Sunday, January 10, 2010

Caramelized Apple Cake with Brown Sugar Swiss Meringue Buttercream

Husband had a birthday last week, and I am in the habit of baking him layer cakes each birthday. Husband also has a ridiculous and overpowering affection for apples and apple-spackled baked goods, so when I spied this recipe on the Martha Stewart web page, I had a suspicion he would be unable to resist its allure.

I’d complain, but he used to ask for carrot cake every year, and something about the process of shredding 3 cups of carrots kills me every time. I don’t know why I find the process so vexing, but there you have it. Also, carrot cake is hard to ruin, and I do like to broaden my repertoire of culinary tricks when opportunities present themselves. Birthdays present fine opportunities.

Most of the commenters on Martha’s site said that the cake was good, but the frosting was better. I have the opposite sentiment. The cake is better than I anticipated. The apples don’t quite have a caramel flavor, despite being pre-cooked, but the cake is soft and moist and has a nice texture – it’s dense but not heavy. The spices are complementary without being overpowering or gingerbread-y.

The frosting, however, is a bit rich and oleaginous. There’s a whole pound of butter in it, and the dairy flavor really comes through. It’s good, and it complements the flavors in the cake, but every time I have a slice, I feel as if I might as well be shoving lumps of fat down my gullet. I know that all frostings are essentially fat, sugar, and emulsifying ingredients, but I just couldn’t shake the memory of that pound of butter every time I took a bite. Dear frosting, why are you such a tyrant?

With that caveat, I can still highly recommend this cake. It was hard to get nice pictures because it’s so very beige, but in person, it looks really lovely. The flavors and moisture actually improve after it’s been resting for a couple of days, which is nice in a small, leftover-prone household like mine.

As per usual, I have modified the source recipe. I was afraid that simmering the apples in cider would create an overpowering spice taste, so I substituted apple juice. I also added some vanilla to the frosting, which calls for no flavorings aside from sugar. Next time, I’d probably add even more, as the vanilla was definitely needed.

Martha also intends this for a two-layer cake. I don’t know where she gets her cake pans; if you have the standard ones that I do, you’ll want to make it a three-layer cake. The batter nearly overflowed even in three tins. I don’t even want to ponder what the task of cleaning my oven would have been had I used only two.

Caramelized Apple Cake
2 1/2 sticks (20 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pans
1 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise
2 pounds Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and grated on the large holes of a box grater (4 cups)
1/2 cup apple juice
2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 cup packed dark-brown sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature
1/2 cup sour cream
1 1/4 cups pecan or walnut pieces, lightly toasted

Put 1/2 stick butter into a large nonstick skillet. Scrape seeds from vanilla bean into skillet, and toss in the pod. Cook over medium heat until butter is lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Stir in apples, juice, and 1 cup granulated sugar. Raise heat to medium-high, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 8 minutes. Reduce heat to low, and cook until apples are golden and translucent and liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes. Discard the vanilla pod and let cools

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter three 8-by-2-inch round cake pans. Line with parchment paper and spray with baking spray (or grease and flour).

Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices. Reserve 1/4 cup flour mixture.

Beat remaining 2 sticks butter, remaining 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar, and the brown sugar with a mixer on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Reduce speed to medium, and add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Reduce speed to low. Beat in flour mixture in 2 batches, alternating with the sour cream and scraping bowl as needed. Add remaining 1/4 cup flour mixture to apple mixture, and toss. Fold in apple mixture and nuts.

Divide batter between prepared pans.

Bake until tops are dark golden brown and a toothpick inserted into centers comes out clean – Martha said 55-65 minutes, but my cakes baked in about half an hour.. Let cool for 30 minutes on a wire rack. Run a knife around edges of cakes to loosen. Unmold cakes, and let cool, right side up, on rack until completely cool. Frost with Brown Sugar Swiss Meringue Buttercream. Makes one 3-layer cake.

Brown Sugar Swiss Meringue Buttercream
5 large egg whites
1 2/3 cups packed dark-brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 sticks (2 cups) unsalted butter, room temperature
seeds from a 1-2” section of vanilla bean or ½-1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

Frosting Directions
Put egg whites, sugar, and salt into a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Whisk until mixture registers 160 degrees, 4-6 minutes.

Remove from heat and beat on high speed until stiff, glossy peaks form, about 6 minutes. Reduce speed to medium-low. Add butter, 2 tablespoons at a time, beating after each addition (meringue will deflate slightly as butter is added). Beat until frosting is smooth and glossy, 3 to 5 minutes. You can really tell when it’s ready to spread – the texture changed suddenly and quickly. Buttercream can be refrigerated airtight for up to 3 days; bring to room temperature, and beat before using. Makes 5 cups.

Printable recipe here.


  1. That is one great looking cake... love the brown sugar buttercream idea...was your husband a happy camper?

  2. Very happy, though he agreed with me that the frosting was maybe a touch too rich. But the cake is gone, which is a good sign. :)

  3. So the first thing I thought of on seeing the frosting recipe was that it could use some rum. I don't know how that would affect texture as I'm not experienced with merengue frostings, but it might be worth a shot.

  4. That actually sounds really good. You could probably add a tablespoon or so without any difficulty -- and maybe a bit in the cake, too. :)

  5. I also found the frosting on the rich side, and actually liked it a lot~