Saturday, March 26, 2011

Is Classic Butter Cake the same as Philadelphia Butter Cake

My friend Ben Chen was asking me about cake baking recently and it got me in the mood to make a classic butter cake.  This is the cake that I like to make for birthdays. It consists of layers of a golden yellow butter cake that are filled and frosted with a creamy chocolate frosting. It's a classic dessert, and one that you can easily make from scratch in about the same time as it takes to make a box mix. So why not give it a try so you know exactly what you're feeding to your family.

To my knowledge there are basically two ways to prepare the classic butter cake, unless you count the famed Philadelphia/St. Louis bakery confection which would make three, and I'll talk more about that in a minute.

The ingredients for classic butter cake recipes are all pretty much the same; butter, sugar, eggs, flour and milk. (recipe below) The variation occurs in the technique. Using the most common method, the butter and sugar are creamed together first, and then the eggs are added, followed by the flour and milk. This technique produces a light, fluffy golden yellow cake. However, a secondary method is also popular, known generally as the 'one bowl' method as advocated by Rose Levy Beranbaum in her Cake Bible. Using Rose's technique you place all the dry ingredients into the mixing bowl and then add room temperature butter, along with a little milk. These ingredients are beaten together until well mixed, and then the eggs, vanilla extract, and remaining milk are beaten into the batter. The reason for adding the liquid after the butter and flour have been combined is to reduce gluten formation in the flour. This can only happen if the butter has first had the chance to coat the flour before the liquid is added. This method produces a cake that literally seems to melt-in-your-mouth and it has a very moist, dense, and velvety texture. However, this method produces somewhat thinner cake layers. Many feel it is worth sacrificing a little volume to get such outstanding texture. If you decide to use this method, make sure all the ingredients are at room temperature.

In the bakery window.
Philadelphia, St. Louis, German, or Gooey Butter Cake: Having announced my Butter Cake to a friend, he arrived with anticipation of this dessert having grown up in Philadelphia. He had fond memories of a gooey almost cheesecake like dessert which I had previously not known and certainly had not made for him. After getting over his disappointment, he enjoyed my classic butter cake but he left hoping I would find a way to make him what I began calling Philadelphia Butter Cake. As it turns out, the dessert which he expected is known by one or a combination of these words; Philadelphia St. Louis German Gooey Butter Cake. I found a recipe that was published in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin in the 1960s. This is a cake this is usually about an inch or two high where the top half is moist and gooey and sits on top of a cake base that is made with a yeast dough. Sometimes there's a layer of cherry or pineapple filling between the cake and the topping. I've included a recipe for German Butter Cake as well as two Philadelphia Butter Cake versions, one made with potatoes and the other a great entry by a fellow food blogger that used the more typical pastry in case you would like to give these a try.

The famed TV chef, Paula Deen, also boasts a 'southern' butter cake but I could not find any references to such a thing elsewhere, unless you count St. Louis, Missouri as being in the south (when it is, of course, in the Midwest.)   Like Philadelphia, in the ethnic German neighborhood of Bevo Mill in south St. Louis in the 1930s you bought freshly baked Gooey Butter Cake that was handed to you wrapped loosely in waxed paper and twine for you to carry home.  Hass began making mixes for this and even to this day you can find it in every grocery store in the St. Louis area. A more detailed reference to the St. Louis version can be found here in the New York Times.
Here's the recipe I use for my Classic Butter Cake using Rose's technique:

6 large egg yolks
1 cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups sifted cake flour
1 1/2 cups granulated white sugar
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature and cut into pieces

Preheat oven to 350F degrees. Spray two 9-inch x 1 1/2 inch cake pans with Bakers Joy or grease and flour the pans. Line bottom of pans with parchment paper, then spray again with Bakers Joy or grease and flour. Set aside.

In a medium bowl lightly combine the egg yolks, 1/4 cup milk, and vanilla.

In the bowl of an electric mixer (using the paddle on a stand mixer) combine the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, baking powder and salt). Mix on low speed for about 30 seconds or until blended. Add the room temperature butter and remaining 3/4 cup milk. Mix on low speed until the dry ingredients are moistened. Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat for about 2 minutes more. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Gradually add the egg mixture, in 3 additions beating about 30 seconds after each addition to incorporate the egg.

Divide and pour the batter into the prepared pans, smoothing the surface with a spatula. (Pans will be about half full.) Bake 25 to 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean and the cake springs back when pressed lightly in center.

Julian's Classic Butter Cake

Place the cakes on a wire rack to cool in their pans, for about 10 minutes. Turn the cakes out onto a plate that has been lightly sprayed with food release. Then immediately invert the cakes onto a greased rack cooling completely with the cake sitting in its natural, upright, position on the rack.

Chocolate Frosting:

8 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/4 cup cocoa powder (can use Dutch-processed or regular unsweetened cocoa powder)
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut into pieces
3 cups confectioners (powdered or icing) sugar, sifted to remove lumps
1 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Using a double boiler or by placing a stainless steel pan over pan of simmering water, add the chopped chocolate, cocoa powder, milk, and butter. Stir until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth. Remove from heat and beat in, with a hand mixer or wire whisk, the confectioners sugar and vanilla extract. If the frosting is lumpy, strain through a strainer to remove any lumps. Cover and place the frosting in the refrigerator until it is firm (this may take a few hours). Once the frosting is firm remove from refrigerator and place in your mixing bowl. Beat the frosting for a minute or two or until it is smooth and of spreading consistency. Place one cake layer on your serving plate and cover the top with about 3/4 cup of frosting. Place the other cake layer on top of the frosted layer and cover the entire cake with the remaining frosting. Cover and refrigerate the cake until serving time.

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