This cake needs to become a thing!
Plain and simple.
I've had this recipe on my mind for a while now and I finally took the plunge and made it with some re-working this week. I couldn't be happier with the results. It's a lovely vanilla sponge topped with a crunchy brown sugar meringue and a gooey marshmallow-y layer that naturally occurs in the middle. It's almost like "poor man's pudding" but upside-down.
I should mention that my baking adventures have brought me to the conclusion that French-Canadians are totally obsessed with brown sugar. Very large and generous amounts of brown sugar - EVERYWHERE. Puddings, pies, cakes, cookies... You'd be hard pressed to find a traditional Quebecois recipe that doesn't ask for a ton of brown sugar, and this recipe is very much in keeping with that. Sweet tooth folks, you're welcome!
Brown sugar meringue cake was a common occurrence at grandmother's place. I remember she used to keep the cookies and cakes she would make for our visits on top of a chest freezer in her dining room. When we would arrive for a visit, I would always sneak a peak in that direction to see if this cake was on offer. It was always a pleasure when it was.
Having not seen one of these cakes for close to 2 decades, I started digging around my mom's cookbooks in the hopes she'd written down this particular recipe. Note that, finding a specific recipe in these books can be a chore since there was no real way for her to index what she was writing down, but luckily I quickly located a recipe for "Meringue Cake" which I was hoping was the right one.
Along with having no index, my mom's recipe books are not always very detailed or complete as I've shared in previous stories. This recipe was the perfect example. A short list of ingredients for the cake was provided but no instructions. And ingredients for the meringue were listed as:
2 egg whites
1 to 2 cups brown sugar
The entire instructions for this recipe were (and I kid you not):
"Beat the egg whites with the brown sugar. Pour over the dough and bake at 325 F for 1 hour. Use an 8" x 8" cake pan."
Nothing about how to make the cake. I expect she thought it was so obvious how you prepare a cake that it did not need explaining. No additional details about how to prepare the meringue. Soft peaks? Stiff peaks? Add the sugar gradually? Put it all in at once?
This could all go so very wrong!
Feeling a little unsure and wanting some additional inputs I turned to the internet of course. Guess what I found online?
Three recipes! Just the three. That's it!
I searched in French, in English, I tweaked the name of the recipe. I searched just for brown sugar meringue, just meringue cake. All in all, only 3 recipes even came close to resembling what I was hoping for. There are 2 or 3 different sites that have them posted, but all-in-all, those same few recipes are repeated. Two of them were posted by fellow French-Canadians and were very much in keeping with the cake my grandmother would have made. The last I found on the Pastry Sampler Blog and although close in idea, it also includes spices and nuts which are not part of the Quebec version.
Still, I'm happy I found these recipes, as the instructions vary and so do the ratios of milk - eggs - flour. Only one of these recipes was similar to what my mom has in her book. It also happened to be posted by another French-Canadian who's grandmother used to make this cake. (Coincidence? Maybe we're related!)
The recipe most similar to my mom's instructs you to prepare the meringue and spread it on top of the cake batter and bake them together for 45 minutes. The second recipe instructs you to bake the cake for the first 30-35 minutes then to add the meringue on top and bake a few more minutes until nice and golden brown. I'm not convinced this second method would lead to the desired result. Essentially the cake should consist of a vanilla-y sponge, which morphs into a slightly gooey brown sugar layer and then transitions to your crunchy meringue on top.
One thing I did want to improve on with this recipe was the actual cake layer. I remember as a kid that I loved the crunchy meringue but often found the cake to be quite dry, making it a must to have vanilla ice-cream on the side. I expect the cake dried-out during baking since you have to bake this cake for 45-60 minutes to get the meringue layer to form and set properly.
Instead of following my mom's recipe, or any of those I found online, I substituted the cake portion for that of a soft yellow sponge cake which includes sour-cream - because honestly, cakes with sour-cream are usually super moist, fluffy and wonderful. It was a gamble, as I wasn't sure how the meringue layer would behave sitting on so much moisture, but the results are WONDERFUL. It also allowed the "goo" layer in the middle to be more pronounced which I think is simply delightful.
To me, the best part of this cake is cutting in to it. Your meringue layer will naturally create large cracks on top of the cake as it bakes, but when you cut into the cake, it makes all sorts of beautiful smaller cracks and crinkles across the meringue which are beautiful to see.
So there you have it! I'm bringing back the "Brown Sugar Meringue Cake" from my childhood, with some improvements, and hoping you all go out and try it RIGHT NOW!
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
BROWN SUGAR MERINGUE CAKE
Makes: 9 servings
Prep time: 30 minutes
Baking time: 45 minutes
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoons vanilla
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoons baking powder
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup milk, room temperature if possible
1/4 cup sour cream, room temperature if possible
Preheat over to 350 degrees and grease a 9 x 9 cake pan.
Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt and set aside.
In the bowl of your stand mixer, whisk the butter on medium speed for 1-2 minutes. Add the granulated sugar and beat for 4-5 minutes on medium speed until creamed, light and fluffy. Add the vanilla.
Add the eggs one at a time ensuring the are fully incorporated into the butter. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
Mix your milk and sour cream together.
Add 1/3 of the dry ingredients to the batter and mix just until combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.
Add 1/2 of the milk/sour cream mixture and mix.
Repeat with dry ingredients and wet ingredients until all have been combined. Give the batter a final stir with a spatula ensuring all the bits from the bottom of the bowl are scraped up.
Spread your batter into greased cake pan and set aside.
For the meringue: Begin whipping egg whites and salt on medium-high speed. You want them to start frothing. Then gradually add your brown sugar while maintaining whisking speed. (Note - I crumble the sugar in by hand to ensure that any larger clumps of sugar can be removed) Whisk until all the sugar has been used and continue for an additional 1-2 minutes. This will give a somewhat runny meringue, but we're not looking for anything too stiff.
Spread the meringue onto the cake batter and bake for 45 - 55 minutes, checking after 45 minutes to see if the cake layer is baked. Note: The meringue layer will rise up quite high and create large cracks. That what we want. You may see some moisture or parts of the meringue might not look "fully cooked" when you are done baking, but that's okay! This will become the gooey sugary layer between the cake and meringue.
Allow to fully rest and cool before cutting. I would recommend letting this cake sit until the next day before enjoying.