apple cake with bourbon-vanilla buttercream

As a child, we had a tradition in my family. On your birthday, you got to pick whatever dish you wanted for dinner. No if’s, and’s or but’s, my mom was always up for the challenge. Most years, my sisters and I would pick our tried and true favorites – dishes that were easy to create but nonetheless special, because mom made them just for you on your birthday. Is it just me, or does food taste just a tad bit better when it’s like that?

The same went for desserts. Again, tried and true favorites were picked. Yellow cake with chocolate buttercream frosting was on regular rotation for my sisters, and sometimes evolved into a certain chocolate ganache cake that was so rich, only a mere sliver could be enjoyed. Cheesecakes would often sneak in, and ever so often a pie would appear.

You may be asking yourself what this has to do with today’s recipe.

Well, y’all, the tradition of special birthday meals has not been ignored every since I flew the coop and got hitched a couple years back. As long as the hubs and I have been together, I’ve enjoyed preparing dishes and desserts for him every year on his birthday. The only stipulation? It has to be something uncommon, and something we wouldn’t necessarily make at home. The same applies for dessert. We’ve had the cake version of my Irish Car Bomb Cupcakes, trifles, and various twists on the classic chocolate cake. So this year, I challenged HIM. We had to select a dessert that had never passed our lips, but that would be delicious and sumptuous.

With fall just around the corner, the mental light bulb was quick to turn on. Almost simultaneously, after discussions of how amazing our wedding cake was, we thought “APPLES!”. It couldn’t be more perfect – the hubs love apple-based treats, and when I suggested a buttercream centered on his favorite libation {bourbon}, he was instantly sold.

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And I’m telling y’all, this is to.die.for. Like, seriously. It is perfectly moist and decadent, but not at all overly sweet or heavy. We use applesauce, not oil {!}, in the cake, and it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done.It adds the perfect amount of sweetness to the cake, and creates the most beautiful crumb when you slice through it. One bite of this, topped with fluffy buttercream, and you’ll want this for your birthday.

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Apple Cake with Bourbon-Vanilla Buttercream {cake adapted from A Beautiful Bite, & frosting recipe adapted from Williams-Sonoma}

Just because it’s not quite yet fall, doesn’t mean the desire for apples in baked goods isn’t here! This cake is full of apple flavor, and the bourbon buttercream takes it over the top. Supremely moist and full of flavor, this is sure to satisfy. 

Ingredients – Cake:

4 cups firm fleshed baking apples, cored and diced {I used a mixture of Fuji/Granny Smith/Red Delicious}

3 cups all-purpose flour

2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 tsp. kosher salt

1 tsp. baking soda

1 cup turbinado sugar {granulated will work fine; I think the turbinado offers a richer and more complex taste}

1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed

3 large eggs, lightly beaten

1-1/2 cups unsweetened applesauce

1 tsp. vanilla extract {homemade, if you have it!}

Ingredients – Bourbon Vanilla Buttercream:

6 cups confectioners’ sugar

16 tbsp. (2 sticks) unsalted butter

3 tbsp. milk, plus more if needed

2 tsp. vanilla extract {again, if you have homemade, go for it!}

1 to 1-1/2 shots of bourbon {optional, but encouraged!}

pinch salt

To Prepare – Cake:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease (2) 9″ baking pans and set aside. As these cakes tend to bake a bit taller than usual, I would recommend greasing all the way up the sides of the pans, and the lips as well!

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In a large mixing bowl, combine flour/cinnamon/salt/baking soda. Mix well and set aside.

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Using a stand mixer or hand mixer set on medium speed, combine both sugars/eggs/applesauce/vanilla. Mix until incorporated.

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Slowly add in the flour mixture; mixing only until incorporated.

Stir in the apples by hand. Pour cake batter into the (2) pans, and bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

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Remove from oven and let cool, in pans, for at least 20 minutes. Flip out of pans and cool completely on a cooling rack.

Once cooled, cover with Bourbon Vanilla Buttercream.

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To Prepare – Bourbon Vanilla Buttercream:

Have all of the ingredients at room temperature for best result.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whip attachment, combine the confectioners’ sugar, butter, milk, bourbon and vanilla and beat on low speed until combined, about 1 minute. Stop the mixture and scrape down the sides. Increase the speed to medium and beat another 3 minutes. Stop and scrape the sides down again. Turn the mixture onto medium-high and beat until light and fluffy, another 3-5 minutes.

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Cake will stay, covered, on the countertop for up to 3 days. If it lasts that long, transfer to refrigerator.

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Let’s Discuss: do you and your family have any special birthday traditions? What is your favorite birthday treat, whether savory OR sweet?

homemade vanilla extract

We’re getting creative today, y’all. We’re going to make our own vanilla extract. From scratch. 

Say what?!

Well, I’m saying it – Yes! It can be done! I saw you scratching your heads, looking at me like I’m crazy, so I just wanted to clarify.

Vanilla extract has always been one of those ingredients, for me at least, that was always just a super market convenience. Need to make cookies? Go grab a bottle. Brownies or blondies? Oopsy, need to buy some more. And then, before I know  it, I’ve somehow accumulated four or five bottles of extract. #cookproblems

But I digress. When the hubs and I were flying back from our honeymoon in the Dominican Republic, almost two years (!) ago, I happened upon a stand in the middle of the outdoor airport that was selling jars of vanilla extract, and vials of some of the most beautiful vanilla beans I’d ever seen. Having only used the ordinary vanilla extract (not that I’m hating on McCormick), I decided to go ahead and pick up both a bottle and a vial. I thought to myself, if they’re selling it at the airport, it should be fine, right?

And boy oh boy, I could not have been more right. The first time I opened that bottle of extract, my sensory system felt as if it had died and gone to culinary heaven. Never before have I smelled vanilla that fragrant; so rich and floral, it could have passed for fragrance. I’m not even kidding. This was liquid culinary gold, and you bet your bottom dollar I was going to use this sparingly, and really really really enjoy it.

Flash forward some year or so later. I decided to use my first of only six vanilla beans for the hub’s birthday cake. Again, I was welcomed with that same, overpowering, delicious scent of exotic vanilla. Scraping out the beans, I knew that these pods were too special to just be tossed aside, so I put on my thinking cap and got to work.

Enter Joy the Baker. This baking goddess, a true inspiration of mine, knew exactly what I needed. I had recalled one of her posts when she talked about making homemade vanilla extract, and after that it just clicked. I assembled all three things I needed, and 5 minutes later, I had vanilla extract prepped.

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The toughest part about this recipe, my dears, is the waiting period. Joy suggests letting the vanilla steep in the alcohol for two months for the flavors to fully develop. Storing it in a cool, dark place and giving it a good shake every week will help it move along. The wait is long and painstaking, but I promise, the end result is worth it. Do you really think that Joy would ever steer us wrong?

I didn’t think so.

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Homemade Vanilla Extract {adapted from Joy the Baker’s recipe}

2/3 C. high proof alcohol…think 80 proof. I used a mix of Bowman’s Single Barrel Whiskey & Maker’s Mark. Feel free to use whatever you have on hand.

2 vanilla beans. My vanilla beans are from the Dominican Republic. You’ll find that, depending on where your beans are sourced, they will have slightly different flavors. Take a look here to see the different kinds!

1 mason jar, or any vessel with a very tight-fitting seal

a dark spot to store the jar

…and patience. Lots of patience.

To Make:

Use a sharp paring knife to cut lengthwise down the center of the vanilla beans, leaving about an inch at the top of the bean uncut. Put the vanilla beans into your mason jar, and cover completely with alcohol (you might find that you need to bend or fold the beans to fit – that’s okay!).

Tightly cover the jar and give it a good shake, then store in a cool, dry place for two months. Give the bottle a good shake every week to help meld the flavors (I find it helpful to set a reminder on my phone’s calendar).

After two months have passed, you’re ready to use it!