Welcome cooler temps with this delicious brown sugar layer cake from scratch! This velvety brown sugar cake is filled with apple butter and frosted with a cinnamon Swiss meringue buttercream frosting. Add it to your fall baking list ASAP!
When I think of fall, I think of cozy things: cardigans, hot cocoa on crisp evenings, apple picking wearing scarves and boots, throw pillows that say things like “gather” and “give thanks”. Because no gathering is really complete without cake, a fall cake, like this apple butter brown sugar layer cake is in order! We shouldn’t need more than a little inspiration from a throw pillow to bake a cake, darlings.
Brown sugar cake is a cake baked with brown sugar instead of just granulated (white) sugar. I first accidentally tried it one day when I ran out of white sugar and tried to substitute some brown sugar instead of just going to the store. I had to go to the store anyway and bake it again, but the resulting cake was good!
Since that day, I’ve toyed with a few recipes, but I keep coming back to this one by the NYT. It’s one of the few cake recipes I don’t mess with too much. The cake is good, and it’s even better when I pair it with an apple butter filling and cinnamon Swiss meringue buttercream!
It sounds a little strange to describe a cake as tasting “warm”, but this one does. There are certain flavors I consider warming flavors – cinnamon, cardamom, chai. These are a lot of flavors we use in fall and winter cooking. Because the brown sugar brings molasses flavors and depth to the cake, I consider this a warm-flavor recipe too.
Brown sugar pairs exceptionally well with apple butter because of the similar flavor profiles. I use my slow cooker apple butter for this cake, but if I don’t have any around, I’ll just buy at the store. OR…. I make a quick apple pie filling by sauteing some apples in butter with a bit of sugar and cinnamon and a bit of cornstarch dissolved in water. Then I let that cool and use it as a filling. This is also delicious, but my people prefer the apple butter. I’m just sharing this alternative in case you don’t have apple butter, don’t like apple butter, or just don’t want to go to the store.
For the frosting, I recommend a cinnamon Swiss meringue buttercream. It’s silky, light, and provides great contrast to the cake and filling. For tips on how to make Swiss meringue buttercream you’ll want to check out this post here. If you’ve never made a cooked buttercream before, read it. Not a fan of meringue buttercreams? A classic American buttercream is also fabulous.
To finish off this cake and add a little texture, I coat the bottom sides and add a little accent to the top with cake crumbs! I do bake these separately from the cake. Basically, you make struesel crumbs on their own. The cooled crumbs can be used to decorate cakes, top ice cream, yogurt, cupcakes, etc. They are optional. If you’d prefer to skip this step, the cake looks lovely with a simple frosting or accent with your favorite sprinkles or candied fruit!
I hope you love this brown sugar layer cake recipe, darlings. Happy baking!
- 1 ¾ cups light brown sugar
- ¾ cup unsalted butter, softened
- ¼ cup neutral-flavored oil (like canola, vegetable, or avocado oil)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 large eggs, room temperature
- 3 cups cake flour (see notes)
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 ¾ cups buttermilk, room temperature
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 1/2-2 cups apple butter, homemade or storebought
Cinnamon Swiss Meringue Buttercream:
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 3 1/2 sticks butter (28 tbsp), softened
- 4 egg whites
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- Preheat your oven to 350 F. Grease and line 3 8-inch round cake pans with parchment paper (see notes). Set aside.
- In a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, oil, sugar, and salt until light and fluffy. Scrape the sides of the bowl.
- Stir in the eggs, one at a time, scraping the sides of the bowl after each addition.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and baking soda.
- Combine the buttermilk and vanilla in a large measuring cup or small bowl.
- Add 1/3 of the dry ingredients to your butter and sugar mixture on low speed. Stir to combine. Stir in half the buttermilk. Scrape the sides of the bowl. Repeat, ending with the last 1/3 of the flour mixture. Be careful not to overmix.
- Divide the batter evenly between your cake pans and bake for 25-30 minutes. A cake tester inserted into the center of a pan should come out clean.
- Remove from the oven, allow to rest in the pan 10 minutes before transferring to a rack to cool completely.
While the cake is cooling, prepare your frosting...
- Place the sugar and egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer or a heatproof mixing bowl.
- Fit your stand mixer with the whisk attachment or have your hand mixer ready.Place some water in a saucepan, making sure that the water level isn't high enough to touch the bottom of your bowl.
- Bring the water to a simmer, then place the mixing bowl on top of the saucepan. Stir constantly until the sugar has completely dissolved, about 4-5 minutes.
- Once the sugar has dissolved, remove the top bowl from the heat immediately and start the mixer on low, working up to high speed. Keep going until the egg white/sugar mixture turns white. Be patient, this takes about 5 or so minutes.
- Add the butter 1 tbsp at a time, whisking continuously on high speed. If at some point the mixture starts to look curdled, don't worry about it, just keep mixing and it will become smooth in a minute or two.
- Add the cinnamon.
Assemble your cake...
- Place theteh bottomottom layer of your cake on a cake board or platter. Use a cake leveler or serrated knife to carefully level the top of the cake.
- Pipe a thin circle of frosting around the top of the cake layer. Fill with apple butter, making sure not to go over the top of the circle of frosting. Leaving a little room will prevent spills when you add the next layer of cake.
- Level the second layer of the cake and place on top of the first layer of cake and filling. Repeat the filling steps. Top with the final layer of cake.
- Use the frosting to crumb coat and decorate the cake. There will be enough frosting for simple decoration as pictured. If you'd prefer to add more, increase the amount of frosting by making one and a half times or double the recipe. Enjoy!
BONUS - CAKE CRUMBS!
If you would like to make cake crumbs as shown in the photos, melt 4 tablespoons of butter. Combine 1/3 cup brown sugar, 2/3 cup all-purpose flour, and a pinch of cinnamon in a bowl. Pour in the butter and use a fork to stir until large clumps form. Spread on a baking sheet and bake for 8-10 minutes at 350 F until lightly browned. Allow the crumb topping to cool completely before using on your cake.
- If you don't have cake flour, you can make your own! Remove 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour for each cup, and replace it with 2 tablespoons of cornstarch. Sift together to combine. For this recipe, you will remove 6 tablespoons of flour (about 1/3 of a cup) and replace it with 6 tablespoons of cornstarch.
- If you only have 2 cake pans, don't fret! The baking time will be slightly longer, but the cake will still turn out well. You can either leave the cake as 2 layers, which will use a little less apple butter or split each layer in half for a total of 4 layers, for which you'll need a little more apple butter.
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