Brown Butter Gooey Butter Spice Cake with Sparkling Cranberries and Cream

Well. It’s hard to know what to say.

As a teacher, I can tell you that we all have our private plans. Schools have bigger, more systemic plans, but we have private plans. Plans about throwing furniture, plans about overturning tables, plans about barring windows, plans about protecting. “What would I do if–?” has crossed all of our minds. To know that on Friday, some teachers had to put their own plans into action, the strategies they’d woven in the private depths of their imagination —

Well. It’s hard to know what to say. It’s hard to know how to say thank you, I’m sorry, I can’t believe it, what can I do?, and why?, and all of the other things we can’t put language to.

Since I don’t know how to say all of that, I’ll do what I do know how to do. I’ll tell you a story.

* * *

My first experience with teaching was as a student teacher in a summer school in inner-city Atlanta. To say that that was a rough way to start would be an understatement. My students came from home environments in which abuse and poverty were everyday realities. I had a class full of 8th grade girls whose personalities and needs varied considerably.

One girl inexplicably hated me with her entire being and made this clear during most of our interactions.

One girl vacillated between quiet anger and reluctant compliance.

One was realistic, practical, and blunt — qualities she had perhaps honed after having her own baby. She was ready to get on with getting educated and had no time to waste with silliness.

One girl, Marion, was a quiet preacher’s daughter. She barely said a thing throughout the month I taught the class.

Here I was, a middle-class white girl straight out of college. Sure, I could barely afford a suitable teaching outfit at the time, but standing in that classroom, I knew that my students knew hardship in a way that I didn’t understand.

There are many stories I want to tell you about what transpired — about the day the girl touched my hair wistfully, about the day I left my classroom in tears, about the day I bought the girls the wrong kind of cookies, about the day an administrator yelled at me and an entire bevy of those sweet girls unexpectedly stood up for me. But today I want to skip right to the end: the day they took the reading test that would determine whether or not they could continue on to high school.

We had been through a lot together to get to that moment, so I felt very close to the girls. But I saw something in them that day I hadn’t seen before: straight-up fear. It surprised me to see them huddling in the classroom, nervous about the test that they felt was deciding their future. I set to the task of encouraging, supporting, calming. I didn’t know it at the time, but I see now that I was already a teacher in my heart.

I’ll never forget the moment that my co-teachers and I looked over and saw every girl — even the one who hated my guts and, ostensibly, the guts of the world — standing around Marion. She had brought in her father’s absolutely enormous, worn Bible and was holding it in the center of the circle. Every girl had her hand resting on one edge of the well-loved book, her head bowed, and her eyes closed. Some lips moved along with Marion as she prayed aloud over them all. The overarching theme of her plea was, “God, please, please let us pass this test.”

You’re going to hate this, but despite the prayers, the extra #2 pencils, and the most heartfelt teaching I could muster, Marion didn’t pass her test. She came to me upon receiving her scores and asked if I would please write the school system and ask them to promote her, something I gladly did. She had more trouble with tests and test anxiety than she did with reading — a problem many students around the country face each year. But I’m not sure what they ultimately decided.

What Marion and her sweet classmates showed me that day — and really every day they showed up to class and earnestly put their pencils to paper — is faith. Can we have faith after things have gone wrong (tragically, devastatingly wrong)? I know one thing: it won’t be a reasonable faith. It will have to be the unreasoning, innocent faith of a child. One who just believes things can be okay again somehow, some way.

One year ago: Gingersnap Cheesecake Stuffed Snickerdoodles
Two years ago: Magic Bars
Three years ago: Oreo Truffle Snowmen

And another Gooey Butter Cake adaptation you might love: Gooey Butter Strawberry Shortcake

Brown Butter Gooey Butter Spice Cake with Sparkling Cranberries and Cream

Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking with sparkling cranberries adapted from Bakers Royale
Yield: serves 4-6

If you love Gooey Butter Cake, here’s a delicious holiday adaptation (with apologies to St. Louis). This Gooey Butter SPICE cake has the wonderful, warm flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, brown butter, dates, and toasted pecans. It’s adorned with spiked cream and pretty sparkling cranberries. Enjoy it straight out of the skillet by a big fire, please!

Crust Ingredients:
1 cup cake flour
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/3 cup butter, cold

Filling Ingredients:
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, softened
1 egg
1 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup minus 2 tablespoons evaporated milk
2 tablespoons brandy
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 cup chopped dates
1 cup chopped toasted pecans (to toast, bake at 350 degrees F, tossing occasionally, for 4-6 minutes)
powdered sugar

Sparkling Cranberry Topping Ingredients:
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup water
2 cups fresh cranberries, room temperature
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar (some coarse sugar if you have it, and some regular, for rolling)
2 cups heavy whipping cream (with a glug of brandy mixed in, optional)

NOTE: If you don’t have a skillet, I believe you can bake this in a greased 9-inch square baking dish (I’d use a glass one if you have it, and check it early and often. Remove when there’s some jiggle left.) Let us know how it goes if you try it this way for all the other skilletless people!

Prepare the sparkling cranberries: Cook the 1/3 cup granulated sugar and 1/3 cup water together over medium-high heat until simmering (not boiling). Remove from the heat and let cool a couple of minutes so cranberries won’t burst. Pour in cranberries and mix to coat them. Spread the cranberries out on a cooling rack using a slotted spoon and let them dry for an hour, spreading them out as much as possible. Roll the cranberries in small batches in the coarse sugar first, and then in the regular granulated sugar to finish coating. Allow the cranberries to dry in a clean area at least 1 more hour. I prepared these the night before and let them dry, very lightly covered, overnight.

Brown the butter for your gooey butter cake filling: Put the 1 1/2 sticks of butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Melt it and heat until the butter begins to brown. Begin swirling so it will cook evenly. Brown it to a dark amber and then pour it out into a shallow dish. Stick this in the freezer to firm up a bit. When firm, set it out to soften slightly while you make the gooey butter cake crust.

Make the crust: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together cake flour and sugar in a medium bowl. Cut in the 1/3 cup butter with a pastry cutter or two knives until the mixture resembles fine crumbs and starts to cling together. Press the mixture into the bottom (this step is a lot harder than it sounds, but be patient and use the back of a spoon to help spread/press the mixture down. I also stuck mine in the fridge for a bit to make the butter less sticky) and up the sides of a 10-inch cast iron skillet.

Make the filling: In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. In a separate large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy and pale yellow (about 2-3 minutes). Mix in the egg until just combined. Alternate adding the flour mixture and evaporated milk, mixing after each addition. Mix in the corn syrup, brandy, pecans, dates, and vanilla. Pour the filling into the crust and sprinkle the top with powdered sugar.

Bake and assemble the cake: Bake for 25 to 35 minutes or until cake is nearly set (mine was probably ready around 30). Some jiggle is fine — do not overcook! It’ll finish setting up as it cools. Let it cool in pan for 2 hours. In the meantime, beat heavy cream to stiff peaks (with a glug of brandy if you’d like). Pile heaps of freshly whipped cream into the center of your cooled, set gooey butter cake, garnish with a few sparkling cranberries, and serve.

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Sticky Toffee Pudding Cheesecake

Listen, this entire post is about turn signals. Like, the whole post (with the exception of some cheesecakey bits). I’m just warning you in case you’re not in a turn signal sort of mood.

(You are in a Sticky Toffee Pudding Cheesecake sort of mood though, right? Good.)

sticky toffee love.

I am not a violent person in general, but there is nothing that makes me wish I had a rocket launcher stashed in my glove compartment more than people who don’t use turn signals. Turn signals are included on your vehicle to let other people know where you’re headed so they don’t plow into you and die. They’re, like, important*.

(Am I ruining the serene vibe we had going on here with all the pretty pastels and birdies and such? I’m probably totally harshing the mellow with my latent road rage. Sorry.)

Just think of cheesecake.

Actually, I don’t care if you ignore your turn signal sometimes. I’m not unreasonable. For instance:

Are you driving down a deserted road in the middle of the frigid Nebraska night, with no one but a few chilly cows to watch you with disdain as you turn left with no prior warning? It’s cool. No need to signal. The bovine haters will learn to accept your rebellious agrarian road rules.

Are you one of those bodacious** ice road truckers whose existence I honestly still kind of question? You crazy mythological creature, you! Forget those turn signals. No one needs to be notified that you’re about to veer in a different direction across the frozen tundra.

cheesecakes are also exempt from signaling.

Are you Abraham Lincoln? Abe, you were one honest, tall, admirable dude. I don’t think anyone would hold it against you if you didn’t signal before you turned your horse and buggy. Plus, you’re (sadly) deceased. Dead people do not need to use turn signals.

If you’re not a Nebraskan farmer, an ice road trucker, Abraham Lincoln, or dead, however, you’re going to have to suck it up and signal***.

And if you’re one of the billions of Charlotteans who seem to think it’s not important to use your turn signal when switching into the middle lane of a busy multilane highway in the middle of the night, well. The Charlotte police department has granted me the right to revoke your license (okay, no they haven’t.) But I think it’s just kind of implied that I’m allowed to do so.

the one with the cheesecake makes the rules.

Well. After all that road rage, I think we need something comforting. How about something so comforting you want to bathe in it? Something so comforting you want to wear it around like a sticky toffee snuggie? How about a thick, sloppy slice of Sticky Toffee Pudding Cheesecake?

Just to address the elephant in the room: yes, the cake is about as ugly as sin (or as ugly as not using one’s turn signal? Sorry, I’ll stop.) The crust crumbled down to just the cheesecake height. The toffee pudding is puckery on top. The whole thing is decidedly brown. Please don’t be deterred, though. Firstly, you can dress it up with a drizzle of toffee sauce and some pretty flatware. Secondly, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever tasted.

It’s not surprising that it’s good: it’s buttery toffee sauce on top of smooshy, date-filled pudding (in the British sense, y’all, not the Jell-O sense) on top of a creamy cheesecake on top of a gingersnap and graham cracker crust. It did surprise me, though, how good it was. And really, how freeing. Knowing that your goal is a homey, warm, comforting dessert instead of a beautiful one can make the whole process feel more forgiving.

Much more forgiving than I am with regards to your driving practices, for sure.

u-g-l-y, this cake ain’t got no alibi — but it’s nothing a little toffee sauce can’t fix.

*Full disclosure: I’m sure that at some point, I have neglected to use a turn signal. You guys are free to call me the crap out if you ever see it happening. This is probably safe to say since very few of you know what sort of car I drive. Heh.

**In writing this post, I came across this Yahoo! Answers post about how to talk about Andrew Jackson without using the word “badass,” and I admit I laughed for at least a full minute. I guess I can’t talk, because I was searching for a way to describe ice road truckers without using that word.

***I still love you even if you don’t use your turn signal. Please still love me even though I just wrote an entire post admonishing you.

Time for cake!

Sticky Toffee Pudding Cheesecake

Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking, using Food Network’s pudding recipe
Yield: 10-12 servings

There are no words for how delicious this dessert is. Buttery toffee sauce cascades over smooshy, date-filled sticky toffee pudding on top of a creamy cheesecake. The recipe can be made over several days and made in advance, making it convenient in addition to delectable. I served slices warmed for 30-40 seconds in the microwave and with a drizzle of extra toffee sauce. A scoop of ice cream or a dollop of whipped cream would be a lovely addition.

Cheesecake Ingredients:
3 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1½ tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 large eggs
2 heaping cups cookie crumbs (I used a 50/50 mixture of graham cracker and gingersnap crumbs)
6 tablespoons butter

Sticky Toffee Pudding Ingredients:
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 cup pitted dates, finely chopped (Oh Nuts! provided me with these)
1 1/4 cups boiling water
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup butter, room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Toffee Sauce Ingredients:
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup packed light brown sugar

Notes: Cheesecakes are simple and super customizable. New to cheesecake making? Watch my 6 minute Cheesecake Video Tutorial for visual assistance! This recipe can be divided up over several days — you can make and refrigerate both the cheesecake and pudding in advance. Simply make the toffee sauce and assemble the day you’re serving the cake.

Make the cheesecake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease a springform cheesecake pan. Combine the cookie crumbs and melted butter in a small bowl. Toss with a fork to moisten all of the crumbs. Using a flat-sided glass, press into a thin layer covering the bottom and sides (you want it to be tall — try to get to about 2.5-3 inches high and not too thick in any one spot) of your cheesecake pan. Bake the crust for about 6 minutes and let it cool as you make your cheesecake filling.

In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese and sugar on medium-high speed until well blended. Beat in the flour. Add in the vanilla and beat until well incorporated, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Beat in the eggs one at a time, scraping down the bowl between each addition. Pour the filling into your crust.

Bake until the top is lightly browned, puffed and cracked at the edges, and the center moves only very slightly when the pan is lightly shaken (about 40 minutes). Check while baking periodically and put a pie shield (or strips of foil) around the top of your pan to protect the crust edges if they’re getting too dark. Just don’t let the shield/foil touch the crust — it’s delicate and might crumble. Let cheesecake cool before chilling it in the fridge for at least 3 hours. (My crust kind of crumbled on top as the cheesecake cooled and pulled it inward, but don’t fret if this happens — everything will still be delicious! I just swept away the crumblies with a pastry brush.)

Make Sticky Toffee Pudding: In the meantime, grease a 9-inch round cake pan. Place a parchment paper round in it to line the bottom, and grease the paper as well. You don’t want your pudding stuck in your pan!

Sift the flour and baking powder onto a sheet of waxed paper (I love doing this with dry ingredients, because then the paper becomes a funnel for easy transport of your dry ingredients and you aren’t using an extra bowl). In a separate small bowl, gently mix the dates, boiling water, baking soda. Set this aside.

In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy (2-3 minutes). Add the egg and vanilla and beat to combine. Gradually mix in the flour mixture, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Fold in (I did a little folding and a little stirring, since it was quite soupy, but just be gentle with it) the date mixture with a spatula. Pour your batter into your prepared pan and bake until the pudding is set up and firm, about 35 minutes (jiggle the pan and watch the middle). Let the pudding cool completely on a wire rack before inverting it onto a wax paper lined plate and popping it in the freezer to firm up for easy handling (or leave it in the fridge overnight).

Make the Toffee Sauce: In a small saucepan, combine the butter, heavy cream and brown sugar. Bring this to a boil, whisking constantly. Boil gently for about 8 minutes over medium low heat, or until the mixture is thickened.

Assemble the cake: Preheat the broiler. Spoon about 1/3 cup of toffee sauce onto the surface of your cheesecake to serve as a “glue” and gently place your sticky toffee pudding layer on top, pressing to adhere. Top this layer with about 1/3 cup of the toffee sauce and spread this around evenly on top. Place the cake under the broiler until the topping is bubbly, about 1 minute (keep a close watch! I rotated mine carefully every few seconds for even bubbling). Carefully remove the springform pan and using a sturdy spatula or two, place cheesecake on serving platter (if you’re nervous, just remove the sides of the springform pan and serve it straight from the base — no worries). Serve slices with extra toffee sauce and whipped cream or ice cream.

P.S. Oh Nuts! sent me California Medjool Dates to try free of charge. My opinions are always my own and always thoughtfully prepared with consideration for my readers — and I loved the dates! It was my first date experience and now I’m hooked.

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