The Stuff of Valentine’s Dreams: Vanilla Bean Cake with Pomegranate Buttercream

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Some days I’m wrapped up in daydreams of fluffy, buttery, happy, vanilla-scented cake. On some of those days, I’m also enthralled with thoughts of creamy swirls of tart, fruity, billowy pinkness. Today is one of those lucky days. A good vanilla cake is remarkably challenging to get right, though it sounds like such a simple thing. However, I’ve found that in my quest to find the right balance of fluff, moisture, and flavor, vanilla cakes are too often dry or spongy or devoid of actual… vanilla. When people equate the beautiful complexity of vanilla to ‘plain’ or ‘boring’, it makes a little vein in my temple pop out– the hand-pollinated fruit of the vanilla orchid is the very antithesis of these bland descriptors. I’ve longed to find a cake that could do justice to the intoxicating essence of vanilla– it is as elusive as it is special.

This Vanilla Bean Cake with Pomegranate Buttercream from the Ovenly cookbook was one of the first recipes to catch my eye when I first flipped through this magnificent book—I mean, who makes pomegranate frosting?? Erin and Agatha in their badass Brooklyn bakery, that’s who. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but– I found that I’m still detoxing from my chocolate overdose during the holidays, and I haven’t been craving it since New Year’s. (WHO. AM. I.) I didn’t intend to post this as a Valentine’s cake, but it’s rather apropos, what with the pink frosting and all– it’s just that it took a while to make, but more on that later. This cake is light, refreshing, and rather jovial, if I may say so. As is their hallmark, Ovenly pairs familiar flavors with a little something exotic; the warmth of the vanilla is a beautiful foil for the tartness of the pomegranate molasses in the frosting. OH-SO-MUCH-VANILLA.

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The pomegranate fruit is native to the Middle East, with a long history spanning many ancient civilizations, dating back at least to 3000BC. It is a symbol of prosperity, fertility, and health in most cultures; a lovely alternative to hearts and cupids on Valentine’s Day, if I may say so. Pomegranates are deeply intertwined in the history, mythology, cuisine, medicine, and art of cultures around the world—I learned the word for ‘pomegranate’ in about 8 different languages while researching for this blog post! NERD ALERT: It never ceases to blow my mind when I learn about the evolution of language over time and distance—the pomegranate was so integral to so many cultures on multiple continents, and one can easily trace the etymological roots of many of its modern names to the Latin variations of pōmum grānātum and mālum grānātus (“seeded apple” in medieval and classical Latin, respectively). Some of my favorite accounts/stories/beliefs include:

  • Eve was tempted by a pomegranate, not an apple, in the Garden of Eden. (Scandalous!)
  • Similarly, in the Greek myth of Persephone, this goddess is said to have been banished to the underworld for 6 months out of every year after being tricked into eating pomegranate seeds by Hades, during which her mother Demeter (goddess of harvest) would go into mourning and would cease to fertilize the earth—hence, the Fall and winter seasons.
  • Hoping for a second life, ancient Egyptians including King Tut were buried with pomegranates in their tombs.
  • In Jewish/Israeli culture, the pomegranate appears in numerous biblical references, including Moses’ leading the Hebrew exodus out of Egypt, and it is said to symbolize the virtue of 613 mitzvot because it contains 613 seeds (…give or take). My personal favorite pomegranate inspiration is the “Seven Species”, which are foods borne of the earth that are native to the Land of Israel (wheat, barley, figs, olives, dates, grapes, and pomegranates) and essential to the Israeli cuisine of my homeland. There is a particular reverence for these foods, as they symbolize the Jewish culture’s connection to nature. Ceramic pomegranates are a popular decorating motif in Israel, and I love to decorate my home with them.

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That’s much ado about pomegranates! This red-seeded fruit has quite an illustrious history, and it has become the darling of the health food industry in recent years for its alleged (though controversial) antioxidants and disease-fighting properties. Whatever your reason for eating pomegranate products, I highly recommend channeling your efforts into making pomegranate buttercream, and I added the seeds, or arils, on top as a garnish, because PRETTY.

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The photo in the book shows a partially eaten fluffy-looking, vanilla-speckled, pink-frosted dream. My experience arriving at such a cake was kind of a journey—not all roses, but well worth the labor. (Not to mention a LOT of butter, eggs, cake flour, and vanilla beans…) It took me three iterations to get it right, and v3.0 was pretty lovely. And actually, I’d say I’m about 90% there– I’d like to make a fourth one just to keep tweaking the cake and frosting texture ever so slightly…

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Why did I need to make it three times, you ask? Trials and tribulations with cake pans, my friends. The cake is meant to be a 2-layer 9″ affair, but the recipe makes enough batter for three typical layers… which I learned the hard way. My two 9″ pans were on the short side, and the first time, I filled them very high, and I thought, “Wow, this is a lot of batter.” And at that point, the logical follow-up thought could have been, “You know, I should bake this in three pans, because experience tells me that this is going to be a messy problem.” But did that happen? …not so much. Instead, I ended up with this:

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Do not try this at home, friends. Fortunately, I managed to avoid my second oven fire in the span of one week, but it was clear that these pans were not acceptable. I tweeted Ovenly to ask if I needed special cake pans for this recipe, and they recommended pans with 2″-high sides. I will generally take any shameless opportunity to buy cake pans (and truthfully –really!– my pans were not the best), so I ordered new 9″ pans that were supposed to be 2″ tall.

For my second attempt, the new pans had not yet arrived, so I used my trusty 8″ pans with slightly higher sides, and I filled them about ⅔ full and had enough batter left over for a dozen cupcakes (which came out weird– sticky and inedible). I thought the cakes would bake a little more quickly, but they took 37 minutes, a little longer than the prescribed baking time. The middles were very stubborn because the cakes were tall, and meanwhile I was worried that the edges would be dry. It was a step in the right direction, but the cakes were underbaked and a little gummy. (I also pulled a total bonehead move by stacking and frosting the cake when the layers were still slightly warm– FYI, melty frosting is icky.)

In case you’re keeping track, that’s 8 sticks of butter, 4 vanilla beans, 1 ½ pints of cream, 12 eggs, and 8 cups of cake flour wasted. Not to mention, I was hungry and couldn’t eat cake.

At this point, I decided to simply ask Erin and Agatha in person– the Ovenly book tour was coming to San Francisco! I was able to meet and chat with them last weekend when they stopped by The Mill SF for a book signing. Both ladies were so very sweet and friendly– so cool to have a slice of Brooklyn right in SF! Besides partaking of a piece of special Ovenly-themed toast, I got to chat with them about their recipes, and I inquired about this trickster cake.

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For the third try, I was able to use the new 9″ pans, but although they were purported to be 2″ high, the actual height was about 1 ½”. I decided to use all three pans, and this yielded 3 perfectly proportioned layers that baked in 33 minutes. Not taking any chances, I weighed the batter to have perfectly even layers– I had about 780g per cake pan.

These are standard home baking pans, so I think that actual 2″-tall pans must be more of a professional tool? After making this cake three times, and I found that there is too much batter for a regular 2-layer cake. The beautifully thick layers in Ovenly’s book seem to require the extra-tall pans; if you don’t have these, you can make a shorter cake for standard pans by cutting the recipe by ⅓. Alternatively, you can make this 3-layer version using the original batter quantities in the recipe, which is what I’ve included here. If you do this, make sure to increase the frosting quantity by 50% (quantities reflected below). The only ingredient that I didn’t increase is the pomegranate molasses because it’s quite tart, but you are certainly welcome to if you like it super puckery!

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When making the pomegranate frosting, I cut back on the confectioners’ sugar a bit (adjusted quantities below). I remembered that when I made their Brooklyn Blackout Cake (which was pretty spectacular), I used the full amount, and the frosting was a little stiffer and sweeter than I would prefer. After adding all but 1 cup to the pomegranate buttercream base, I was satisfied with the fluffy-yet-creamy texture, so I didn’t feel the need to add more. Also, I ended up with some sugar chunks that didn’t get beaten out, so I will sift the confectioners’ sugar next time. The pomegranate molasses is fabulous, people. You can find it in Middle Eastern/international markets. It imparts a light brown color to the frosting, but I used Americolor “Tulip Red” gel coloring to bright it up to a pleasant shade of pink. I was cautious with the color, so as not to have an obnoxious shade like my recent Tiffany-box-blue Wintermint Cake! The frosting was a dream to work with while covering the cake (although for this photographed cake, my buttercream was a touch dry– I should’ve added a little more cream…), and with the increased amount, there was enough that I didn’t have to worry about running out.

I styled the top of the cake with a spiral fan design and garnished it with a swath of pomegranate seeds, called arils. They added more pomegranate punch to the cake, and I loved the crunch of the seeds. They did, however, seep moisture onto the cake, so if you use these, put them on at the last minute.

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Vanilla Bean Cake with Pomegranate Buttercream
Adapted from Ovenly by Agatha Kulaga & Erin Patinkin
Yields 1 9″ 3-layer cake

For a 2-layer cake, make a ⅔ recipe, unless you have cake pans with at least 2″-high sides. (For 2 layers, cut the frosting by ⅓ as well.) Both of my Ovenly cakes (this one and the Brooklyn Blackout Cake) have tasted even better the second day after “curing” in the fridge overnight.

For the cake:

  • Softened butter or nonstick cooking spray & a handful of all-purpose flour for preparing the cake pans
  • 4 cups cake flour, sifted
  • 2 tablespoons baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt (or 1 teaspoon fine salt)
  • 1 ½ cups heavy whipping cream, at room temperature
  • 1 cup full-fat sour cream, at room temperature
  • Scraped seeds from 2 vanilla bean pods
  • 2 ½ cups granulated sugar
  • 1 pound (4 sticks/16 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
  • 6 large eggs, at room temperature

For the buttercream:

  • 12 ounces (3 sticks/24 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 9 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted, divided, plus more for thickening if needed
  • 6 tablespoons heavy whipping cream, plus more for thinning if needed
  • 2-3 tablespoons pomegranate molasses, to taste
  • 5-6 drops red or pink food coloring

Make the cake batter:

Preheat the oven to 350°F with a rack in the middle position. Grease 3 round 9″ cake pans with butter or nonstick cooking spray and place a parchment paper circle in the bottom of each pan. Grease the parchment and flour the bottoms and sides of the pans. Knock out the excess flour and set aside.

Whisk the cake flour, baking powder, and salt in a large mixing bowl.

In a separate bowl, combine the whipping cream, sour cream, and vanilla seeds; whisk until the mixture is smooth.

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Place the sugar and butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs one by one, stopping the mixer and scraping down the sides of the bowl after each egg.

Add the flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with 2 additions of the sour cream mixture, beginning and ending with the flour. Mix on the lowest speed until the flour have almost disappeared. Give the batter a final whirl with a rubber spatula to gently incorporate the last of the flour; do not overmix. (My batter came out exactly the same all 3 times. The finished batter is very thick and… shaggy? Not sure if I overmixed slightly…)

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Divide the batter equally between the cake pans; weigh the batter for the best accuracy. The thick consistency (lots of air bubbles) makes it a bit difficult to smooth out. Bake the cakes for 30-35 minutes (mine took 33), rotating the pans halfway through baking. Check for doneness by inserting a toothpick into the centers of the cakes, which should come out clean.

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Set the pans on a wire cooking rack and let cool for 20 minutes. Carefully flip the cakes out of the pans when they are sturdy enough to handle and allow them to cool completely on the rack.

Make the pomegranate buttercream:

Mix the butter, 4 cups of confectioners’ sugar, and the whipping cream on low speed in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle. When the sugar has been absorbed, turn the mixer up to medium-high and beat until the mixture is creamy and smooth, about 1 minute. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl.

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Add the rest of the confectioners’ sugar 1 cup at a time, mixing each time on low, then increasing the speed for about 1 minute.

Add 2 tablespoons of pomegranate molasses and mix on medium-high until it is evenly distributed. (Add a bit more if you want it extra-tart.) Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and mix again for a few seconds. Add about 6 drops of the food coloring and mix until the pink color is distributed. Scrape down the bowl, and give the buttercream one last thorough mix (3-4 minutes). The consistency should be thick, but spreadable. If the frosting is thin, add a little more confectioners’ sugar (up to another cup). If it’s too thick, add more cream, 1 tablespoon at a time, until you achieve your desired consistency.

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Cake assembly:

Prepare a cake decorating turntable if you have one. If not, set out a platter, and place strips of parchment paper in a square around the middle of the plate. Peel the parchment round from the bottom of one of the cakes and place it right-side-up on a 9″ cardboard cake circle. Set it on the turntable (or directly onto the parchment strips on your platter– the paper will keep your pretty plate from getting frosting all over it).

Spread about 1 ¼ cups of buttercream evenly onto the cake with an offset spatula, pushing the frosting to the edges. Retrieve a second cake, peel the paper, and place it upside-down on top of the frosted cake. Spread another 1 ¼ cups buttercream in the same way on top of the second layer. Peel the paper from the third layer and carefully place it, also upside-down, on top. Cover the top and sides of the cake with a very thin layer of frosting– the crumb coat will catch any stray crumbs. Try to make your crumb coat as smooth, even, and level as possible; if your layers are a bit uneven, this is the time to hide flaws! (For some reason, one of my layers shrank more than the others during baking, but I was able to even it out here.) Refrigerate the cake for about 15 minutes to set the crumb coat.

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Spread the remaining buttercream on the sides and top of the cake, trying to keep it as even as possible for a smooth look. To create a spiral all the way around the sides as I did, lightly press the tip of your offset spatula into the frosting at the base of the cake, and start turning the table slowly while holding the spatula stationary. Using the lines in the frosting as a guide, gradually move the spatula up and around the cake as you turn with the other hand, until you reach the top edge. (This takes practice, and as you can see, I’m still working on it…)

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For the top of the cake, feel free to keep it smooth, make a spiral, or any design you wish. To create this fan spiral, start carving the “arms” from the center, one by one, until you get around the whole cake, turning the table as you go.

Chill the cake in the fridge overnight for an extra-lovely texture– it gets better if you let it “cure”. Right before serving, decorate with pomegranate seeds as desired.

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© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2015.

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8 Responses

  1. This cake is beautiful Dafna!!! I really admire your commitment to making the cake until it was perfect. Usually when I make something that doesn’t turn out, I just forget it and move on. This is a great reminder to keep going until you get it right! Love that you met the Ovenly girls as well!

  2. The only two recipes I have tried from Ovenly are the vegan chocolate chip cookies and the blondies. Both were good (for being vegan the cookies were surprisingly good), but I need to give their cakes a try. Thank you for pre-testing and working out the bugs. So amazing you got to speak to them in person, very jealous.

  3. Heyy!! Yes, thank you for sticking with it and working out all the bugs! I was thinking of using this vanilla cake recipe as a sheet cake. What do you think? Could this end poorly?

    1. Thanks! Hmm, I still feel like I’ve got room for improvement, so I’m not sure about a sheet cake. I think it should be fine, but I can’t vouch from personal experience. Erin and Agatha from Ovenly have been super friendly and helpful with my cake questions– you can tweet them to ask, and I’m sure they’ll get back to you! I appreciate you reading my blog. ?

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