I like a cake with a future and a past. And I’m fairly certain that this salted vanilla bean butter cake is going places. But this isn’t her first rodeo. Ohh, no no no. She’s already been around the block and then some.
A few years back I had a gig teaching regular cooking classes for about 10-15 people (mostly women) at our local community center here in Brigantine. I taught a class every few weeks and curriculums included everything from comfort food to healthy cooking, handmade pasta and pies.
Before long, I’d walk into class week after week to find the same group of eager, inquisitive women who started attending the classes regularly. We formed a nice camaraderie, and they would always stick around after class to help me clean up and chit chat. We’d laugh and gab about trendy recipes, local restaurants and all of our favorite foods.
One day after class, a discussion came up about family recipes and foods from our youth that we miss, when someone mentioned something about a butter cake. A few other women chimed in. “Ohhhh my god… YES! Butter cake!” They went on and on reminiscing about this dreamy cake of yesteryear that no one had tasted or even heard about in decades. There I sat, wide eyed, feeling a massive case of FOMO setting in.
What the heck is a butter cake? I’d never heard of it before. But it sounded like something I needed to find out about, STAT. After all, with a name like butter cake, it has to be good. Right? You can bet your little hiney I was intrigued.
The girls described it as being relatively simple, yet super rich, super sweet, and well… super buttery. But no one knew where to find butter cake; no one knew what went into it or how it was made. It was written off as a thing of the past, and we all went home that night and carried on life as usual.
Except that conversation stuck with me, and I couldn’t get butter cake off the brain. I was fascinated with the idea of this gooey, buttery confection that was supposedly different from the St. Louis style gooey butter cake that gained national popularity thanks to Miss Paula Deen. So naturally, I took to Google and did a little digging.
What I discovered were a few recipes and message boards discussing a German butter cake that used to be popular in and around Philadelphia, but has seemingly fallen off the map. Bingo! Considering more than half of the people living in South Jersey have roots in Philly, I knew this had to be it.
St. Louis style gooey butter cake has a yellow cake base with an ooey gooey center and a slightly crunchy shell on top. Philadelphia style butter cake, on the other hand, has the same gooey buttery filling, but with a more pastry-like yeasted bottom, akin to a classic German butterkuchen.
So being that I had no idea where to find this elusive Philly style butter cake, I set out to make one myself. And by golly, it did not disappoint. As a girl who would take a croissant over a cupcake any day, I found the savory yeasted base to be much preferable to the cloying yellow cake bottom of the St. Louis style gooey butter cakes I’ve had before. The Philly style cake almost reads more as a pastry, which makes me feel it’s acceptable to eat it for breakfast, which makes me love it even more.
But of course, the chef in me couldn’t go without improving on a few small things to take this cake from really good to incredible. First, and foremost: Salt. And plenty of it.
The original recipe contains only the teeniest bit of salt in the dough, and none in the topping. But this cake is seriously sweet, and anything this sugary is just begging to be balanced out by a heavy pinch of salt. It also helps to bring out the buttery flavor, which considering it’s namesake, is pretty darn important. The salt is mandatory. Don’t skip it.
I also opted to add in a little vanilla bean in addition to the liquid vanilla, as it really enhances the simple, understated flavor of this cake. This of course is optional, so if you don’t have a vanilla bean on hand just skip it. There’s no sense in rushing to the store to buy a single, dried out bean for $15 like they are at my market. The liquid vanilla will suffice. But while we’re on the topic, you can buy a whole mess of vanilla beans online for a fraction of the cost, and they’ll keep stored in a jar of vodka for just about ever (plus, you get vanilla extract as a bonus!). Just sayin’.
This cake might have a shady past, and why it seemingly fell off the face of the earth I will never understand. But it’s future is a bright one, for that I am certain.
- 1 (1/4 ounce) packet active dry yeast
- 1/2 cup warm milk (105-115°F)
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 large egg
- 2 1/4 cups (about 12 ounces) flour, sifted
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1/2 vanilla bean, seeds scraped*
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
- 2 cups superfine sugar**
- 2/3 cup flour
- 2 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 vanilla bean, seeds scraped*
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 5 tablespoons milk
- 2 teaspoons flaky sea salt for sprinkling (I like Maldon)
- Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk and set aside to proof for about 5 minutes. In another bowl, mix the sugar, butter, and salt until combined, then beat in the egg.
- Add the flour, then milk/yeast mixture, the vanilla extract and scraped seeds from the vanilla bean. Mix for about 3 minutes, then turn the dough out on a lightly floured board and knead for another minute, until it's smooth and elastic. Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, then leave in warm spot for about an hour, or until doubled in size.
- Cream the butter and sugar together for about 2 minutes, or until light and fluffy. Mix in the flour until fully combined. Add in the eggs one at a time, allowing the first to fully incorporate into the batter before adding the second. Add in the vanilla extract, scraped seeds from the vanilla bean, and salt. Next add the milk, starting with 1 tablespoon at a time, while observing the consistency. If it looks any thinner than pancake batter, don't add any more.
- Butter a 9x13 inch pan and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Once the dough has doubled in size, punch it down and remove it from the bowl. Press the dough into the the bottom of your prepared pan, using your fingers to crimp the edges half way up the sides to encase the filling.
- Spread the topping evenly over the dough, cover with a towel, then let it rest for about 20 minutes while the oven preheats.
- Right before baking, sprinkle the top evenly with flaky sea salt. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the edges and top are golden brown. The middle should still be very loose and wiggly - that's ok.
- Allow the cake to completely cool before serving. Store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.
- *After scraping the vanilla bean, save it's shell to flavor sugar, salts and other desserts.
- **No, I can't find superfine sugar in my grocery store either. But it is pretty important to achieving the right consistency in the filling. Place regular granulated sugar in the blender or food processor and buzz for a few seconds until it becomes finely ground. Instant superfine sugar!