One thing I learned early on about Ed is that he doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth. But when he likes a dessert, he means it. He’s planned meals around the towering napoleon at Central and he’s been known to beat me to the bottom of the Gifford’s Toasted Coconut Ice Cream. For a long time, though, there weren’t any homemade desserts that grabbed his attention. Sure, he appreciated the key lime pie I made and he happily ate the banana bread I shared, but there was nothing that he ever requested. This was slight torture for me because I was dying to woo him with my own version of his favorite homemade sweets. Imagine my delight when he came home from work raving about a cake his boss baked and he wanted me (!) to make it for him.
This romantic scene was quickly interrupted—he didn’t have the recipe. Or the name of the cake. Or anything more than “it was SO good” and “it had almonds.” He said he asked for the source of the recipe, but didn’t remember the answer. Really good cake will do that to a memory. With so little to go on, the cake request faded to the background and was almost forgotten.
Flash forward a few months. Ed sends me a midday email: “hi. try this. bellaeats.com. search for swedish visiting cake. yum!” A cake. The cake! He’d had that cake on his mind again (see what I mean? the man likes what he likes) and he remembered to ask his boss for the recipe. She sent him to Bella Eats, a gorgeous food blog from Charlottesville.
The recipe is based on one by Dorie Greenspan, so it’s no wonder that it left Ed with such a positive impression. It really is delicious. It has a soft, moist crumb and a crunchy, lacy topping. If you like almond croissants, you will like this cake. Even better, the cake comes together like a dream: two bowls, one pan, no mixer. Even better than that, it’s made with a stick of melted butter. The first time I made the cake, I stuck to the original instructions and we made that cake disappear in record time.
As delicious as it was, I wondered how the cake would taste if that stick of butter were browned, not merely melted. There’s nary a recipe calling for melted butter that doesn’t lead me to ponder the browning question. For the most part, I find browning to be an improvement, but in some cases it’s a wasted effort; there can be little discernible taste difference and occasionally, the taste is burned. When Ed asked me to make the cake again (yay, a repeat request!), I indulged my brown butter urge. The risk paid off. Here, the technique showcases what brown butter can do to elevate a recipe: it adds subtle nuttiness and undeniable depth. Making the cake with melted butter yields a delightful dessert, but the brown butter makes the flavor just a bit deeper, richer, and that much more likely to get requested again.
A note on brown butter, also known as beurre noisette: I learned from Harold McGee that making brown butter involves cooking the butter until the water boils off and the milk solids get nice and toasty brown. To get there, you melt the butter over medium/ medium-low heat until you can see the solids browning at the bottom of the pan. You’ll know you’re there when the foaming stops, the pan gets eerily quiet and you can see some dark tan bits accumulating all over the bottom of the pan. Three tips from my experience:
- Use a stainless steel or other light-colored pan; it will make it a lot easier to tell when your solids are browning.
- Use unsalted butter. I find that salted butter foams up a lot before browning, making the butter difficult to monitor, and the final taste is not as buttery.
- Use the right sized pan. A pot that is too big will cause the melted butter to pop, sputter, and splash and it might burn you. A small saucepan is good for a stick of butter.
For a photographic tutorial / love letter to brown butter, check out this fantastic post from Poires au Chocolate.
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more to grease pan
1 cup sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
zest from 1 lemon
2 large eggs
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp almond extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sliced almonds (or enough to cover the top to your liking)
- Put a rack in the center of the oven and preheat oven to 350°. Butter a 9-inch cake pan.
- Brown the butter: cut the butter into five pieces. Place it in a small saucepan over medium low to medium heat. Melt the butter and continue cooking until the solids at the bottom of the pan look dark golden brown and the butter smells nutty (about 5 to 7 minutes, but watch carefully). Immediately take the butter off the heat and pour it into a small bowl to cool slightly (about 5 minutes).
- In a medium bowl, combine the sugar and lemon zest. With your fingers, rub the zest into the sugar until the mixture is moist and fragrant.
- Whisk the eggs, one by one, into the lemon sugar until combined.
- Whisk in the salt and extracts until combined.
- Use a spatula to stir in the flour until just combined.
- Fold in the browned butter. It will seem too wet at first, but after a few folds, the batter absorbs the butter.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Sprinkle the sliced almonds all over the cake and finish with a sprinkling of sugar.
- Bake for 25-30 minutes. The cake is done when the edges are golden and have pulled away from the sides of the pan.