Brown Sugar Soy Sauce Cake: Sweet Citrus and Spontaneous Butterscotch

Brown Sugar Soy Sauce Cake (175)

Inspiration for my next dessert recipe usually comes unexpectedly.  This time, I was just poking around at one of my favorite markets and came across a beautiful little bottle of soy sauce.  The decorated label magnetized me with phrases like “small batch”, “non-GMO”, “limestone filtered Kentucky spring water”, “brewed and aged in bourbon barrels”.  But it was the description of the taste that made my dessert goggles sparkle around my eyes like magic: “hints of oak and a mild sweetness reminiscent of fine Kentucky bourbon.”  With my whiskey cupcakes fresh in my mind, I knew this soy sauce was destined to become my next dessert.  Before I knew it, I was headed home excitedly with the little bottle in hand.

Brown Sugar Soy Sauce Cake (155)My first taste of the soy sauce revealed a high quality, robust flavor that was pleasantly rich, salty, and a bit malty at once.  I couldn’t think of a better match than molassesy dark brown sugar, and my first version of this cake was based solely on this complementary pair.  But I craved more complexity and slightly different ingredient ratios, resulting in this delicious final edition (which happens to be in my oven once again as I type this).  Cooked in a skillet and embellished and enhanced with tangy oranges, the cake’s interplay of brown sugar, butter, and salt spontaneously create succulent butterscotch that’s present in every moist bite.  Here is the recipe.

Brown Sugar Soy Sauce Cake [makes a 10″ skillet cake (see note below); serves 10-12]

  • 1 – 2 small/medium oranges, Brown Sugar Soy Sauce Cake (130)preferably seedless, such as navel
  • 1/4 cup plus 1/3 cup unsalted butter*, divided
  • 2 teaspoons plus 3 tablespoons high quality soy sauce, divided
  • 1/2 cup plus 1.25 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar*, divided
  • 2 large/extra-large eggs
  • seeds scraped from two medium/large 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 cut 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.)

Brown Sugar Soy Sauce Cake (100)In a 10″ ovenproof skillet, melt 1/4 cup butter with 1/2 cup 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 Brown Sugar Soy Sauce Cake (123)brown 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 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.

Brown Sugar Soy Sauce Cake (139)Place pan in center of oven and bake for about 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. Serve warm, cutting into pieces with a sharp knife straight through the orange slices.

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 gooey deliciousness, heat slices up.

Brown Sugar Soy Sauce Cake (165)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).

Brown Sugar Soy Sauce Cake (5)Maybe next time…  The soy sauce I used had a deep, robust flavor.  If you use a low-sodium or more diluted-tasting soy sauce, you might add another teaspoon to the buttery topping and/or replace a teaspoon or two of the water with more soy sauce in the batter.  The orange slices could be replaced with thin slices of another fruit, such as pears, peaches or apples (but please keep the orange zest in the batter — it’s wondrous!).  As with many desserts, this one is heavenly alongside a scoop of vanilla ice cream — what isn’t?

Brown Sugar Soy Sauce Cake (145)

*Some notes on ingredients and equipment:

  • Be sure to use unsalted butter in this recipe.  The soy sauce provides plenty of salt.
  • I  realize the volume of sugar here seems like a lot, but this amount offers a delectable balance to the subtle salt and malt flavor of the soy sauce.  In the different versions of this recipe I tested, this amount proved best.
  • Every pan is a little different: darker pans can bake hotter and faster; shallow pans may not fit all the batter; measurements are often subjective (my pan is 2″ deep; it’s marked as 10″ pan, but it’s only 9.75″ across the top at the widest part).  I recommend beginning to check the cake for done-ness at 25-30 minutes, and placing a layer of foil on the oven rack below it in case of spillover (but stop filling it if the batter gets too close to the rim as you pour it in).  Be sure to use an ovenproof pan; seasoned cast iron is my favorite, but almost any all-metal kind should work.

Brown Sugar Soy Sauce Cake (89)Brown Sugar Soy Sauce Cake (168)Brown Sugar Soy Sauce Cake (32)Brown Sugar Soy Sauce Cake (162)Brown Sugar Soy Sauce Cake (14)

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15 Responses to Brown Sugar Soy Sauce Cake: Sweet Citrus and Spontaneous Butterscotch

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  3. When you posted this I was intrigued by the idea of brown sugar and soy sauce in a dessert, but I’m not much of an orange-in-cake person. So I decided to make a less complex version of this cake by omitting the oranges and orange zest. I used only two tablespoons of soy sauce in the batter (because my palate is sensitive to salt, and I was nervous), and baked in a 10 x 8 pan (don’t ask how I got that size pan). I tried to top it with your topping, but the sugar grains never really melted and I didn’t like that, so I scraped that off and instead drizzled it with powdered sugar + cinnamon + milk. Next time, I think I would up the soy sauce because it didn’t taste salty to me at all! It was delicious! I also would not do cinnamon in the topping because I think the flavor was too strong for the subtle flavor of the cake. What would you recommend as an alternative topping for my version? (I wish I was able to successfully do your brown sugar topping!)

    • Thanks, Avra-Sha! I love hearing about your experience with the recipe and your modifications to it. I think the fact that the brown sugar cooks at the bottom of the cake alongside acidic fruit is part of what helps the sugar get less grainy. Since you aren’t an orange fan, you might try strained pineapple chunks or slices of Granny Smith apples in place of the orange slices. Alternately, I like your idea of using powdered sugar; I think a simple dusting of it on this cake (without the topping) would be yummy. On a funny note, in my very first version of this recipe, I wanted to make sure the soy sauce was detectable, but I used so much that the saltiness of the resulting cake literally made me wince! I tossed it and started over with a more conservative amount, so the published recipe is much more balanced. The moral of the story: You were very smart to be cautious with your soy sauce!


      • Ah, a simple dusting! Why didn’t I think of that? Since I want the nuances of the soy sauce to shine in this cake, I think I’d do that over the pineapples/apples. Thanks for the suggestion!

  4. fleurelle says:

    I tried this recipe yesterday using a regular cake pan and it turned out just fine. I like the combination orange / brown sugar / soy sauce a lot. I’m very exicted for my family’s reaction…

    • Thank you so much for sharing. I hope your family likes the combination as much as you do. It’s great to know it worked fine in a regular cake pan — I appreciate you letting me know!

  5. Katy says:

    This sounds really fascinating–very rich and unique. I do love the idea of using a dark soy sauce in a cake (I’ve heard of sweets with white soy sauce, which is delicate and light compared to the dark stuff); it sounds so decadent and creates such a beautiful color, especially when combined with the citrus.

    • Thanks, Katy! It was rich but not overpowering; it took a few drafts (toning down the soy sauce) to get the salty-sweet-citrus balance just right. You have me interested in white soy sauce now — thank you!


  6. I’ve never had a skillet cake and this one looks scrumptious. What a creative idea to use the soy sauce in a cake. I had a thought as I was reading the labeling on that bottle…if companies continue to refuse to inform us of GMO foods, wouldn’t those who DON’T be wise to put that in big print on their packaging? If enough did it, then maybe we could assume the product is GMO and just not buy it.

    • Thanks, Diane! In my experience, skillet cake is usually yummy — a lot like pineapple upside down cake — and I love that moment of flipping it over to reveal the pretty top that was once the bottom. I agree about the GMO labels; great idea!


  7. What an amazing idea! I am very fond of skillet cakes too, I must say:) And I am very jealous of that beautiful wooden surface!

    • Thanks, Cameron! Yes, skillet cakes are so much fun and so much yum. I’m sorry if these photos tickle your aversion to sweets, but I assure you this cake has a salty bent!


  8. sophiebowns says:

    This looks like a masterpiece!!

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