Like most ingredients, butter undergoes a beautiful transformation when it’s heated. I would never dream of using nuts or whole spices without toasting them first, and caramelized sugar intensifies the flavor of homemade chocolate-hazelnut spread. Likewise, brown butter adds another dimension to otherwise familiar foods. There’s a reason why it’s called beurre noisette (hazelnut) in French: it has a seductive, nutty flavor.
Brown butter is already in financiers, icing and shortbread. It might as well be the new bacon. But I never had a proper application until trying the sea salt cookies from the Brown Butter Cookie Company. (I’m not being facetious. That’s the name of the company.) Holy goodness, they smelled intoxicating. They tasted even better.
Since pound cake is all about the butter, I thought it would be an excellent vehicle for beurre noisette. As the old tale goes, take a pound each of butter, sugar, eggs and flour, and “beat it all well together for an hour with your hand, or a great wooden spoon.” There you have it: pound cake. Thankfully, the method and the ratios have changed over the years.
The recipe I tried is traditional in that it doesn’t call for chemical leaveners (ie baking soda). Therefore, don’t cheat on the creaming stage: it’s your only chance to aerate the batter.
My cake had an inviting tan color and a crackly crust, but it was very firm. I don’t know if it was the recipe (I forgot to adjust the liquid. As butter boils down, 25% of it evaporates. No worries though—the version below should be correct.) or my temperamental oven. But it was a good launching pad and as expected, irresistably buttery.
Brown Butter Pound Cake
Adapted from Flo Braker in The Joy of Cooking
1/2 lb (2 sticks) unsalted butter
2 cups sifted (before measuring) cake flour*, or weigh out 196 grams
5 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 cup milk
2/3 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup sugar
heaping 1/4 tsp salt
- Cut the butter into small pieces and put it into a large, cold saucepan. Over medium heat, swirl the butter occasionally as it melts. Foam will rise to the top, and the milk solids will sink to the bottom. Stir the butter more frequently as it starts to color; you don’t want the solids to burn. When the liquid turns golden and releases a nutty aroma (about 10 minutes, but I wasn’t really counting), immediately take it off the heat and pour into a clean bowl. If you burned some of it like I did, strain the butter through a fine mesh sieve or coffee filter. Cover well and refrigerate until the butter is solid, a couple hours.
- Have all ingredients at room temperature, 68-70° F. Preheat the oven to 325° F. Grease and flour on 9 x 5-inch (8-cup) loaf pan or line the bottom with wax or parchment paper.
- Resift the flour twice. I know it’s a pain, but you want the cake to be airy, don’t you?
- In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs, vanilla and milk.
- In a large bowl, but the butter until creamy, about 30 seconds. Gradually add the sugars and salt. Scrape the sides of the bowl and beat on high speed until lightened in color and texture, 3 to 5 minutes. Gradually drizzle in the egg mixture, about 1 tablespoon at a time, and beat until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes.
- Add the flour in 3 parts, beating on low speed or stirring with a rubber spatula until smooth and scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary.
- Scrape the batter into the pan and spread evenly. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 1 hour to 1 hour 10 minutes. Let cool.
*In a jiffy, here’s how to substitute 1 cup unsifted cake flour: measure 2 tablespoons cornstarch and add enough all-purpose flour till it equals 1 cup. Some people think cornstarch tastes chalky, so you can also substitute 7/8 cup (that’s 1 cup minus 2 tablespoons) all-purpose flour.
More on brown butter:
San Francisco Chronicle tutorial
Brown Butter Cookie Company
Pastry chef Michael Laiskonis’s financiers
Lottie + Doof’s shortbread
Martha Stewart’s brown sugar pound cake with brown butter icing
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