“Being in Kentucky, we put bourbon in everything,” says Elizabeth McCall, assistant master distiller at Woodford Reserve. And that includes more than just Old Fashioneds and Hot Toddies. For as long as it’s been around, Kentucky residents have employed bourbon to add flavor to any bland food — from meat dishes to simple desserts.
“Bourbon has been a staple of Kentucky for 200 years. And so, if you go back to the pioneer days, you cook with what you had,” says Peggy Noe Stevens, founder of Bourbon Women and author of “Which Fork Do I Use With My Bourbon?”
In the birthplace of bourbon, the spirit is as common a baking ingredient as cinnamon or vanilla extract. “It almost takes your vanilla extract one step further,” says Stevens. “There are times that instead of regular vanilla, I will use bourbon because it adds that extra layer of sweetness and caramel.” Simply double the amount of vanilla that a recipe calls for with your favorite double-oaked bourbon, and satisfy your sweet tooth the Kentuckian way.
And real Kentucky bakers know not to skimp on their bourbon’s quality. Though the alcohol itself bakes out, the spirit’s flavor remains strong. “Just like any other ingredient, like flour,” says McCall, “the quality of the whiskey is so important.” As a rule of thumb, only bake with whiskies you’d actually want to drink. Stevens recommends baking with Elijah Craig and Knob Creek, noting their classic profiles.
When making a classic Kentucky butter cake, those methods apply more than ever. With a fairly simple flour and sugar base, this cake is flavored almost entirely with the toasted oak notes of America’s favorite spirit — elevated with notes of lemon zest and the sweetness of bourbon-soaked berries (what Stevens calls “drunken berries”) .
With the freshness of citrus and ripe berries, the cake is perfect for any spring or summer occasion. And the comforting depth of sour cream and a whole lot of butter means it’s sure to please even the pickiest of palates. Top with a bourbon-scented glaze for good measure (and an extra hit of booze).
If you’ve run out of bourbon in your liquor cabinet, don’t fret. McCall assures home bakers that this cake can also be made with rye or double-oaked whiskeys with sweet profiles. While rye brings in its signature notes of candied pecan and herbal tea, double-oaked whiskeys can amp up the sweetness level of the cake — no extra sugar needed.
This spring, as Derby Day approaches and our hankerings for bourbon are even stronger than usual, try giving that Derby-Pie recipe a rest and pairing your Mint Julep with a slice of Kentucky butter cake. Even if you can’t make it to Churchill Downs, this cake is sure to transport you to the Bluegrass State.
Woodford Reserve’s Kentucky Butter Cake Recipe
1/2 pound or 2 sticks butter at room temperature
2 cups white sugar
1 tablespoon Woodford Reserve Bourbon
Zest of 2 lemons
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sour cream
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 10-inch bundt pan very liberally with butter, then dust with flour.
Cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing in between each egg. Fold in the lemon zest and bourbon. Sift together the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Fold into the butter and sugar alternating with the buttermilk or sour cream.
Bake for 50 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.
FOR THE GLAZE:
4 tablespoons or 1/2 stick butter
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup Woodford Reserve Bourbon
Combine the sugar and bourbon in a small pan and simmer until the sugar has dissolved. Add the butter and stir together until melted. Add a dash of vanilla.
Turn out the cake and pour the glaze over the top. Glaze will harden and crystallize.
FOR THE BERRIES:
1 quart strawberries, capped and sliced
1 pint blueberries
2 tablespoons sugar
Splash of bourbon
Place strawberries in a medium bowl and sprinkle sugar over the top. Fold the sugar carefully into the berries and let them sit for 5 minutes. Add the blueberries and bourbon and mix together. Set aside.