browned butter

Cream Cake with Browned Buttercream by Molly Brodak

Imagine if whipped cream had a baby with white cake.

Well she did, and her child is named is cream cake, and cream cake just became the boss of this here treatland.

This is a whole new kind of white cake. It's not not angel food cake, not buttermilk cake, it's cream cake. Rich, moist, tender, flavorful white cake that tastes like cream pudding. You see, my standard cake mix requires a lot of yolks for moistness and stability, but since egg yolks are not allowed in a real white cake, I had to come up with a substitute.

Egg whites provide structure for white cake but they are very, very drying. Any typical white sponge cake--angel food or otherwise--come uncannily close in texture to an actual kitchen sponge, and seem to require some other niceties to make them tolerable--whipped cream, fruit, compote, sauce, I don't know. 

So I moved towards dairy. Cream in particular--sour cream and my personal darling, heavy whipping cream. This cake really tastes like fresh cream. The texture is heavenly-soft, moist but not compact, and melts into satisfying creaminess.

It deserved a pretty presentation in an ikebana-inspired arrangement.

gold inside, gold outside

gold inside, gold outside

I tested dozens upon dozens of versions of this recipe--something close to 35. I mean, look at my tortured recipe notes.

I'll spare you every detail of every iteration, but one interesting highlight of the versioning is that I had to give up on making meringue. Whipping the whites into meringue frenzy and folding them in gently at the end, which is standard practice in white cakes, was holding my texture back from all it could achieve. It was always, well, spongey and somewhat dry with the whites whipped.

So I kept the whites un-merginued, and whipped them up just a little with vinegar for stability, then crammed as much dairy into this cake as I could

dairy laannnd

dairy laannnd

I just kept pushing it--more cream, more sour cream, until I found the sweet spot between dry and collapsed. This sweet spot made a cake moist beyond moist, no syrup soak or other niceties needed, but still light open-crumbed. The batter is rather acidic and leavened with a generous and meticulously adjusted amount of baking powder. (Side note--if it's been a while since you bought fresh baking powder, treat yourself to a new batch since this cake relies almost completely on chemical leaveners to rise since no creaming is involved.) It bakes up pretty evenly with no great dome because keeping the batter "low" kept it moist.  

Although the batter is quick and simple to whip up since creaming is removed from the process, you're going to experience some weirdness with this recipe, and this weirdness includes beating oil into flour to made a dough in order to create some structure. Also, for the frosting--steel yourself--some weird butter stuff. 

The story with this buttercream starts with trying to improve ABC--otherwise known as American Buttercream to bakers. That buttercream you've probably made: just butter and powdered sugar, a little milk or something. It's the simplest buttercream but has a bad reputation for being homely and too sweet, a little chalky or gritty thanks to the powdered sugar, and unspecial. I wanted to make it special, so I brought in my dearest secret baking star: browned butter.

Because of the quantity of butter here, you will end up clarifying some of it as you wait for it to brown. Don't worry. Your cooled brown butter will look like an insane weird mess at first, with nutso layers of solid butter, browned butter bits, and sweetened clarified butter underneath. Try to not be upset. See how it all whips up nicely? Trust me, the memory of the upsetting gloppy oddness with be all forgotten when you taste this fluffy buttercream.

So what does browned butter buttercream taste like?

"What is the flavor of this?" my boo asked me while tasting this out of the bowl. "I can't figure out why this is good, it's just so good. It's like, the flavor of tastiness. I can't stop eating it." Yes love, the flavor of tastiness, this is browned butter. You just have to try it to see. The melted butter also affords us an opportunity to add some melted sugar to the mix so that we can reduce the powdered sugar in this ABC to help solve some of its...homeliness. (You still want some powdered sugar for the starch and opacity, but taste it before adding because you can adjust the sweetness to your liking.)


1 c. sugar

1/3 c. water

1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter to brown

1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter to cream, room temperature

3/4 tsp. fine sea salt or kosher salt

2 tsp. vanilla extract or 1 vanilla bean, scraped

1/4 to 1/2 c. powdered sugar

Combine water and sugar in a heat-safe bowl or measuring cup and microwave until sugar is dissolved into a smooth, thick sugar syrup. Melt 1 c. butter in a large saucepan over medium heat until browned, stirring with a heat-proof spatula to prevent burnt spots. Butter is perfectly browned when it smells nutty and is dark brown--remove from heat quickly as it can burn fast. Slowly pour in sugar syrup and mix until combined (be careful, it will bubble and steam). Transfer mixture to heat-proof bowl and refrigerate for about an hour or until butter is just barely solidified. If it becomes too cold and hard, allow to return to room temperature before using in the next stage. Whip remaining butter until light and fluffy, then add the browned butter mixture in stages. Add powdered sugar, salt, and vanilla, and beat until pale and fluffy, for at least 5 minutes. 


Now, I decided to attempt an ikebana-inspired design by transforming the cake into a hammered metal bowl full of some sugar flowers I had in storage. Any opportunity to show of one great gobsmacker peony is one I will take.


This recipe makes a hearty amount of batter, perfectly suited to three 8" or 9" cake pans. I don't recommend using smaller/deeper pans for this cake as the batter can fail to rise and you will end up with dense, gummy layers. If you don't have three pans or you don't want to bake off all of this batter, remember cake batter is something you an easily freeze for several months if stored in an air-tight container.



3 c. (350 g.) cake flour (White Lily)

3 1/4 tsp. (12 g.) aluminum-free baking powder

5 large egg whites

2 c. (400 g.) sugar

1  tsp. white vinegar

1 tsp. fine sea salt or kosher salt

1 1/5 c. heavy whipping cream

3/4 c. (155 g.) sour cream

2 Tbsp. vanilla extract or one vanilla bean, scraped

2/3 c. canola or vegetable oil


Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Whisk flours and baking powder together thoroughly in a large bowl and set aside. Beat egg whites, sugar, salt and vinegar for one minute (use a timer) on medium high until mixture is thick. Continue to beat while adding in cream gradually. Add sour cream in spoonfuls, then vanilla, and beat until smooth for 30 seconds.

Add oil to the flour mixture and beat until a dough forms. Add 1/3 of the cream mixture and beat until smooth and lump-free. Repeat with the remaining 2/3rds, scraping the bottom of the bowl and making sure no lumps remain.

Divide batter among three greased and floured 8" or 9" pans and tap on the counter to remove large air bubbles. Bake for 20-30 minutes until centers are fully set and spring back when pressed. Allow to cool for 15 minutes in the pan, then level, fill, and frost.

ooh wee!

ooh wee!