One of the most popular recipes on my blog is my classic Vanilla Cake. Bakers love its moist, tender crumb, simple but rich vanilla flavor and ease of preparation. More recently, I published my Vanilla Bean Butter Cake recipe, based off of the original, but with a few improvements that I think make it even better. When I need a good vanilla cake, this is the one I start with, and it never lets me down. But for something a little different, I decided my next cake needed to be a Toasted Sugar Vanilla Cake.
Every baker needs a dependable vanilla cake recipe in their repertoire, since they can pair it with practically any other flavor. Add some fluffy chocolate buttercream and you have a classic birthday cake flavor that everyone loves. Rub fresh lemon zest into the sugar, fill it with lemon curd and frost with lemon buttercream, and the results are delightful. Cappuccino buttercream with vanilla cake would also be fantastic.
Today’s vanilla cake features toasted granulated sugar in the cake batter and a rich, nutty brown butter frosting. When I heard of toasted sugar, I was so intrigued by the idea of caramelized sugar. So, of course, I had to try it in a cake recipe!
What is Toasted Sugar?
Toasted Sugar is plain granulated sugar that has been heated in the oven on low heat for several hours. The sugar slowly caramelizes, darkens in color and deepens in flavor during the low heating process. But it still retains its crystalline properties, so that it can be used in recipes just as you would use granulated sugar. For the complete process, see this post by Serious Eats.
It’s a pretty fascinating process, watching pure white sugar slowly turn amber. The difference in taste is remarkable, too. And while it does take a while to cook the sugar and then let it cool, it’s an interesting ingredient that can add a whole different flavor to your cakes.
How to make Toasted Sugar Vanilla Cake
I mixed my cake using the standard creaming method, by first beating the (cooled) toasted sugar with butter until light and fluffy. Then I added the eggs and vanilla, followed by the dry ingredients, alternating with rich and creamy buttermilk. Buttermilk is one of my favorite ingredients in cakes; the acid helps with the rise of the cake, and the flavor is incredible.
The baked cake is light, fluffy and moist, with a soft and tender crumb that’s just delicious. And the toasted sugar adds such lovely notes of caramel that pairs wonderfully with the brown butter frosting.
How to make Brown Butter Buttercream
Brown butter is another really fantastic ingredient, and if you have the time, it’s worth browning your butter. The process of browning butter brings out so much flavor, a wonderful nuttiness that’s just delicious. You can use browned butter in cakes, frostings, cookies, breads, etc.
Making brown butter is simple. You first melt butter (usually no less than 1/2 cup) in a small saucepan over medium heat. Then, you let the butter continue to cook for several minutes; it may splatter or hiss a little as the water evaporates. Swirl the pan occasionally to move the butter around. When the splattering quiets down, your butter is nearly ready. There may be a layer of foam on top of the butter, but if you nudge it aside with a spatula then you’ll see nutty brown solids covering the bottom of the saucepan. Those browned bits are gold, and that’s where the flavor lies.
Remove the pan from the heat and use a spatula to scrape all those bits off the bottom of the pan. Pour the butter into a heat-proof bowl, and then let it cool to the consistency that you need. If your recipe calls for melted butter, then you only need to cool it for a few minutes before you can use it. If your recipe calls for softened butter (such as for buttercreams, cake batters or cookie dough), then it will need to cool for several hours until it returns to a room-temperature solid.
Frosting and Decorating your Toasted Sugar Cake
I’m so happy that buttercream has made a comeback in recent years. Fondant, step aside, because all those beautiful, imperfect swirls of buttercream are just so much prettier.
First, though, you should always “crumb coat” your cakes after filling and stacking the layers. A crumb coat is a very thin layer of frosting, spread sparingly over the top and sides of the assembled cake. The crumb coat not only holds all the crumbs in place, but also helps to keep the sides nice and straight. A crumb coat is also very important if you’re planning on piping on your buttercream, as pictured in this post. Without a crumb coat, the piped buttercream could fall right off if piped directly onto a naked cake. After crumb coating your cake, you should chill it in the refrigerator for about 20-30 minutes.
For the piping on my cake, I fitted a piping bag with the 1M tip. The 1M tip is a large, open-star tip, and is one of the most versatile piping tips around. I love it, and I use it for so many different decorating techniques. Fill your piping bag with buttercream, and you’re ready to go.
To get the look pictured here, start with the tip at the bottom of your cake. Pipe vertical rows, up-down-up-down, like you’re piping the letter “M”. Always start and end at the bottom, and keep the rows close enough together that the crumb coat doesn’t show through. Do this all the way around the cake until the sides are covered with pretty ruffles of buttercream.
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Toasted Sugar Vanilla Cake with Brown Butter Buttercream
- 1 ¾ cups toasted sugar
- ½ cup unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
- 4 large eggs
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 3 cups cake flour
- 3 ½ tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp coarse Kosher salt
- 1 ¾ cups whole buttermilk
- 2 ½ cups unsalted butter
- 5 cups powdered sugar
- 1 tbsp meringue powder (optional)
- ¼ tsp coarse Kosher salt
- 1 tbsp vanilla extract
- 2-4 tbsp milk or cream, if needed
- Preheat the oven to 350, and spray three 8-inch cake pans with non-stick spray.
- In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the sugar and butter on medium speed for about 10 minutes, scraping the bowl several times, until very light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating each for 30 seconds before adding the next. Scrape the bowl down and beat for another 30 seconds.
- In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. With the mixer on low, add the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the buttermilk, starting and ending with the flour. Mix just until combined, and a little flour remains, then use a spatula to finish folding the flour into the batter.
- Divide the batter between the pans. Bake for about 25-27 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean.
- Set the pans on a wire rack, cover loosely with a clean kitchen towel and cool completely before frosting.
- Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Continue to cook the butter, swirling occasionally, until it gets foamy and nutty golden brown solids form at the bottom of the pan. Immediately pour the butter, scraping all the solids from the bottom of the pan, into a bowl. Set aside to cool at room temperature for several hours until it returns to a solid.
- In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the butter for one minute.
- With the mixer on low, gradually add the powdered sugar, meringue powder and salt, mixing until combined, but clumpy. Add the vanilla, and increase speed to medium, whipping the butter for 5 minutes, scraping the bowl occasionally, until very light and fluffy. Add the milk only if needed for desired consistency.
- Stack and fill the cooled cakes with the buttercream, then frost all over with a thin crumb coat of buttercream. Refrigerate for 20 minutes.
- Fit a piping bag with a large open star tip (Wilton #), and fill with buttercream. Starting at the bottom of the cake, pipe vertical rows of buttercream, up, and down, only releasing the tip at the bottom of the cake.