Several autumns ago I was lucky enough to travel to Copenhagen to participate in a program for chefs from around the world. While there, I had access to some of the most amazing and thoughtful meals, prepared with seasonal ingredients and served in beautiful dining rooms. It was spectacular and special, but the gastronomic memory that I remember the most from that trip is the one that was formed outside those dining rooms, in an unexpected and humble way.
I took a train out of town to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. As I was wandering the grounds, I smelled something baking and followed the smell to a small gathering of bundled up children and parents. The kids were roasting bread dough wrapped around a stick over an open fire, the Danish equivalent of s’mores, I learned. Someone offered me a piece of cake from a nearby table; I, of course, accepted. It was a square of sponge cake covered in a thick layer of gooey coconut caramel, almost like a German chocolate cake filling but with a crunchy shell. I later learned that the cake is called Danish Dream Cake, or Drømmekage; it became popular in the 1960s after the recipe won first place in a home baking contest. But even though I didn’t know the name of the cake that day, I could have told you that the textural contrast between its fluffy sponge and its caramel coating was, indeed, dreamy.
When I got back to New York, I decided to bake a little token from my trip for my partner. Dream Cake seemed like an obvious choice, but I wanted to customize it a bit for us. A mini honey pumpkin, hanging in our fruit basket, provided the inspiration I needed, along with adding a little browned butter to both the cake and its topping. As a bonus, the combination of coconut and browned butter made the apartment smell amazing.
Honeynut Dream Cake is now part of my annual fall baking repertoire, and it fits the bill perfectly for a Thanksgiving dessert in an apartment for two. It achieves my holiday baking ideal of familiar and comforting flavors presented in a new way, and is also great for breakfast the next morning.
Honey Dream Cake or Drømmekage
Makes an 8 by 4 inch loaf
For the cake:
1 small (1 pound) pumpkin (or any type of pumpkin or butternut squash)
Olive or coconut oil
3 eggs, at room temperature
¾ cup (158 grams) granulated sugar
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 ½ cups (150 grams) cake flour, scooped and leveled
1 ¼ teaspoons baking powder
6 tablespoons (90 grams) sour cream (or whole yogurt diluted with water)
3 tablespoons (30 grams) brown butter, melted
For the coverage:
1 cup (220 grams) unsalted butter
¾ cup plus 2 packed tablespoons (180 grams) light brown sugar
1 ¼ teaspoons cinnamon
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon (140 grams) full-fat coconut milk, such as Chaokoh
4 ½ tablespoons (80 grams) of honey puree
1 bag (8 ounces/220 grams) shredded unsweetened coconut, preferably finely shredded
½ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
flaked sea salt to taste
Creme fraiche, for serving (optional)
Step 1: First, make the honey and walnut puree. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the insides (you can save the seeds for roasting). Lightly coat the cut side of each half with oil and place upside down in the pan. Pierce the squash several times with a pastry tester or thin knife, then roast for 50-60 minutes until just tender.
Step 2: While the squash roasts, brown the butter for the pie topping. Place the unsalted butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Let bubble and boil, stirring well every few minutes, until the milk solids are deeply browned and toasted. Once the butter has browned, remove 3 tablespoons (30 grams) for the pie crust, leaving the rest in the pan to make the topping.
Step 3: Remove the squash from the oven and cool slightly, then scrape the soft flesh into a bowl. Use the tines of a fork to pound the meat into a very smooth, relatively lump-free puree. Weigh out 7 tablespoons (100 grams) for the pie crust and 5 ½ tablespoons (80 grams) for the topping.
Step 4: Lightly spray an 8-by-4-inch loaf pan with nonstick spray and top with a quarter sheet of parchment rising just above the long sides of the pan. The ends of the pan will be exposed and that’s okay. Spray the inside of the pan and set aside.
Step 5: Next, prepare the dough. Place the eggs, sugar, salt, and vanilla extract in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on low for 30 seconds to incorporate, then increase to high speed and beat until mixture is fluffy, thick and light, about 5 minutes.
Step 6: While the eggs are beaten, sift together the flour and baking powder and set aside. Combine the sour cream with the reserved 7 tablespoons (100 grams) of the pumpkin puree and stir until combined.
Step 7: Reduce mixer speed to low and add a third of the dry ingredients. Mix until almost combined, then add half of the puree mixture. Once incorporated, add the second third of the dry ingredients followed by the rest of the puree mixture. Finish with the last of the dry ingredients, then use a rubber spatula to fold in the brown butter by hand. The dough should be fluffy and smooth with a pearly sheen.
Step 8: Pour batter into lined loaf pan; it should be filled to about three quarters of the way to the top. Bake for 30-40 minutes until the cake has risen and cracked down the center. It should be relatively flat on top, have a bit of color, and spring back when touched. A center inserted cake tester should come out clean. Once the cake is done, set the oven broiler to low.
Step 9: While the cake is baking, make the topping. Place the brown sugar in a bowl, breaking up any large pieces, then add the cinnamon. Add the mixture to the saucepan with the remaining warm browned butter, along with the coconut milk and honey puree. Stir to combine.
Step 10: Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, stirring frequently. Let boil for 3 minutes, then remove from heat and add the grated coconut and black pepper. Season well with flaked sea salt then set aside until ready to use or apply immediately to freshly baked cake.
Step 11: Gently pipe the icing onto the cake and spread it evenly with a small offset spatula or spoon. I really like icing, so there’s a ratio of about 60 percent cake to 40 percent icing, but use as much as you’d like. If it has extra topping, it’s great on ice cream.
Step 12: Place the cake under the broiler. I find the temperature and distance from the flame can vary a lot, but it takes me 5-6 minutes to get a toasty brown top that bubbles all over. Keep oven door open to observe and turn as necessary to achieve even browning.
Step 13: Remove the cake from the oven and cover with a kitchen towel for 20 minutes. This gentle steaming makes the bread easier to slice.
Step 14: Let the cake cool for the most part, then use the sides of the parchment to lift it up and out of the loaf pan. Carefully cut with a serrated knife and serve with crème fraiche. The cake will keep for 5 days at room temperature in an airtight container.
Zoe Kanan is a pastry chef in New York City.
Dina Avila is a photographer in Portland, Oregon.
Recipe tested by Deena Prichep