Deliciously spiced Chai Cake with a brown butter cream cheese frosting - this cake is full of deep flavors and is perfect for the colder weather that comes with this time of year.
When the weather turns a little colder and the days are shorter, there's nothing quite like chai spices to warm your cockles. This perfect cake is packed full of those aromatic spices and has the perfect balance of warmth from the cake and sweet, tangy nuttiness from the brown butter frosting. It's almost like an elevated carrot cake (without the carrots of course), with a deeper flavor and a more sophisticated frosting.
The flavor goes a little deeper than the typical spiced flavors that fall baking brings - such as in my Pumpkin Spice Cupcakes or Pumpkin Cheesecake Cookies. Chai cake has a much more intense, deep, rich flavor that makes you feel cozy on the inside with every single bite.
What is Chai?
Chai is a black tea blended with strong spices like cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and black peppercorns. Chai originates from India, though there are many different variations of it across the globe.
Chai tea is often brewed in milk with a sweetener to create masala chai - similar to what we know as a chai latte. Chai is now often used to make various hot beverages and baked goods, such as this chai layer cake.
Traditionally, the chai would be brewed using black tea and whole spices in milk or hot water, but now, pre-blended chai tea is readily available at the grocery store.
- Milk - The milk will be infused with the chai tea to bring that wonderful chai flavor, so I recommend using whole milk as the fat content will help to carry the flavor. However, any milk work.
- Chai Tea - You can use chai tea bags or loose-leaf tea - whatever your personal preference is. I tested the recipe with both and they both brought similar results.
- Butter - It's best to use unsalted butter and make sure it's at room temperature before you begin (as with all the other cold ingredients).
- White Sugar - This cake recipe uses two kinds of sugar. The white sugar should be extra fine (caster sugar in the UK).
- Brown Sugar - You can use light brown sugar or dark brown sugar, it's totally down to your preference. Dark brown sugar will taste a little more of molasses.
- Eggs - Always use large eggs and free range if you can.
- Sour Cream - Sour cream helps add moisture and a lovely texture to the cake.
- Oil - I used vegetable oil but any kind of flavorless oil will do the trick. e.g. Canola oil
- Flour - I used all-purpose flour, but you could also use cake flour for this cake if you want. Cake flour will make it slightly more tender, though it's already a soft cake.
- Vanilla - The vanilla helps to round off all the warm spices, try to use a high-quality vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste. Note, this won't make it taste like a 'vanilla chai cake' as the chai spices will be the star of the show.
- Spices - Alongside the chai tea, we will be adding some actual spices to the cake batter to punch up the chai flavors. I used ground cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, black pepper and nutmeg in this recipe, but you could also add some star anise or cloves.
See recipe card for quantities.
How To Make the Chai Cake
- The first step is to steep the chai tea in hot milk to release those wonderful flavors. This is actually the process of making masala chai (also known as a chai latte). The process is the same whether you are using chai tea bags or loose-leaf chai tea. Put the milk and tea into a small saucepan and slowly warm it over low heat until it begins to simmer - do not let the milk boil. Once it starts to simmer, remove it from the heat and let the tea continue to steep in the milk as it cools.
- Once the milk has completely cooled, remove the tea. If you are using loose-leaf tea, simply run the milk through a fine mesh sieve to remove all the tea. If you are using teabags, just pull them out. Make sure to squeeze each chai tea bag to get any excess liquid out of it.
- Once the milk has cooled and you are ready to start baking the chai spice cake, preheat your oven to 350°F / 180°C and grease two 8-inch cake pans. I like to line the bottom of my pans with parchment paper cake circles and then spray all over with cake release spray.
- In a large bowl, beat together the butter, white sugar, and brown sugar until light and fluffy. If you are using a stand mixer, do this with the paddle attachment at medium speed. It is definitely possible to do this by hand, it's just a bit harder work. You could also use an electric mixer.
- Add the eggs one at a time, beating in between each addition. I find it best to crack the eggs into a small bowl first to make sure I don't get any egg shells in the cake batter.
- Mix in the rest of the wet ingredients (except the milk), so this includes the sour cream, vegetable oil, and vanilla extract. Scrape down the bottom of the bowl.
- In a separate bowl, mix together the dry ingredients, including the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg.
- Add one-third of the flour mixture to the main cake batter and mix it in completely at a low speed.
- Pour in half of the chai-infused milk and mix it until totally incorporated.
- Add another third of the flour mixture, followed by the remaining milk and then the remaining flour. It's important to mix well in between each addition, otherwise, the milk and flour will make a gluey mess.
- Now is a good time to taste-test your cake batter to see if you might want to add more spices.
- Pour batter into the cake pans, try to get evenly distribute the batter so you have half in each prepared pan.
- Bake at 350°F / 180°C for 35 - 40 minutes or until a skewer or cake tester inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean.
- Let the spice cake cool for at least an hour in the pan before transferring it to a wire rack to cool completely.
How to Make Brown Butter
It's best to brown your butter earlier in the day so it has time to cool and harden before you make the frosting. I actually have a whole blog post about how to brown butter if you'd like a more in-depth guide.
- Put the butter in a saucepan over medium heat and let it melt. As it heats it will start to froth and then bubble up with a sort of crackling sound.
- Once the crackling sound subsides a little, the butter will very quickly start to deepen in color. Once you can smell the gorgeous nutty aroma and it looks a golden brown color, take the butter off the heat and transfer it to another bowl to cool. make sure you scrape all the little brown milk solids into the bowl too - that's where all the wonderful flavor comes from!
- Once the butter has completely cooled, it should be the consistency of regular room temperature butter. Only then is it ready to use in the frosting. This may take a few hours so it's best to do this earlier in the day if you can, or even the day before.
How to Make the Brown Butter Cream Cheese Frosting
This brown butter frosting is a true masterpiece and it pairs absolutely perfectly with the chai sponge. The nutty flavor that comes from the brown butter really carries through the frosting and makes it so much more than just a cream cheese frosting.
- Beat the room-temperature brown butter and cream cheese in a large mixing bowl until smooth and combined. Make sure you get all the milk solids (brown bits) in with the brown butter.
- Sieve the powdered sugar into a medium bowl and then add it to the cream cheese mixture, a little at a time, mixing in between additions. If you add it all at once you'll end up with an icing sugar cloud all over your kitchen. It's important to sift your powdered sugar or you may end up with lumpy frosting.
- Add the vanilla and salt and then beat the frosting on high speed for one minute. I don't recommend trying to make this brown butter frosting without a stand mixer or electric whisk as it does need a lot of mixing.
Assemble and Decorate
- Once your cakes have completely cooled, slice off the dome of the cake. I like to use a cake leveler to ensure completely flat and even slices.
- If you want to have two thicker layers of cake, proceed to the next step. If you want to have four layers of cake, slice each cake in half horizontally to make four thin cake layers.
- Stack your layers of chai cake, spreading even amounts of brown butter cream cheese frosting in between each layer.
- Once you reach the top layer, spread a thick layer of frosting on top of the cake and smooth it out or texture it as you like (I did a basic spiral on mine).
- If you'd like to make the semi-naked cake style as I did, take a small amount of frosting and scrape it all around the sides of the cake using an offset spatula or bench scraper, filling in any gaps but leaving some of the cake showing through.
- Decorate the top of the cake with some ground cinnamon and some cinnamon sticks or star anise.
Whole Milk - While I recommend whole milk, you can use any kind of milk you like, even something like oat milk or coconut milk - whatever your preference is.
Sour Cream - You can replace the sour cream with greek yogurt for a similar result.
Chai Tea - If you'd rather not include the tea element, you can still make this cake with the spices alone. Try steeping some whole spices in the milk instead of the chai tea, then continue the recipe as normal.
Sheet Cake - If you'd prefer a square slice, need to feed many people, or just don't want the hassle of stacking and frosting an entire cake, try baking the chai cake in a square or rectangular cake form instead and spread the frosting on top to make a sheet cake.
Different Frosting - While I think the brown butter cream cheese frosting is the ultimate match for this chai cake, you could play with other kinds of frosting. A simple vanilla frosting could work well, or even a swiss buttercream. Or to kick up the heat, try adding some spices to the frosting itself for an even more intense flavor.
Citrus - Try adding some citrus to the chai cake with a little orange zest and juice in the cake batter for a little lift.
Once the cake has been filled and frosted with the cream cheese frosting, it will need to be stored in the fridge because of the dairy. Put it in the fridge in an airtight container - it will be good like this for up to five days.
If you have made the cake layers in advance and have not yet frosted it, wrap it in plastic wrap and store it at room temperature until you are ready to frost.
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Chai Cake with Brown Butter Cream Cheese Frosting
For the Chai Cake
- 1 ½ cups Milk 360g
- 4 Chai teabags or 4 tablespoons of looseleaf chai
- 1 cup Butter 227g (room temperature)
- ¾ cup White Sugar 150g
- ¾ cup Light Brown Sugar 165g
- 4 Eggs (room temperature)
- ½ cup Sour Cream 120g (room temperature)
- ¼ cup Vegetable Oil 54g
- 3 cups All-purpose Flour 360g
- 1 tablespoon Baking Powder
- 1 ½ teaspoon Baking Soda
- 2 teaspoon Vanilla Extract
- 1 teaspoon Salt
- 1 tablespoon Cardamom
- 1 tablespoon Cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon Ginger
- 1 teaspoon Nutmeg
- ½ teaspoon Black Pepper
For the Brown Butter Frosting
- 1 ½ cups Cream Cheese 340g (room temperature)
- 1 cup Butter 227g
- 6 cups Powdered Sugar 720g
- 1 teaspoon Vanilla Extract
- ½ teaspoon Salt
Make the Chai Cake
- Heat the milk in a saucepan with the teabags or loose-leaf tea over low heat until it starts to simmer. Once simmering, turn the heat off and let the tea steep in the milk as it cools.1 ½ cups Milk, 4 Chai teabags
- Once it has cooled and you are ready to start baking, pass the milk through a fine mesh strainer to remove any tea.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F / 180°C and grease two 8-inch cake pans.
- In a bowl, beat together the butter and both sugars until light and fluffy.1 cup Butter, ¾ cup White Sugar, ¾ cup Light Brown Sugar
- Add the eggs, one at a time, beating in between each addition.4 Eggs
- Add the vegetable oil, sour cream and vanilla and mix until combined.½ cup Sour Cream, ¼ cup Vegetable Oil, 2 teaspoon Vanilla Extract
- In a separate bowl, mix together the dry ingredients, including flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg.3 cups All-purpose Flour, 1 tablespoon Baking Powder, 1 ½ teaspoon Baking Soda, 1 teaspoon Salt, 1 tablespoon Cardamom, 1 tablespoon Cinnamon, 1 tablespoon Ginger, 1 teaspoon Nutmeg, ½ teaspoon Black Pepper
- Add a third of the flour mixture to the cake batter and mix it in slowly.
- Once the flour is totally incorporated, add half of the steeped chai tea and mix that in completely.
- Repeat with another third of the flour, the remaining milk, and then the remaining flour, making sure to mix in completely after each addition.
- Divide the cake batter evenly between the prepared cake pans and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean.
- Let cool completely in the cake pans. If you are making the brown butter frosting to go with it, I recommend starting the brown butter now (or even before baking the cake), so it will be ready to use once the cakes have cooled).
- Once cooled, cut the dome off of the cakes. If you would like two layers of cake, leave it as is. If you would prefer four thinner layers (as in the photographs above), cut each layer in half. Tip: I like to use a cake leveler to ensure even cuts!
Make the Brown Butter Cream Cheese Frosting
- It's best to brown the butter ahead of time so it will be sufficiently cooled and ready to use when you want to make the frosting.
- Start by putting the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat, let it start to melt. As your butter begins to heat, it will froth up and start to bubble and make crackling noises - this is the water boiling out of the butter.1 cup Butter
- After the crackling subsides a little, the butter will start to change in color very quickly so keep an eye on it. Once you start to smell a lovely nutty aroma, and the butter has browned in color, it is ready. Take it off the heat and transfer it to a bowl to cool and thicken- don't miss out on those lovely brown bits in the bottom - those are the milk solids and they are what brings the flavor!
- Once the brown butter is the consistency of regular room temperature butter, mix it all together to disperse the milk solids evenly throughout the brown butter.
- Add the brown butter to the bowl of a mixer with the cream cheese and beat together until combined and smooth.1 ½ cups Cream Cheese
- Sieve the powdered sugar to remove any lumps, then mix it into the cream cheese mixture gradually and slowly.6 cups Powdered Sugar
- Once all the icing sugar is in, add the vanilla and salt, then turn the mixer on high for 1 minute.1 teaspoon Vanilla Extract, ½ teaspoon Salt
- Consistency can vary depending on room temperature, measuring methods etc, so you may need more or less powdered sugar. If you would like the frosting to be thicker, add another cup of powdered sugar. If you would like it to be thinner, add a little dash of milk.