I’ve been an admirer of The Vanilla Bean Blog by Sarah Kieffer for years. I was anxiously awaiting the release of her cookbook (The Vanilla Bean Baking Book) ever since she announced it, and I followed along diligently through her Instagram account, which documented her obsessive recipe testing and hard work while creating it. When I went to Minneapolis last April I was thrilled to meet her. I may have talked her ear off a bit about the making of her book. (Sorry about that, Sarah – I was a bit tipsy and I talk a lot when I’m drunk, and my nervousness just added to the chaos.) She’s as sweet and humble in person as you would expect her to be. I’ve always felt a kinship with her because of our love of books and baking, but now after reading her book and learning more about her, it turns out we have even more in common than I thought.
She got her baking bug by making cookies with her mom, which is also where my love began. I can remember as a young kid standing on a chair in the kitchen to help my mom make Christmas cookies, or at least put together a plate for Santa on Christmas Eve. My brothers and I would mix chocolate Ovaltine into Santa’s milk (because for whatever reason that was the tradition at my house) and strategically decide which cookies to give Santa (or maybe that part was just me). Furthermore, both my mom and Sarah’s mom used to make piles of pumpkin bread around the holidays to hand out to neighbors and friends. One year, during her peak, my mom made about twenty loaves. They were delivered to neighbors, teachers, friends and family, with a few stashed away in the freezer for Christmas dinner. Maybe my mom is secretly an aspiring Midwestern lady, instead of the woman from South Philly she actually is. (But really, she has plenty of both traits.)
I started to bake more on my own (and with my BFF) in middle school and high school. My baking escapades weren’t too frequent, however, because I was always so busy with sports and band rehearsals. But if I hadn’t been doing those activities all the time I probably would have baked a lot more. It’s always been a way for me to wind down, especially once I got to college and had my own kitchen. I loved to take the occasional break from my (ungodly amount of) homework to make some cookies. I would often listen to Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald as I baked, which Sarah mentioned as one of her favorite baking soundtracks as well.
She gained a lot of her baking experience by working in coffee shops. Her routine of early morning baking at the coffee shop, plus her morning scone and cup of coffee, sounds like a dream to me. As I mentioned before, I feel a real soul connection with her due to our shared love for baking, quiet mornings (something I’ve come around to in the last couple years), Ella Fitzgerald, cookbooks, Nancy Drew novels, and more (not to mention our names, too …).
Sarah’s blog and Instagram feed have always had a sense of calm and quiet to me. Her cookbook is an extension of that. Reading her book before bed was like reading myself a lullaby, with its bright, soothing photos. I’d fall asleep with images of perfect cake slices and buttercream swirls in my head.
And the book is a true keeper. It’s great for both baking novices who want to dive deeper to perfect their skills, and for a more experienced baker who wants new ideas or to try something they’re not familiar with yet. I want to make EVERYTHING in it. If I had my way, I would take a year’s sabbatical from my life to just bake from this book, listen to good music (and podcasts), read books and share her baked goods with friends. (I’d probably add in a hefty amount of exercise to counteract all of the butter and sugar.) Doesn’t that sound like a dream life?
When choosing what to make for this blog post, I knew I wanted to make a cake. One thing I absolutely associate with Sarah is cakes. She has a gift for making beautiful cakes that also manage to feel attainable. (In other words, they’re not so perfect and pretty and obnoxiously decorated that you feel you can’t cut into it.) So I wanted to make one of her cakes and practice my cake decorating skills. I finally invested in a cake decorating stand and I think I managed to produce the most professional-looking cake I’ve ever made.
I chose to make her chocolate cake, which is a recipe she spent a long time perfecting. Her process of creating it reminds me of my journey to creating my Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe. To complement her chocolate cake I went with her white chocolate frosting because it sounded so wonderfully decadent. I also threw in some raspberry jam because I do love chocolate with raspberry, but especially white chocolate with raspberry. This cake gives me both. (Feel free to leave out the jam if you just want a chocolate cake.)
Her recipe for chocolate cake is one of the best I’ve ever tried. The chocolate flavor is very present (unlike some where it’s hard to detect), and it’s a cake I would gladly eat all by itself, no frosting necessary. It reminded me a bit of the chocolate cookie part of an Oreo, and then I realized the white chocolate frosting reminded me of the FILLING of an Oreo … So what you have here is kind of a deconstructed Oreo cake with a touch of raspberry. If you want to go full Oreo, it’d be fun to leave out the jam and cover the top with crushed Oreos. (Just an idea.)
A word of caution: Don’t bother making this white chocolate frosting unless you’re using REAL white chocolate. The first time I made it I thought I was using high quality white chocolate, but I wasn’t. I could tell when I melted it that it seemed a little funny, and then the finished frosting had a plastic-y aftertaste. NO THANK YOU. So for the next try I splurged on some Valrhona white chocolate from Amazon and the difference was like night and day. Once again I could tell as soon as I melted it that I was working with a different kind of beast, and then the frosting was so lovely I would have happily eaten it all with a spoon. So do yourself a favor and splurge on some nice white chocolate for this recipe.
If you’re a fan of home baking, I honestly hope you pick up a copy of this book for yourself and start following Sarah online. It will now serve as a baking bible on my cookbook shelf, and I can’t wait to make more from it. (PS I’ve also made the brownies from it and the vanilla cupcakes with brown butter buttercream and OMG. Both of those recipes are also winners.) Other gems I can’t wait to make from this book include: her picture-perfect coffee shop danishes, honey bundt cake, caramel rolls, peanut butter granola, all of her cakes, peach caramel pie, olive oil sugar cookies with pistachio and lemon glaze, coffee blondies, and all of her no-churn ice cream recipes. The list goes on and on. You won’t be disappointed with this one.
Congrats on a treasure of a book, Sarah!
Illustration at top created with pencil and Photoshop.
Prints of my illustrations (along with other products with my work on them) are available in my Society6 shop.
- 3 oz (85 g) bittersweet chocolate
- 1 cup freshly brewed coffee, hot
- 1 cup buttermilk
- ½ cup canola oil
- 3 large eggs, room temperature
- 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 2 cups (284 g) all purpose flour
- 2 cups (396 g) sugar
- ¾ cup (75 g) Dutch process cocoa powder (I used Hershey's special dark)
- 2 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 heaping tsp coarse kosher salt
- 8 oz (226 g) good white chocolate (like Valrhona), chopped
- ¾ lb (3 sticks; 339 g) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1 tbsp pure vanilla extract
- 3 tbsp light corn syrup
- ¼ tsp coarse kosher salt
- 2 cups (226 g) confectioner's sugar
- ¼ cup raspberry jam
- Place your oven rack in the center position and heat your oven to 350°F. Butter and flour two 8x2-inch round cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper. (I like to use these pre-cut parchment rounds.)
- Place the bittersweet chocolate in a small bowl. Pour the hot coffee over it and cover with a piece of plastic wrap. In a medium bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, canola oil, eggs and vanilla.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle, mix together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder and salt on low until combined. With the mixer running on low, slowly add the buttermilk mixture. Increase the speed to medium and beat until combined, 20-30 seconds.
- Whisk the chocolate and coffee together until completely smooth. With the mixer running on low, slowly pour the coffee mixture into the batter and mix until just combined. Give the batter a few turns by hand with a spatula to make sure everything is well incorporated.
- Pour the batter evenly into the prepared pans. Place both pans on a baking sheet to protect your oven in case of overspill. Bake for 25-35 minutes, until a wooden skewer or toothpick comes out with the tiniest bit of crumb.
- Transfer the cakes to a wire rack and let cool for 30 minutes. Turn the cakes out onto the rack, remove the parchment paper and let cool completely. (Once cool, the cakes can be frosted right away or wrapped in plastic and refrigerated overnight.)
- Put about 1 inch of water in a medium saucepan and bring it to a gentle boil.
- Place the white chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over the pan of boiling water, being careful not to let the water touch the bottom of the bowl. Stir constantly until just melted and set aside to cool slightly.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle, beat the butter on medium until light yellow and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the vanilla, corn syrup and salt, mixing on medium until combined. Turn the mixer to low and gradually add the confectioner's sugar. Beat on medium until smooth and creamy, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary, 2-3 minutes. Add the white chocolate and beat on low until completely combined.
- Place the buttercream in the refrigerator for 15 minutes to chill. Then re-whip on medium until light and fluffy.
- Cut each chilled cake in half horizontally so you have 4 cake layers. Trim as necessary if they are uneven.
- Place one layer on a cake plate or turntable. With an offset spatula spread the top with a heaping scoop of buttercream (about ¾ cup) until nice and even. Top with 1 tbsp of raspberry jam, keeping it about 1 inch from the edge.
- Place the second layer of cake on top and frost again with the buttercream and a tbsp of jam. Repeat with a third layer.
- Place the final layer on top and spread generously with the buttercream (but no jam).
- Give the sides of the cake a thin but even coat of the buttercream, smoothing it out as much as possible. Place the whole cake in the fridge to chill, setting the "crumb coat," for 20 minutes. (Be careful not to get crumbs in the buttercream, and clean off your spatula between this crumb coat and the final coat.)
- After it has chilled, frost the sides again with the remaining buttercream until it is nice and smooth. Add more to the top as well if necessary.
- The cake will keep at room temperature, covered, for a few days.
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