Friday, December 4, 2015

Orange Pecan Caramel Sauce Cake

Sauce cakes are these bizarre little science projects that defy our best intuition about baking.  There’s no creaming of butter and sugar and the liquid is not mixed into the cake batter at all yet somehow it all magically comes together.  It’s an odd idea but the cake is so easy to prepare and so comforting to devour, you’ll quickly forget all the chemistry questions in favor of diving into the delicious results.

The ingredients are basic enough but I don’t pretend to know how or why this particular method works.  Once the cake batter is placed in the baking pan, hot liquid is carefully poured over the top so that two distinct layers are formed.  During the baking process, some of the liquid is absorbed into the cake but most of it collects at the bottom of the dish to form a thickened sauce.  Weird, I know.

This particular sauce cake is flavored with orange, toasted pecans and a slight dash of cinnamon.  The liquid layer is a combination of orange juice and brown sugar and the resulting orange caramel sauce is a perfect gooey match for the tender cake.  

Once the weather turns cold, we usually crave the soups, stews and casseroles that symbolize comfort food.  That's true of pastries as well.  If you’re craving some comfort that isn't overly rich or heavy, this cake is a very nice offering.  Serve it warm with a bit of ice cream and you're set to enjoy a good old-fashioned spoon dessert, perfect for these cold nights bundled up by the fire.

Bench notes:
- I used two large heavy oranges and they were the perfect amount for both the cake and the sauce.  The heavier the orange, the more juice it contains.
- If you don’t have Grand Marnier, try rum or bourbon.  Or you can skip it altogether.
- To toast pecans, spread them in a single layer on a baking sheet and place in a 350 degree F oven for about 10 minutes.

Orange Pecan Caramel Sauce Cake
Serves 6 - 8

Cake Batter
1 cup (5 oz) flour
1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder                                     
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon                          
1/2 cup (3 1/2 oz) granulated sugar                                            
2 tablespoons (26 grams) dark brown sugar, packed
zest of 1/2 orange
2 oz (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted                           
1/2 cup (4 oz) milk @ room temperature
1 egg @ room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup (1 1/4 oz) toasted pecans, coarsely chopped                                    

Liquid Topping
1 cup (8 oz) orange juice                                                  
1/4 cup (2 oz) water                                                
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons (4 1/2 oz) dark brown sugar, packed                                 
1/2 oz (1 tablespoon) unsalted butter                                                    
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
zest of 1/2 orange
1 tablespoon (1/2 oz) Grand Marnier
slight pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Lightly grease the sides of an 8” x 8” baking dish.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, granulated sugar, brown sugar and orange zest until completely blended.   

Whisk together the melted butter, milk, egg and vanilla.  Add flour mixture and whisk just until thoroughly combined.  Stir in the toasted pecans.  Spread batter evenly in the prepared baking dish.

For the sauce, place the orange juice, water, brown sugar, butter, cinnamon, orange zest, Grand Marnier and a few grains of salt in a saucepan.  Bring to a boil, whisking constantly, until the brown sugar is dissolved.  Take off the heat and slowly and gently pour over the cake batter, doing your best not to disturb the batter.  Do not stir or attempt to mix the liquid into the batter in any way.  

Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 28 minutes.  Place the cake on a wire rack for just a few minutes.  Serve warm.

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