Indulge In Scandinavian Brunsviger (Brown Sugar “Focaccia” Cake)

A sweet version of focaccia that's a specialty of Denmark.
A sweet version of focaccia that’s a specialty of Denmark.

Is it focaccia?

Or is it cake?

It’s kind of both. And boy, is it dang delicious.

It looks exactly like focaccia with its dimpled top, which creates perfect crevices to hold the buttery, sweet syrup that gets poured over its entire surface before baking.

Take a taste, and it’s as if pancakes drenched in butter and syrup were transformed into focaccia instead.

“Brown Sugar ‘Focaccia’ Cake,” otherwise known as brunsviger, hails from Funen, the third largest island in Denmark and the birthplace of Hans Christian Anderson.

It’s a featured recipe in the new “Scandinavian from Scratch” (Ten Speed Press, 2023), of which I received a review copy.

Described as a “love letter to the baking of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden,” it was written by Nichole Accettola, an American chef and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who lived in Denmark for 15 years and now runs Kantine, a Scandinavian bakery in San Francisco.

While living abroad, she made the happy discovery that Danes don’t limit their sweets to after-dinner dessert, but are more than eager to start the day with a pastry, then break in the afternoon for coffee and another pastry. People after my own heart — and stomach — to be sure.

The cookbook is filled with 75 recipes for both sweets and savories, including “Saffron Rusks” (like biscotti), “Lemon Moon Cake,” “Dark Chocolate Tea Buns,” “Cardamom Morning Buns,” and “Rye and Beer Pancakes.”

A splash of barley malt syrup goes into the topping.
A splash of barley malt syrup goes into the topping.

You make brunsviger very much like you would make any focaccia, only it has sugar and milk in the dough. There’s also ground cardamom and ground star anise to give it warmth with citrus, floral, and subtle licorice notes.

The dough gets stretched out to fill a greased 13-by-18-inch baking tray for the first rise. During that time, heat a mixture of butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar, and malt syrup until everything is dissolved.

The topping gets poured all over the top before baking.
The topping gets poured all over the top before baking.
Fresh from the oven.
Fresh from the oven.

Dark, thick, and sticky, barley malt syrup looks a lot like molasses, but is less sweet. If you don’t want to buy a jar, Accettola says that brown rice syrup can be substituted. Since only 1 tablespoon is needed for this recipe, you could probably just use molasses, too.

Using your fingers, dimple the top of the dough all over. Pour the cooled topping all over before allowing the dough to rise one final time, covered in plastic wrap. When you do remove the plastic wrap, just know that some of the topping will stick to it. Use a spatula to scrape it off and dollop it back onto the dough before baking.

Sweet and delicious.
Sweet and delicious.

As it bakes, your kitchen will fill with the intoxicating aroma of melting butter. When the brunsviger emerges, it will be deeply bronzed and glossy. It will be crusty on the bottom, as well as all around its perimeter. Its interior will be fluffy. The topping will have melted into the crevices, adding a toffee-like flavor to it all.

In fact, the sweet, caramelized taste reminds me so much of the very center of an exquisite kouign-amann.

And if that doesn’t sell you, nothing will.

Enjoy for breakfast, afternoon snack, or even for dessert with maybe a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Enjoy for breakfast, afternoon snack, or even for dessert with maybe a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Brown Sugar ‘Focaccia’ Cake (Brunsviger)

(Makes one 9-by-16-inch sheet cake)

For the cake:

1/4 cup (50 grams) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, at room temperature, plus more for greasing

1 1/2 cups (360 grams) whole milk

2 tablespoons active dry yeast

2 eggs

1/4 cup (50 grams) granulated sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground decorticated cardamom (seeds-only from the pods, ground)

1/2 teaspoon ground star anise

4 1/2 cups (600 grams) all-purpose flour

For topping:

1 cup (226 grams) unsalted butter

3/4 cup (150 grams) granulated sugar

3/4 cup (160 grams) packed light brown sugar

1 tablespoon malt syrup

To make the cake: Generously butter a 13-by-18-inch (34-by-46-cm) baking tray.

In a small saucepan over medium-heat, heat the milk to about 98°F (36° C), so it feels just slightly warm to the touch.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment, combine the yeast, eggs, sugar, salt, cardamom, star anise, and 2 cups (256 grams) of the flour and mix on low. With the mixer running, slowly pour in the warm milk and mix until a dough is formed. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the remaining 2 1/2 cups (344 grams) of flour and mix until it is incorporated, then add the butter. Mix the dough on medium speed until it is smooth and elastic, about 6 minutes.

Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and let the dough rest for 10 minutes. Transfer the dough to the prepared baking try, and using your hands, push the dough out into an even slab, reaching into the corners of the baking tray.

Cover the baking tray with a towel and allow the dough to rest, and rise until it is fluffy and doubled in thickness, about 1 hour.

Meanwhile, prepare the topping: In a small saucepan over low heat, melt the butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar, and malt syrup, stirring to combine. Remove from the heat and allow the mixture to cool to room temperature while the dough proofs.

Once the dough is ready, stir the sugar-butter mixture and then pour it evenly over the dough. Using your fingertips, make indentations every half inch or so across the dough, creating small pools for the topping to flow into.

Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let it proof for 30 minutes more. About halfway through, preheat the oven to 375°F (190° C).

Remove plastic wrap. Use a spatula to scrape off any topping that may have stuck to it and dollop back onto the dough.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the top has turned a dark bronze and the cake is baked through. Cut it into 2-inch (5 cm) squares. This cake is most delicious eaten warm from the oven on the day it is baked. Or you can store it in an airtight container for up to 3 days; just freshen it up in a 350°F (175°C) oven for 7 to 9 minutes before eating.

Adapted from “Scandinavian from Scratch” by Nichole Accettola

Another Nordic Sweet Treat to Make: Vetbuller (Swedish Cinnamon and Cardamom Buns)

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  • A focaccia like cake with a toffee-like flavored topping does sound very interesting.

  • Hi Karen: It was delicious and a very interesting take on focaccia. 😉

  • Okay you got me at the kouign amann comparison haha. I love making focaccia (dimpling the dough is very fun), so this looks like a fun recipe to try!

  • Hi Joanna: Yes, dimpling the dough is surprisingly satisfying to be sure. 😉 Hope you give this sweet version a try. It does not disappoint.

    Several years ago I wrote down the recipe For Winchester Inn, Ashland, OREGON, WINTER SPICE CAKE from Our newspaper , The Register Guard in Eugene, OR.
    I think I made mistake in amount of Vegetable Oil called for (I wrote down 1 3/4 c. veg, oil). I’ve never made the cake due to the fact I was concerned I had read the amount wrong! I would love to make this cake; would you be so kind as to enlighten me if I need correction? I would be tickled to have that happen. Sincerely,
    Thank you, Mary Jim Muchler
    Eugene, OR

  • Hi Mary: You should try contacting someone at the Register Guard newspaper to see if they can send you a copy of that recipe. Unfortunately, I have no affiliation with that newspaper.

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