off in quirky and wildly imaginative directions – and make something uniquely ours. Or at least something weird. Weird can be good.

But only after you’ve mastered the basics, got it?

This Basic Brown Butter Vanilla Pound Cake is just that, a fundamental cake that is simple to execute, but yields swoony results. It is the type of cake you can make in the morning and turn into the most glorious berry and whipped cream accompaniment to your eggs and bacon (Who am I kidding? – I’d totally skip the eggs.), or in the afternoon with and extra stout cup of coffee. It is both robust and soothing, which can be a great thing in a cake. It will appeal to everyone. No, there are no unicorn sprinkles or exotic ingredients, but sometimes (many times in this pandemic situation we can’t seem to escape) you don’t want food you have to think about. You just want food that tastes really, really good. This is that cake.

Yesterday, when I made it (for the 34th time – it is one of my go-tos), I chose it because I was coming off a two week nougat bender where I’ve been maddeningly trying to perfect a recipe. Candy is no joke. There is very little room for error, so riffing on a classic takes many, many, tweaks and binned batches. I needed something simple. Something soothing. Something that wouldn’t have me waking up in the middle of the night to scribble notes of nougat ideas in illegible handwriting. No. This Basic Cake was going to be the recipe that was going to bring me back from the Nougat Brink.

I set out my mise en place, preheated the oven, buttered my pan, and started the brown butter. I even had classical music playing in the background, better to create the atmosphere of “serene baker” in the kitchen. (I normally listen to Jeff Lewis Live or Reality Checked, but don’t tell anyone. I want to appear to be a “serious” chef.) After calmly creaming the sugar and the eggs, adding in the vanilla, and cream, and then whisking in the dry ingredients, when it was time to drizzle in the brown butter, I lost my mind. Brown Butter! Brown Butter! Brown Butter! I love butter in all forms, but brown butter is hard to beat. The toasty nuttiness that comes from just ten minutes of swirling around in a pan is transformative, not just in this cake, but in life. Brown butter pancakes. Brown Butter poured over vanilla ice cream. Brown butter green beans. Really, I can think of very few things, sweet or savory, that would not be improved by adding brown butter.

The brown butter in this cake is the magic, the ingredient that makes this Basic cake the thing that turns the insult into something you will use as a foundation to elevate many, many other recipes. Trust me. Unlike regular pound cake, when you pull this one out of the oven, the outside is crispy while the inside is still beautiful and tender like a good pound cake should be. So, despite my intentions of making something that would be a nice treat for after dinner, I ended up slicing off a piece right when it came out of the oven, and then proceeded to get off the treadmill about twelve more times to have “one more bite.” By the time Tim got home, I’d eaten a third of the cake.

“So I see you took a break from the nougat,” was all he said, but the judgment was plainly clear on his face. And then he took a bite of the cake. And then another.

This morning, when I went down to the kitchen, there was only a third left.

Basic for the win.

 

Brown Butter Vanilla Pound Cake

(adapted from Dorie Greenspan)

1 stick unsalted butter (8 tablespoons; 113 grams)

1 3/4 cup (238 grams) AP flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 cups (250 grams) sugar

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

4 large eggs at room temperature

1/3 cup (80 ml) heavy cream

 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter/grease/spray a 9 x 5 inch loaf pan (if using butter or grease, make sure to dust with flour and tap out the excess – you don’t want this to stick).

Put the butter in a small saucepan and bring to a low boil. Swirl occasionally to make sure it doesn’t burn. You want brown bits in your deep golden butter, but you don’t want BURNED butter. This can take anywhere from a few minutes to 10-12, depending on your pan, the heat, and the water content of the butter. Be patient, and stay right in front of the butter. It can burn in an instant.

Once your butter is a deep golden color, remove from the heat.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In a stand mixer, with the whisk attachment, beat the sugar and the eggs until they are completely blended – about 2 minutes. Add the vanilla, then the heavy cream.

Add the dry ingredients gradually, until fully incorporated, but do not overmix. You want a smooth batter, but not an overworked one. Slowly pour in the melted butter, beating until just blended.

Pour batter into your prepared pan. Bake for 50 – 60 minutes, or until a toothpick or knife comes out clean.

You want a nice golden crunchy top, from all the delicious butter, but if it is browning to quickly, tent with a loose piece of foil.

 

*This cake is amazing on its own, but it is over the top if you use if for the base of a trifle, french toast, or a bread pudding. Let your imagination run wild!

 

{ 0 comments }

No Hard Feelings, Pizza

by Carilyn on September 23, 2020

 

I don’t LOVE pizza. At least not in the way other people do. In fact, when Tim and I were first married, it drove him crazy that I was not a pizza person. Pizza was cheap, easy, and filling – a perfect triumvirate for two starving law students. But I had not grown up eating pizza. Yes, we occasionally got it from our favorite Italian restaurant – Bella Napoli – but only as an afterthought to the Chicken Jerusalem and Spaghetti with Meat Sauce, like special bread to sop up the sauces of the REAL meals. When I did have chain pizza, I just didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. It was a lot of bread, bad tomato sauce, cheap cheese, and sad toppings. No thanks.

This ambivalence about pizza has carried on into adulthood. I like it, but I don’t love it. As embarrassing as it is to admit, one of the biggest disappointments of my culinary crusade (often involving dragging unenthusiastic “volunteers” with me) was making a special trip to a very famous Chicago deep dish institution on a “food vacation” and being absolutely underwhelmed. So much bread. So much sauce. So dense. Ugh. And we waited in line (with reservations) for over an hour.

But tonight, I found myself alone in the house after Tim had gone to visit his mother. I sent my usual soup, but stayed back since my own mother had just recently been released from rehab after falling and breaking her hip, still requiring round the clock nursing care. It has been a very rough couple of months (Covid, aside – how do you nurse the elderly when you can’t have contact?!?!), and I have to admit that I have not handled it as gracefully as I would like. I have spent more time than is appropriate on my knees praying for some sort of fix for an un-fixable situation, wishing, as always, that my repertoire of desserts would be the answer to all prayers. Alas, it proved not to be, but once we “sprang” my mom from the dreaded rehab facility, I headed back into the kitchen, first, trying to perfect the honey almond apricot nougat that was proving to be the bane (and raison d’etre) of my existence, and then working on a great pizza dough. (Don’t ask. I have no explanation. I was simply intrigued with comparing dough made from bread dough v. AP flour. OCD much?) Anyway, when it was all said and done, I had a beautiful boule of pizza dough and nowhere to go. So, I baked off a Griselda Cat tray of squishy dough, and ten minutes later I had the most delicate, but lightly chewy/crispy crust. I snacked on it all afternoon, finally whittling it down to a Florida-esque shape before topping it with a homemade red sauce that I started “just because” (I was experimenting with pizza dough, you know, so why not?), and some fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, and fresh basil.

And something in me shifted.

Is this why people like pizza? LOVE pizza? Become obsessed with pizza? Does it really come down to a great crust? The perfect sauce? The ratio?

I still truly don’t know. But I will say that I am much more a believer now than I ever was before. Maybe it was the long, languid swim in the pool I took while the dough was proofing on the counter under a checkered tea towel. Maybe it was that I ate it while standing at the counter while listening to “No Hard Feelings,” by the Avett Brothers. Maybe it was the jammy red wine I poured while I was finishing off the sauce. Maybe it was just luck and desperation. Who knows? But whatever it was, this pizza was worth opening up my computer and writing about it. I won’t know until tomorrow when Tim gets home and I try to repeat it.

I just hope that I am vindicated for hating pizza when we were poor, struggling students. I’m not sure he has gotten over it. But I’m hoping that if I did make a great pizza, we can reach a peace agreement. Kind of like me convincing him that running is the best activity ever.

Never stop hoping and praying (and a little swimming, wine, and the Avett Brothers can’t hurt).

 

*The secret to this very delicate, thin pizza dough is bread flour. I promise it is worth the trip to the store to get some if you don’t have any.

 

Thin-Crust Pizza Dough

3 1/2 (up to 4 cups) bread flour

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

1 1/2 tablespoons dry yeast (1 packet)

2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt

1 1/2 warm water (110 degrees F)

2 tablespoons olive, plus more for resting bowl

Pour a scant 1/2 tablespoon olive oil into a glass bowl to place your bread dough in for rising after it is mixed and kneaded.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with a bread hook, mix the warm water, yeast, and sugar. Let stand for about 5 minutes.

To this, add the flour, oil, and salt, mixing on low just until incorporated, then turn up the mixer to medium high and mix until the dough forms a ball and lifts away from the bowl. If the dough is too wet, add more flour 1 tablespoon at a time. You want the dough to stay soft and light, so don’t add too much flour, but it should not be super loose.

When you have a nice soft ball of dough, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about three minutes, or until just smooth and soft, like a baby’s bottom.

Place the dough into your oiled bowl and cover with a clean tea towel or plastic wrap. Let sit at room temperature for at least 20 minutes. If it is going to sit out for more than an hour, put into the refrigerator so that it won’t proof too much.

When you are ready to bake it off, heat the oven to 450 degrees. Cover a cookie sheet with parchment paper, and heat the sheet in the oven for 5 minutes. While the pan is heating, pull off a ball of dough about the size of an orange. Roll or stretch it to your desired thinness. Cover with whatever toppings you choose. Pull the pan out of the oven, sprinkle with a bit of flour, and place your pizza on it.

Bake for about 12 minutes, or until the edges start turning brown and all the cheese has melted.

{ 0 comments }

Lemon Meringue Bars (or, Bribing My Baby)

July 18, 2020

I don’t love lemon meringue pie, but Grant was about to head back to D.C. after being stuck with us for three months, and he loves lemon meringue. So, there it is. Poor guy, the courthouse was evacuated, and his judge pushed all her clerks to get out of D.C., and even though he was […]

Read the full article →

An Apple Spiced Bundt Cake a Day Keeps Anxiety Away

April 20, 2020

I’ve spent most of this quarantine swinging between seeking out the comfortable (doing loops and getting miles on the TM while watching Food Network) and craving things that make me feel like this isn’t the end (hard trail runs and long swims). The same holds true in the kitchen. One day I’m trying to crack […]

Read the full article →

Cooking in the Time of Lockdown

March 27, 2020

Like many others, we have been on lockdown for the past week, trying to stem the tide of the tsunami that is Covid-19. Fear, sadness, helplessness, and rage seem to have taken over the internet. For the first few days of captivity, I followed the news almost obsessively. But as the days marched on, and […]

Read the full article →

Hi, I’m Carilyn, and I’m a Walker

February 27, 2020

After all the issues during 6 Days in the Dome (phone call that I had to leave early because my father-in-law took a turn for the worse, messed up knee, etc.), one good thing came from it – I finally got to experience what it felt like to walk (part of) a race. Always before, […]

Read the full article →