Perusing the aisles at Rockridge Market Hall, one of my favorite local markets, I recently came across a beautiful little bottle of soy sauce: a product to which I don’t usually give much attention. But this decorated label magnetized me with phrases like “small batch”, “non-GMO”, “limestone filtered spring water”, and “brewed and aged in bourbon barrels”. And the description of the taste captivated me the most: “hints of oak and a mild sweetness reminiscent of fine Kentucky bourbon.” With those words, I decided this soy sauce was destined to be part of my next dessert recipe.
Like most soy sauce, my new bottle was pleasantly rich, salty, and a bit malty at once. With its special robust flavor, I couldn’t think of a better match than molasses-rich dark brown sugar, and a moist skillet cake would offer a perfect format. For complementary complexity, I embellished and enhanced the cake with tangy, bright oranges and plenty of vanilla. To top it all off, the interplay of brown sugar, butter and salt would spontaneously create a sort of succulent butterscotch, present in every rich bite. Here is the recipe.
Brown Sugar Soy Sauce Cake [makes a 10" skillet cake (see note below); serves 10-12]
• 1-2 medium oranges, preferably seedless
• 1/4 cup plus 1/3 cup unsalted butter
• 2 teaspoons plus 3 tablespoons soy sauce
• 1/2 cup plus 1.25 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
• 2 large/extra-large eggs
• seeds scraped from two medium vanilla beans, or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
• 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
• 1.5 cups flour
• 1.25 teaspoons baking soda
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/4 cup cold water
• 1/2 cup milk
Preheat oven to 350 F. Rinse, dry, and finely zest the peel of one orange; set zest aside. Slice orange horizontally in 1/4 to 1/3″ thick rings. Look over the slices for any wayward seeds, picking them out with a paring knife as needed. (If orange slices don’t fit in pan as whole circles, feel free to trim edges as needed. If one orange is not enough to cover the bottom of the pan with slices, you may need to repeat the zesting and slicing process with a second orange, but please only use the amount of zest in the batter from the first one.)
In a 10″ ovenproof skillet (such as cast iron), melt 1/4 cup butter with 1/2 cup of the brown sugar, whisking over low/medium heat. When butter has melted and sugar starts looking less grainy, let bubble while whisking for another 30 seconds or so. Remove from heat, whisk in 2 teaspoons soy sauce, and stir until even. Gently lay the orange slices in one layer on the butter mixture, prettiest sides down. Set pan aside.
In a separate container, melt the remaining 1/3 cup butter; set aside. In a large bowl, beat the remaining 1.25 cup sugar with the eggs. Beat in the melted butter until smooth, gradually adding both vanillas. Sift the flour, baking soda and powder over the egg mixture. Begin to mix (batter will seem dry), gradually adding the milk, water and the remaining 3 tablespoons soy sauce as you go. Scrape bowl often with spatula as you mix well. Fold in orange zest until evenly dispersed. Gently pour batter onto the orange slices in skillet.
Place pan in center of oven and bake for about 30-35 minutes, until center no longer jiggles when shaken and a wooden skewer or toothpick inserted in the middle comes out batter-free (a few moist crumbs are fine). Carefully remove cake from oven; handle will be hot. Let cool in pan for 30 minutes to an hour, until pan is still quite warm but cool enough to handle. Loosen sides of cake with a butter knife and gently invert cake onto a large plate. Cut into pieces with a sharp knife straight through the orange slices, serving warm if possible.
For premium texture, this cake is best eaten soon after baking; but if you must wait longer than noted above, leave it in the skillet until ready to serve (up to overnight). After it’s completely cooled, cover loosely with foil. When ready to serve, remove foil, place skillet over low-medium heat for about a minute to help loosen the oranges, then loosen sides with a butter knife and invert. For added tenderness, heat slices before serving.
With its crisp caramelized bottom and its gooey, buttery top, this citrusy cake is as beautiful as it is delicious. The splash of robust soy sauce imbues the cake with a perfect amount of salt, balancing beautifully with the brown sugar and creating a layer of tender, butterscotchy topping that caramelizes and permeates the orange slices. Hints of the soy sauce’s dark, brewed flavor are present in every bite, but without being overpowering or obvious about their origin. What’s more: the cake is a cinch to make, with a one-bowl batter and a simple flip-and-serve method (the decorations are built-in).
NOTE: Every pan is a little different: darker pans can bake hotter and faster; shallow pans may not fit all the batter; and measurements are often subjective (my cast iron pan is 2″ deep; it’s marked as 10″ pan, but it’s only 9.75″ across the top at the widest part). Because of this, I recommend beginning to check the cake for done-ness at 25 minutes, and placing a layer of foil on the oven rack below it in case of spillover.
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