This just might be the easiest cake to make period. Something to have on hand that you can whip up when company unexpectedly shows up as a fail-safe quick dessert. I wouldn’t be even the tiniest bit surprised if that, besides apple pie, of course, becomes your other favorite Thanksgiving dessert, (because no one grows weary of pie). Or perhaps, this snacking cake can become your morning-after-Thanksgiving coffee cake; you know, while you wait for the pancakes. It could also become your there-is-nothing-exemplary-about-today-so-I’m-going-to-make-cake cake, or your it’s-gray-depressing-and-cold-out-and-I want-my-house-to-smell-nice cake. Any of those descriptors can apply. But honestly, do you really need a reason to bake in this weather? I didn’t think so.
Also, something of an important thing to note: In the time that it took me to write out the above paragraph, you might have made your first cranberry snacking cake and I’m not even slightly exaggerating.
This cranberry cake is an adaptation of something my mother makes. A little while back, she gave me her recipe for it, but my mother is one of those cooks who, while in the kitchen, is guided entirely by cooking “na glazok”, which in Russian is loosely translates to “eyeballing”. This is a mark of knowing your way around the kitchen, but it does none of us any good because everyone eyeballs recipes differently, and if you want a recipe to work for you each and every time, you need to not just have the faith that the recipe has been tested backward and forward, but that it is written thoroughly and explicitly, leaving little to doubt or to imagination.
The recipes I have from my mom, emailed to me, and typed in a mix of English and Russian, commonly feature phrases like, “a dash of this” or “cook until looks done”. “1 cup” in my mother’s lexicon, is not “1 cup” in standard volume measurement, because, she will, literally, use a coffee or tea cup and add other ingredients until she gets a consistency that’s familiar to her well-trained eye. This is all fine and good, but where does that leave all of you?
When I was adapting this cake for the blog, I realized instantly just how forgiving it was. And even though I have given you volume and gram measurements, there’s no exact science to this cake so if your flour is slightly more compacted and weighs a little more, or you decide to, say, throw in a handful of nuts rather than measure them out, your cake will come out just as delicious if you measured everything down to a gram.
In addition to being immensely forgiving, this cake requires no stand (or hand) mixer, very few dishes to wash, and minutes to put together. While your oven is heating, you brown the butter, add it to your baking dish, dump the cranberries and nuts on the bottom, and sprinkle with granulated sugar.
In a separate bowl, you combine the flour, sugar, more brown butter, eggs, vanilla, lemon zest, and salt until uniform. Pour over the cranberries and sprinkle with some more sugar of your choosing. Then you bake it, and roughly forty minutes later – you have an irresistible cranberry cake.
If you’re reviewing the last two paragraphs wondering if I’ve missed out baking soda and/or baking powder, don’t worry—you won’t be needing them here. That’s right, there’s no leavening agent in this batter and that’s just fine. The cake emerges moist and fragrant, generously studded with cranberries, which mellow out with heat and sugar.
And while I’m all for going all out and making fancy cakes and desserts for the quickly approaching holidays, there’s something to be said for fast, forgiving and utterly delicious dessert. You might feel like you cheated a little because I guarantee you: your guests will go crazy for this cake. Do me a favor and share the recipe with them—we could all use a few more forgiving and easy recipes. If only we could extend that to life overall.
Cranberry Snacking Cake
A few notes on this cake here, I reduced the amount of butter from my mom’s original (she uses 2 sticks) as it was a touch too rich. I browned the butter because it’s been awhile since I’ve done that in a recipe and it’s fall and I’m feeling like those notes are rather tasty in a cake. I threw in some lemon zest because I love lemon zest in most things. For a more wholesome cake, you can swap out half (or even all of) the all-purpose flour for whole wheat flour or play around with flours of your choosing. If you’re feeling particularly saucy, you might add some ginger to the nuts and cranberries. It’s never hurt no one.
I omitted weights for nuts because 1/2 cup of slivered almonds weighs differently than 1/2 cup of finely chopped walnuts or pecans. My one important suggestion to you is this: do not forget (or be lazy) and line the pan with parchment paper should you want this cake to be cut into pretty squares. From the pictures above, you can see that I got lazy and didn’t do that. I could lie and say I did it on purpose so you learn from my mistakes, but you know me better than that.
Finally, a note on different baking conditions. I am finding, more and more, that depending on the weather, baked goods behave differently. For example, on a perfectly dry, summery day, this cake took 50 minutes to bake. Today is rainy and humid and even after 65 minutes, my cake was still slightly more chewy than I would have ideally liked. Just keep checking on the cake, don’t be totally adherent to baking times and see how your oven/weather are behaving.
UPDATE: Totally forgot to include this tidbit: if you leave the cake, uncovered, overnight, it dries/firms up nicely, making for much easier cutting. It also develops a nice toothsome quality to it.
1 1/4 sticks (10 tablespoons; 142 grams) unsalted butter
1 cup (115 grams) cranberries, fresh or frozen
1/3 cup finely chopped walnuts, pecans, almonds, or any nut of your choosing
1 1/2 cups (300 grams) granulated sugar, divided
1 1/4 cups (156 grams) all-purpose flour
2 large eggs, room temperature
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon (4 grams) vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon (2 grams) kosher salt
Demerara sugar for sprinkling, optional
1. Position the baking rack in the middle and heat the oven to 350oF (click here for Celcius/Gas Mark). In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter over low heat and cook it until the solids become milk chocolate brown. This can take anywhere between 5 and 10 minutes, so use your sense of smell to rely on when the butter has browned. When you smell the nuttiness and the foaming and bubbling generally ceases—your butter should be ready. Remove from heat and set aside.
2. Line a 9-inch square cake pan with a strip of parchment paper in both directions so that all four sides of the pan have a little extra paper peeking out, and brush the bottom and sides with 1 tablespoon of the melted, browned butter. In a medium bowl, toss together the cranberries, walnuts, and 1/2 cup sugar until combined. Transfer the mixture to your baking dish and set aside.
3. Check the brown butter and make sure it’s cooled slightly. Into a large bowl add the flour, remaining sugar, remaining butter, eggs, zest, vanilla, and salt and mix until well combined. Pour the batter over the cranberry-nut mixture and sprinkle with a little demerara sugar on top, if you like. Transfer the pan to the oven and bake for 55 to 60 minutes (add a few extra minutes if using frozen cranberries – mine took 65 minutes), or until a cake tester comes out without batter or crumbs. You want it to be a consistency of a slightly more baked than a chewy cookie. Transfer the cake to a cooling rack and let cool to room temperature before slicing.
Makes 9 (3-inch) squares.
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