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I Love Butter Best of All

Having been raised in the American South, I learned at an early age that butter is its own food group. Sweet dish or savory? Doesn’t matter. It needs butter. Are you having breakfast, lunch, or dinner? Irrelevant. Butter is required.

But when you travel the world, you discover that not every culture uses butter. In the European South, for example, butter is often difficult to make and store, therefore, it’s quite expensive. You’ll find widespread use of oils like olive, walnut, and grapeseed in Mediterranean cuisine instead.

Butter didn’t even exist in Japan until it was introduced by Westerners during World War II. Japanese cuisine favors nut oils like sesame and peanut, and many people are sensitive to the odors of animal fats. In fact, Japanese people thought butter was what made Europeans smell so bad and began referring to foreigners as bata-kusai: “butter-stinkers.”

Stinky or not, northern Europeans have enjoyed butter since the Middle Ages. But butter’s history is much longer than that.

Hindus have been offering clarified butter known as ghee to Krishna for over 3,000 years. And the semi-solid version of butter many of us enjoy today is thought to be the invention of an ancient African nomad whose pouch of goat’s milk was inadvertently churned as his animal trekked across the desert.

I’m pretty grateful for his happy accident, especially in the form of this decadent French butter cake. We enjoyed several like it on a few years ago, and it reminds me a bit of a cake my Aunt Shirley used to make for special occasions when I was little. She would alternate thin, skillet-cooked butter vanilla cake layers with sinful chocolate fudge frosting that could have been a dessert on its own.

I’ve combined the best of both worlds by using a classic French approach to the batter and baking it in a cast iron skillet, Southern style. This cake has a richer, denser texture and an ever-so-slightly crispy edge that differentiates it from plain old vanilla cake, and it’s topped with a creamy chocolate frosting that’s made, of course, with more butter.

Don’t like chocolate? Bake the cake anyway. Using another time-tested Southern American method — this one from the cornbread playbook — slice the unfrosted cake and return individual pieces to the oven to toast the edges right before you serve them. Then dunk a slice in a glass of milk. Serve it with fruit preserves for afternoon tea. Or enjoy it alongside a flute of French Champagne.

This week’s subscriber exclusives: While I still feel it’s up for debate, there are those who say you must eat your dinner before you can have your dessert. If that’s true, then I at least want it to be a delicious dinner that’s simple to make, preferably involving more butter. My Butter Roasted Chicken prepares a whole bird in the classic French method, adding a stick of butter to the roasting pan to make it that much juicier and more delicious.

And speaking of quick and easy, Rosemary Roasted Potatoes involve little more than washing and dicing potatoes. I can do that even when my mind’s on cake. The cooking method works equally well on the stove or the grill, and they’re particularly tasty roasted over an open campfire.

Subscribers to Around the World in 80 Plates have access to both of these cast iron favorites.

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French Butter Cake with Fudge Frosting

I tend to mix metaphors a bit when I make this cake by using golden Irish butter (Kerrygold is my personal preference), but any salted butter will produce delicious results.

The recipe is scaled for an 8-inch cast iron skillet, but you could easily increase the ingredients by half to prepare it in a more standard 10-inch skillet. Double the recipe to make a 10-inch, three-layer cake for a bigger celebration.

Because the recipe has so much butter in it already, there’s no need to grease your skillet if it’s already well seasoned. No cast iron? No problem. You can bake it in a standard cake pan, but you’ll need to butter and flour that before adding the batter and adjust your baking time accordingly. Don’t have a microwave? You can melt the chocolate and butter for the frosting in a double boiler on the stovetop, then proceed with the recipe as usual.

1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1–1/2 cups flour
2/3 cup milk

Fudge Frosting
6 oz. unsweetened chocolate
1/2 cup (1 stick) salted butter
16 oz. confectioners sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons milk

Preheat oven to 350°F.

In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat 1 cup of butter until smooth. Add granulated sugar and mix until fluffy and light yellow in color. Add eggs and 1 teaspoon vanilla, beating until smooth.

Add one third of the flour to the butter mixture, mixing well to combine, then add half of the milk, another third of the flour, the remaining milk, and the remaining flour, mixing well between each addition.

Pour half of the batter into an 8-inch cast iron skillet. Bake for 16–18 minutes or until the top begins to lightly brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Allow to cool in the skillet for 5 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely. Repeat with the remaining batter.

In a microwave-safe bowl, microwave the chocolate and 1/2 cup of butter on high for 20 seconds. Remove from the microwave and stir. (It won’t appear to need stirring at first, but doing so will help distribute the heat.) Repeat in 20-second intervals until melted, approximately 2 minutes total.

Transfer the melted chocolate and butter to a large mixing bowl. Add the confectioners sugar, vanilla, and milk and mix on low to combine. If the frosting is too thick, add additional milk one teaspoon at a time until it reaches the desired consistency. Mix on high for approximately 5 minutes, at which point it should be smooth and creamy.

Place one cake layer on a serving plate and top with frosting. Add the second layer, covering the top and sides with an even layer of frosting. Makes 12 servings.

For $5 a month, you can get an additional weekly issue of Around the World in 80 Plates that includes bonus recipes not available to the public.

This week’s recipes for subscribers only:

  • Butter Roasted Chicken: A whole bird is prepared in the classic French method, adding a stick of butter to the roasting pan to make it that much juicier and more delicious.
  • Rosemary Roasted Potatoes: These beauties involve little more than washing and dicing baby or fingerling potatoes. The cooking method works equally well on the stove or the grill, and they’re particularly tasty cooked over an open campfire.

Click here to subscribe:

Food and folklore from my travels to over 100 countries.

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