leah chase's butter cake
Last month, Leah Chase, the nation’s pre-eminent Creole chef, passed away at age 96. She was the executive chef and co-owner of Dooky Chase’s, a historic and legendary restaurant in New Orleans’ Treme. During the civil rights movement, the restaurant broke the city’s segregation laws, allowing black and white activists to meet and organize. It fed Freedom Riders and became a hub for the NAACP. Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., James Baldwin, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, and Sarah Vaughan all ate there. Barack Obama famously visited while campaigning in 2008, and Leah had to stop him from adding hot sauce to her gumbo—a major culinary sin.
Gumbo Z’Herbes was perhaps Leah’s most iconic dish, but this butter cake recipe was one of her favorites. The recipe appears in the 2002 biography Leah Chase: Listen, I Say Like This; a more recent version was included in Anne Byrn’s 2016 American Cake. The recipe dates back to Leah’s childhood in the 1920s. Her mother, Hortensia (Raymond) Lange, a homemaker and seamstress, would make it during the Christmas holidays.
This cake, rooted in so much history, also happens to taste great. It has a pound of butter and a pound of sugar, but fewer eggs and less flour than a traditional pound cake (which has a pound of each). Instead, this is indeed a butter cake—golden and buttery, but with a light, birthday-cake crumb. The use of powdered sugar and sifted cake flour make it remarkably soft and fluffy. The crust is nutty and crisp. For years, I’ve searched for a homemade cake recipe as delicious as boxed cake mix. This is it. It’s both moving and a little surprising to find it in a recipe that is at least a hundred years old. Or rather, it’s no surprise at all.
Leah Chase’s Butter Cake
The original recipe calls for 1/2 teaspoon of optional salt. With all due respect, I don’t think it’s optional and have even doubled it to balance out the buttery sweetness of the cake. (For the record, I also tried increasing the vanilla extract, but found the original 2 teaspoons to be just right.) I’ve made this cake with regular butter and fancy, higher-fat European butter and found that it’s even better with the latter. If you splurge on Kerry Gold (it’s pretty well-priced at Trader Joe’s) or Plugrá, you won’t regret it. You can eat this cake plain, serve it with whipped cream and fresh fruit, or frost it with your frosting of choice (aka chocolate).
1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter (preferably European-style), chilled but soft to the touch, plus more for greasing the pan
1 pound (4 cups) powdered sugar
6 large eggs, at room temperature
301 grams (2 2/3 cups) cake flour, sifted, plus more for flouring the pan
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 10-inch tube pan (I use this dreamy one) with butter and dust with flour. Shake out the excess flour and set the pan aside.
Cut the sticks of butter into 6 to 8 tablespoons each, and place all the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer. Beat on medium-high until the butter is in one mass, about 1 minute. Stop the mixer and add the powdered sugar. Start on low speed (to prevent a mess) and blend the sugar to incorporate. Increase the speed to medium and let the mixture beat until creamy, 2 to 3 minutes.
Add the eggs one at a time and beat on medium-low until blended. Stop the machine after every two eggs are added and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Repeat with the remaining eggs. With the machine off, add the flour and salt to the mixture. Mix on low speed to incorporate the dry ingredients, about 30 seconds. Add the vanilla, and beat on low speed until incorporated, about 15 seconds.
Scrape down the sides of the bowl with the spatula, and turn the batter into the prepared pan. Smooth out the top and bake until the cake is well browned, the center springs back to the touch and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 1 hour. Let the cake cool in the pan for 20 minutes.
Run a knife around the edges of the pan, shake the pan gently to loosen the cake, and turn it out onto a plate. Place a cooling rack over the plate and flip the cake so that it is top-side up on the rack. Let cool 30 minutes to 1 hour before serving.