Several autumns ago I was lucky enough to travel to Copenhagen to participate in a program for chefs from around the world. While I was there I had access to some of the most incredible and thoughtful food, made with peak-season ingredients and served in gorgeous dining rooms. It was spectacular and special, but the food memory I return to most from that trip is one that formed outside of those dining rooms, in an unexpected and humble way.
I took a train just outside the city to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. As I wandered the grounds I smelled something baking and followed the scent to a small gathering of bundled-up kids 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 slice of a cake from a nearby table; I, of course, accepted. It was a square of sponge topped with a thick layer of gooey coconut caramel, almost like German chocolate cake filling but with a crispy shell. I would later learn that the cake is called Danish Dream Cake, or Drømmekage; it was popularized in the ’60s after the recipe took 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 layer of caramel was, in fact, dreamy.
When I returned to New York, I decided to bake a little token of my trip for my partner. Dream Cake seemed like an obvious choice, but I wanted to personalize it a bit for us. A mini honeynut squash, hanging in our fruit basket, provided the inspiration I needed, along with the addition of some browned butter to both the cake and its topping. As a bonus, the combination of coconut and browned butter made the apartment smell incredible.
Honeynut Dream Cake is now a part of my yearly repertoire of fall baking, perfectly fitting the bill for a Thanksgiving dessert in an apartment of two. It achieves my holiday baking ideal of familiar, comforting flavors presented in a new way, and it also is great for breakfast the next morning.
Honeynut Dream Cake, or Drømmekage
Makes one 8-by-4-inch loaf
For the cake:
1 small (1-pound) honeynut squash (or any kind 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, spooned and leveled
1 ¼ teaspoons baking powder
6 tablespoons (90 grams) sour cream (or whole yogurt thinned with water)
3 tablespoons (30 grams) brown butter, melted
For the topping:
1 cup (220 grams) unsalted butter
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons, packed (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) honeynut puree
1 (8-ounce/220-gram) bag unsweetened shredded coconut, preferably finely shredded
½ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
Flaky sea salt to taste
Creme fraiche, for serving (optional)
Step 1: First, make the honeynut puree. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Halve the squash 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 facedown on the pan. Pierce the squash several times with a cake tester or thin knife, then roast for 50-60 minutes until tender.
Step 2: While the squash roasts, brown the butter for the cake topping. Place the unsalted butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Let it bubble and boil away, stirring thoroughly every few minutes, until the milk solids are deeply browned and toasted. Once the butter has browned, remove 3 tablespoons (30 grams) for the cake batter, leaving the remainder in the saucepan 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 mash the flesh into a very smooth and relatively lump-free puree. Weigh out 7 tablespoons (100 grams) for the cake batter and 5 ½ tablespoons (80 grams) for the topping.
Step 4: Lightly spray an 8-by-4-inch loaf pan with nonstick spray and line with a quarter sheet of parchment that rises just above the long sides of the pan. The ends of the pan will be exposed and that is okay. Spray the inside of the pan and set aside.
Step 5: Next, prepare the batter. 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 whip until the mixture is fluffy, thick, and lightened, about 5 minutes.
Step 6: While the eggs are whipping, sift the flour and baking powder together and set aside. Combine the sour cream with the reserved 7 tablespoons (100 grams) of the squash puree and stir until combined.
Step 7: Reduce the mixer speed to low and add in a third of the dry ingredients. Mix until nearly combined, then add half of the puree mixture. Once incorporated, add the second third of the dry ingredients followed by the remainder 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 batter should be fluffy and smooth with a pearly sheen.
Step 8: Pour the batter into the lined loaf pan; it should fill to just about three quarters of the way to the top. Bake for 30-40 minutes until the cake has risen and just cracked down the center. It should be relatively flat on top, have a little color, and spring back when touched. A cake tester inserted into the center should come out clean. Once the cake is done, set the oven’s broiler to low.
Step 9: While the cake bakes, make the topping. Place the brown sugar in a bowl, breaking up any large chunks, then stir in the cinnamon. Add the mixture to the saucepan with the remaining warm browned butter, along with the coconut milk and honeynut 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 the heat and add the shredded coconut and black pepper. Season well with flaky sea salt then set aside until ready to use or apply immediately to just-baked cake.
Step 11: Gently spoon the topping over the cake and spread it evenly using a small offset spatula or spoon. I like a lot of topping, so that there’s a ratio of approximately 60 percent cake to 40 percent topping, but use as much as you like. If you have extra topping, it’s great on ice cream.
Step 12: Place the cake under the broiler. I find that temperature and distance from the flame can vary wildly, but for me it takes 5-6 minutes to get a toasty brown top that’s bubbling throughout. Keep the oven door open to observe and rotate as needed to achieve even browning.
Step 13: Remove the cake from the oven and cover with a tea towel for 20 minutes. This gentle steaming makes the loaf easier to slice.
Step 14: Let the cake mostly cool, then use the sides of the parchment to lift it up and out of the loaf pan. Carefully slice with a serrated knife and serve with creme fraiche. The cake will keep for 5 days at room temperature in an airtight container.
Zoë Kanan is a pastry chef in New York City.
Dina Ávila is a photographer in Portland, Oregon.
Recipe tested by Deena Prichep