Study Days And Vanilla Cake With Brown Sugar Buttercream

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Woke up to a blanket of white and wondered if the spector of promised snow had indeed arrived. No, it was only a thick coating of frost crystals, but dreamlike all the same and quick to dissipate in the mid-winter sun. On account of the study retreat, I don’t get out all too much, but when I do, I’m always grateful when the days look like this. Lustrous and living and sparkling.

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This is where I spent my time these days. Somewhere in between the 18 elements, the 22 governing faculties, and the 4 fruits of realization of the listeners, I notice I am learning things. Things that can seem technical beyond reason or frustrating for their lack of daily applicability, but which feel to me like scaffolding. A steady support through which I can build higher knowledge. The philosophy we are learning now is not the view we seek. In fact, it’s already been proven wrong. And while spending hours nitpicking details that one doesn’t even believe could seem ulcer-inducing, I am fortunate not to have found it so.

I’ve studied the skeleton of this system of knowledge before. And the last time I looked at it in any great detail, I was half-tempted to throw the book against a wall, find myself a nice cave in the Himalayas, and call it a day. But it seems enlightenment doesn’t work like that. At least not for most of us these days. From what I’ve seen, enlightenment in the modern day is more about the process of gaining enough knowledge that our wealth of preconceived misconceptions about reality undo themselves when we take them to the cushion and into daily life. This inevitably means serious nose-to-book time.

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So we show up and listen and type hundreds of pages of notes, and reread transcripts, and puzzle through study groups, and pose questions. And somehow it all trickles in. And will continue to for years to come, I think. And in between, when the lists of what is the fruit of karmic ripening and what is not, what is the cause of karmic ripening and what is not, and what must be abandoned on this path and that path and actually not abandoned after all gets to be a bit too much, we do what we can to unwind our minds and keep going. A brain-drain doodle here, a shared cup of tea there, and birthday cake decked out in buttercream when the moment presents itself. These are mostly good days.

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And this is a fully good cake. Made for a friend who happened to be present for the last birthday cake that came around: a yogurt-apple cake that just happened to be gluten-free. And when he heard that there was no flour, no butter, and not even an absurd amount of sugar involved, he pursed his lips and said, “That’s not cake.” Well it was, but it wasn’t an extravaganza of dietary exceptions. Which often of the best cake is.

So I made him a sturdy vanilla butter cake slathered with brown-sugar buttercream, which is 100% decadence and also the last thing you could accuse of not being cake. Mission accomplished. A dense, buttery cake with a fine, fluffy frosting supported by warm hints of vanilla and molasses makes for a proper winter birthday cake. If you have a similar sugar tolerance to me, I recommend small slices, but if you’re not sugar-sensitive, you do as you please and enjoy!

Recipe…

Vanilla Cake with Brown Sugar Buttercream

Adapted from Brown-Eyed Baker

**Quick note: There is no actual brown sugar in this buttercream. After looking through a few recipes that involved whipping brown sugar into frosting for ages until the granulated sugar crystals dissolved, I had the brilliant revelation that brown sugar is just regular sugar with molasses added, and I could save myself (and you!) a whole lot of trouble by making a regular buttercream with confectioner’s sugar and just whirling in a bit of liquid molasses. Voilà!

For the cake:

2 cups (250 grams) all-purpose flour

¼ cup (28 grams) cornstarch

1 cup + 6 tablespoon (280 grams) granulated sugar

1 ¾ (8 mL) teaspoons baking powder

¾ (4 mL) tsp salt

¾ cup (180 grams) butter, room temperature.

3 eggs

¾ cup (180mL) whole milk

2 teaspoons of vanilla or the scraped seeds of one vanilla bean.

For the frosting:

1 ½ cups (170 grams) butter, room temperature

3 ¾ cups (480 grams) powdered sugar

2 tsp (10 mL) molasses

1-3 tablespoons (15-45 mL) whole milk, as needed

Make the cake:

Preheat the oven to 325˚F (160˚ C).

Line a 10-inch cake pan with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cornstarch, sugar, baking powder, and salt for one minute to thoroughly combine. Cut the butter into ½-inch chunks and gently beat it into the flour mixture. If you are lucky and have a fancy stand mixer or even a hand mixer that’s lowest setting isn’t blitz, you can do this on the lowest until the butter is evenly distributed and the mixture has a sandy texture. I rubbed the butter in with my fingers and it took about ten minutes.

Whisk in the eggs, one at a time. Add the vanilla to the milk and pour the liquid slowly into the batter, whisking gently to combine.

Pour the batter into the cake pan. Bake for 50-60 minutes until golden-brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Make the frosting:

In a stand mixer, with a hand blender, or with a wooden spoon and craptons of elbow grease, beat the butter until light and fluffy, three-to-four minutes. Add the sugar a little at a time, beating until fully incorporated. Add the molasses and mixed until fully incorporated. Depending on the amount of fat in your butter, you may need to add a little milk. If the frosting is at all crumbly and doesn’t stick together completely, add milk one tablespoon (15 mL) at a time until it comes together. When the frosting is smooth, beat on high for another three minutes to make it nice and fluffy.

Assemble the cake:

Cut the cake in half evenly. Place the bottom half of the cake cut-side-down on a serving dish. Spread half the frosting on top. Place the second cake layer on top, also cut-side-down, and spread the rest of the frosting over the cake. Add sprinkles as need and whimsy dictate.

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