I’m calling this Vanilla Cake because, The Cake that Kelly and Carol brought to the Family Reunion at Harry and Diana’s House a Few Years Back seems a bit cumbersome. But that is what it is. My mom pulled the mother of this recipe out of the paper years ago. I have played with it and turned it strictly into a vanilla cake but I am going to describe the original too, because the original cake is also fantastic and the ingredients a bit easier to come by.
I say this because I use 3 whole vanilla beans for this cake. Anyone who has priced vanilla beans at the grocery store lately will be aghast at that notion. The last time I checked, a dinky bottle with 2 emaciated beans was $10. This, being a good old fashioned sheet cake, does not seem the place for such excess. But after that last bit of grocery store sticker shock I set about finding another source, and I have. JR Mushrooms sells big vacuum sealed bags of fresh plump vanilla beans for a fraction of what they cost in the grocery store. Being a woman prone to buying things on sale of questionable quality merely because the price seems so good, I have been suspicious of my now 3 orders the whole time. I have been saying “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” since the notion was pounded into my head in a finance class in 1992. But I can’t find anything wrong with this product, and it allows me to use vanilla beans with wild abandon, something I never would have considered before. It is a solid product for a very low price. The most pricey of their offerings is about $1 per bean and the cost goes down dramatically when you buy in greater quantity. I actually called JR Mushrooms to ask them why they were able to offer such a low price and spoke to a gentleman named Amit, who explained that since they ship all of their beans from a central location and don’t have to deal with the overhead that a grocery store does (with receiving, stocking, pricing, etc) they are able to offer a much lower price. He said they are from Madagascar and because they move pounds and pounds of the beans they are able to keep the price low. Of course, that makes sense. He also said that if you use the discount code “ten2011″ you can get a 10% discount.
Onward. The original recipe uses almond extract as well as vanilla extract instead of vanilla beans and vanilla extract, so feel free to use 1 teaspoon of almond extract anywhere I have used a vanilla bean. It is a completely different cake but equally delicious.
There is only one more decision to be made. This can be made as a traditional sheet cake in a sheet cake pan, or it can be made in a 9” x 13” pan. One is thin cake with thin icing and the other is thicker cake with thicker icing. Which type of person are you? The cooking times will differ. I split the difference and baked one 9”x13” and one 9”x9” the last time I made it. And I think it was just slightly too thin. But then again, I’m now obsessed with the appearance of food and that opinion is based on what would look better in a photo. The lead photo here is the thin version. If you use only one 9”x13” it will be thicker. This is a cake meant to be served from the pan. It is not going to win any beauty pageants. The icing tends to pool at the corners. But much like my most favored cake, the Texas Chocolate Sheet Cake, this is about comfort, taste, ease of preparation, ability to feed a crowd and portability, not whether it would look cute in a bakery window next to a 5 tiered wedding cake. You will also note that for both the cake and the icing, the butter is melted before being added. That makes this cake a miracle for last minute baking.
Before I shut up and get to the cooking, 2 photos need explanation. One, my daughter doesn’t actually look like that. It is just that when you offer a 7 year old constructive criticism on her knife skills, she tends to look at you as if to say “Hey lady, I’m the one with the knife here, watch your mouth.” And seeing that in a photo made me smile. Second, there is a photo of Lily spraying a pan in front of the dishwasher. If you haven’t heard about that trick yet, become a convert. Open your dirty dishwasher and hold your pan over the dishwasher and spray away. The excess non-stick spray goes into the dishwasher where it will be rinsed away the next time you start a load of dishes instead of into the air or all over your counter or sink.
1 cup butter
1 cup water
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
½ cup sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 vanilla beans, split and seeds scraped out to use in the batter (see note at bottom about using the pods)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup butter
¼ cup milk or cream
16 ounces confectioners’ sugar (about 4¼ cups)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped out to use in the icing
1 cup chopped pecans (optional)
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Split the three vanilla beans in half. Open the halves up slightly and then scrape out the seeds with a knife. Scrape, do not cut. Ideally this yields only the seeds and not the pith just underneath the seeds. But there is no drawback to having some of that in the cake. It is just a matter of appearance. Set aside the seeds from one of the beans for use in the icing. Put the seeds in a small prep bowl with the vanilla extract because it helps them to “un-clump” and distribute themselves more easily in the batter.
In a small saucepan, melt the butter in the water (for the cake portion only). In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, salt and baking soda with a whisk. Very carefully, especially if you have kids helping, pour the melted butter and water combination into the flour and sugar bowl. Whisk until well combined. Add the eggs and whisk to combine. Add the sour cream and whisk to combine. Add the extract and vanilla bean seeds and whisk to combine. Pour into a sheet cake pan, or a 9”x13” cake pan which has been sprayed with non-stick cooking spray.
Bake for approximately 18 to 20 minutes for the sheet cake pan, or 30 minutes for the 9”x13” pan. Either way, begin checking a few minutes early. The cake is ready when a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean (or crumb-y but not batter-y).
Remove the cake from the oven and allow it to cool for 20 minutes before applying the icing.
For the icing, combine the butter and milk in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and add everything else but the nuts, stirring to combine. Either add the nuts to the icing and stir well or sprinkle them on top of the cake after applying the icing. Pour the icing on the cake and spread it around evenly. I used the pecans both ways, once mixed into the icing, and once on top since I was serving the cake to kids who might or might not like pecans. It looks goofy, but who cares? This icing is more like a glaze than an icing. And all the little black specs…those are the vanilla seeds.
I have used my vanilla beans for a lot of things at this point. My favorite usage is making my own vanilla extract. My friend, Kim, has used it for Maker’s Mark vanilla extract and for vanilla sugar. I am making vanilla sugar with my hulls from this baking experiment. You just tuck the empty hulls in with sugar in a jar and let it sit for several days. You can add an additional bean with seeds scraped and mixed into the sugar if you choose. I am going to mix it with cocoa and try to use it to make a mocha. Wish me luck.