Smoky Marbled Butterscotch Cake
Smoky Marbled Butterscotch Cake

Spectacular, stellar, scrumptious--how often do you get to use words of that magnitude in the same sentence? When describing this Smoky Marbled Butterscotch Cake however, those dramatic descriptives almost don't do it justice--yup, it's that wonderful! Not only in looks (how much do you love the two-tone frosting?!!) but in taste as well. If you're looking for a major celebration, crowd-pleasing cake, you've just found your next great love!

It's not often that I make really large impressive party cakes, but this past week was my daughter's 16th birthday and she'd had her eye on this cake for a while now so we figured we'd give it a whirl and...success! It was truly a happy and tasty birthday. And for such a large frostinged (is that a word?) cake, surprisingly not overly heavy or sweet.

And surprisingly not difficult to make either. You just need a bit of time and the cake layers can definitely be made a day or two ahead. Basically you make a simple vanilla batter.

...And a smoky butterscotch batter which not only has the wonderful nuttiness of browned butter but also the addition of loose black tea which is what adds the smokiness and keeps it from being too sweet. And of course it becomes a lovely brown color which allows you to swirl the two batters together gorgeously! 

Look at that pattern!! Geographic, no?

And then there's the frosting, which quite possibly may be my favorite buttercream version ever, because alas, I am not really a frosting person (please don't hit unsubscribe!!) It's just that usually I find most frostings to be cloyingly sweet and gloppy. But not this one. This miraculous version, technically known as ermine frosting, contains no powdered sugar and instead has a cooked-flour base which becomes something of a pudding and though there is quite a lot of butter and sugar (you will need to schedule an extra workout to combat the calories in this baby) it's not overly sweet or heavy.

Instead it's gorgeously marbled, like the cake, but this time with a bit of cocoa powder, which really means you've got all your bases covered:  vanilla, butterscotch, chocolate!! No agonizing decisions!!

Every bite is light--full of caramel undertones and mellow frosting, with that slight tang from the tea. Perfection! Sorry not to have a photo of the full finished version, but somehow with the candles and all, it got cut into before I could snag a photo--no matter, you get the idea. I promise you will not be disappointed. Can't wait for the next birthday!!

Smoky Marbled Butterscotch Cake

Makes at least a dozen generous servings--you can definitely stretch this to 18
Prep Time for cakes:  30-40 minutes; Bake Time:  30-35 minutes; Prep Time for frosting:  30 minutes, plus time to allow it to come to room temperature; Assembly Time:  15-20 minutes


For the vanilla batter

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 1/2 sticks (20 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temp
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 5 large eggs
  • 2 1/4 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup sour cream

For the smoky butterscotch batter

  • 10 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons unbleached, all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons loose black tea, Lapsang Souchong or English breakfast,ground to a powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup sour cream

For the frosting

  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1/2 vanilla bean
  • 1 1/2 cups unsalted butter at room temp
  • 1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon Dutch-process cocoa powder

The Recipe

1.  To make the vanilla cake:  Preheat oven to 350ºF and spray three 9-inch round cake pans with nonstick cooking spray. Then line the bottoms with a round of parchment paper and set aside. Using an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or just a regular handheld version) beat together the sugar, butter and vanilla at medium speed for about 2 minutes until the butter is fluffy and sticks to the side of the bowl. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides and add the eggs, one at at time, beating well between each addition and scraping down the sides. It's ok if the batter looks curdled. Add in the flour, baking powder and salt, beating at medium speed. Scrape down the sides and add the sour cream. Transfer the batter to another bowl and set aside. Do not wash the large mixing bowl.

2.  To make the smoky butterscotch cake:  Place the butter in a large skillet and heat over high heat until melted. Then lower the heat to medium and cook, stirring constantly, until the butter has browned and smells nutty. Pour into the mixing bowl, scraping off any browned bits. Add the brown sugar and vanilla and beat for a few minutes until the outside of the bowl is barely warm. One at a time, add the eggs, scraping down the bowl after each addition and then add the egg yolk. Add in the flour, tea, baking powder and salt and mix on medium speed until incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add in the sour cream.

3.  Alternate spoonfuls of the vanilla batter and the smoky butterscotch one into the prepared pans, trying to make sure you've distributed the batter evenly. Use the back of a spoon to gently spread the batter out. Then take a butter knife and swirl the knife through the batter in figure-eights to marble the batter together. Bake the cakes for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean and cakes are golden. You may have to rotate the pans after the halfway mark so that they cook evenly. Let cakes cool in pan on a rack for at least 30 minutes and then turn out onto racks to finish cooling completely. If frosting on same day you are making cake, proceed to next step. Otherwise, wrap cakes in plastic wrap well and store at room temperature for up to 2 days.

4.  To make the frosting:  Place the sugar and flour in a medium pot and whisk together well. Pour in the milk and whisk again. Cut the vanilla bean down the middle and scrape the seeds into the pot. Then add the vanilla bean as well. Cook the mixture over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture almost boils and turns into a pudding. This should take about 10-12 minutes. Remove from the heat and place a piece of parchment paper directly onto the surface of the pudding to prevent a skin from forming. Let cool to room temperature. To speed up cooling you can place the pot in a bowl of ice water.

5.  Place the butter, vanilla extract and salt in the clean bowl of the mixer and beat on medium until butter is fluffy and sticks to sides of bowls, about 2 minutes. When pudding has cooled, remove vanilla bean pod and throw away. With mixer running on medium speed, add a spoonful of pudding to the bowl at a time until all of the pudding has been added. This should take about 3 minutes. If frosting seems too thin to spread, stick the bowl in the fridge for 10-15 minutes and rebeat if necessary. Then take about 1/2 cup of the frosting and place it in a small bowl. Add the cocoa powder and mix together well. Set aside.

6.  To assemble the cake:  Prepare a cake plate with four strips of wax or parchment paper lining the plate as one big square so that it's easier to keep the plate looking neat. Place one layer on top of the strips, centered on the plate. Spread a generous amount of the vanilla frosting all over the layer. Top with the next cake layer, more frosting, then the next layer and the rest of the frosting, covering the top and sides of the cake. Place a few dollops of the cocoa frosting on the top of the cake and swirl it around with a knife or spoon. Do the same to the sides of the cake as well so that you get that marbled effect. If frosting seems to be getting too loose, place cake in fridge for a few minutes so that it's easier to work with. Use a large knife to cut thin slices of the cake and store any leftovers in the fridge, well-wrapped.

Note:  Recipe adapted from Marbled, Swirled and Layered by Irvin Lin. I cut the amount of frosting in half because it was just too much. I also subbed in ordinary English breakfast tea instead of the Lapsang Souchong tea in the original recipe.

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