The Essence of Brown Butter



    Butter is a staple in the baking kitchen. Incorporated chilled in pie dough, it produces a flaky pie crust. Creamed with sugar, it creates a tender and moist cake. Rolled into pastry dough, it lends a flavor no other element can bring forth.

           Though butter looks like cream gilded by sunlight, it is made by churning milk or cream – this process weakens the globules and releases the fat which forms larger bands in buttermilk. Eventually a sieve will separate the formed fragments of butter from the buttermilk which by now has been infused with that sweet creamy quality it is known for.

              I first came by the notion of brown butter in Kate Zuckerman’s book The Sweet Life. In it she lauds the depth of flavors brown butter imparts. So what exactly is brown butter? It is simply butter boiled to approximately 250 °F which is the point where the proteins and sugars in milk caramelize to produce a sophisticated blend of nutty aroma and flavor. While I was making brown butter, I noticed that the color of the boiling butter turned from a clear yellow to a clear golden yellow – a visual sign that I have boiled the fat sufficiently. There were also browned bits of caramelized milk solids that started to collect at the bottom and I chose to mix a little of those into the batter of my cake.



            This brings me to my chosen sweet creation for Sugar High Friday #28 hosted by Jasmine over at the Cardamom Addict . The theme is Sweet Seduction and the sultry Vanilla Brown Butter Almond Tea Cake filled with gushing Crème Brulee from The Sweet Life fits this theme to a tee. I was so enamored by the picture in the book — creamy chunks of crème brulee  flowing from a moist blonde hollowed crumb – get the picture? Then my elation became despondence because the book only had the recipe for the cake – no where did it explain how to get the crème brulee inside of it. Determined to make this I went to Pastry Chat, Kate’s blog, to post a question but my query had already been asked and the answer was there all spelled out for me! I did leave a question about the size of the mold that was used for the dessert in the book. Coincidentally that same day, Bea of La Tartine Gourmande had made her gorgeous rendition – this encouraged me more – this was surely a promising sign!

            Two days later, Kate emailed me and apologized for the delay in responding to my question. Truly I was flattered that she found time in her busy schedule to email me back with a reply. She told me that the molds they used were about 2 ¾ inches tall and 1 ¾ to 2 inches wide. They were difficult to procure but I managed to get some that were slightly larger (3×2 inches). Kate also offered up suggestions of baking them in cupcake molds and encouraged me to experiment in different molds — quite empowering if I must say.

I agree with Bea, only a wonderful and warm person can create such phenomenal desserts!


So now I have my work cut out for me – this is the order of how I made my cake.

Vanilla Brown Butter Almond Tea Cake with Crème Brulee Filling

            Adapted from The Sweet Life by Kate Zuckerman

Crème Brulee Filling

1 vanilla bean

4 cups heavy cream

¾ cup sugar

8 yolks

¼ tsp salt

Preheat oven to 325°F

Preparing the custard

            Run a paring knife down the center of the vanilla bean. Split it open with your fingers and use the knife to scrape out the tiny black seeds into a heavy bottomed saucepan. Add the cream, ¼ cup of the sugar, and vanilla pod and bring to just barely a simmer over medium heat. Remove from heat, cover, and allow the vanilla to steep in the cream for at least 15 minutes.

            In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, remaining sugar, and salt. Using a ladle, slowly whisk some of the hot cream into the egg mixture to warm it. Gradually pour the warmed egg mixture into the remaining cream, whisking constantly as you pour. Strain the custard to remove the vanilla bean. If you are using vanilla extract, now is the time to add it. You can bake the custard right away or refrigerate the custard for up to 3 days.

Baking the custard

           Pour the custard into a rectangular dish and place in a larger baking pan to be used as a water bath. Fill enough hot tap water to reach 2/3 up the sides of the dish. Cover with a cookie sheet or aluminum foil. If you are using foil, punch a few holes in it to prevent custards from steaming and overcooking.

            Gently place the dish in the oven, being careful not to splash water onto the custards. Bake until the custards are set and have a uniform jiggle 40 to 60 minutes. The center should not move independently of the sides. (If the custard has been chilled add an additional 20 minutes.) Carefully remove the baking dish from the oven, let the custard cool, cover and freeze.

Preparing frozen custard for the molds.

When the custards are frozen solid, about 16 to 24 hours, run hot water around the sides of the pan, releasing the frozen custard. Cut the custard into squares depending  on the size of the cake molds you are going to use. Freeze the squares again until you are ready to bake the cake.

Flaky Tart Shell

2 cups of flour

1 tsp sugar

½ tsp salt

12 tbs butter (6 ounces) chilled, cut into ¼ inch thick

Preheat oven to 350 °F

Make the tart dough      

In a food processor pulse the flour, salt and sugar until combined. Add the butter pieces and pulse until pea-size chunks develop. Add 4 to 5 tablespoons ice water and continue to pulse. A shaggy dough will develop. Empty the contents of the bowl on a dry surface and using the heel of your hand smear the butter on the dough until it becomes moist enough to form a ball. Flatten the ball into a flat disk and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before rolling it out.

The dough can be refrigerated for up to 2 days and frozen for up to 2 weeks.

Shaping the dough for the molds

            Roll the dough out to about 1/8 of an inch and punch out circles with the mold you are using. Flatten the dough further so it is 1/16 of an inch and slightly larger than your mold’s diameter. Bake the circles until they begin to brown. While the circles are in the oven , spray your molds with PAM. Remove the circles of dough from the oven and, while the dough is still hot, press each metal cake ring mold onto a circle so that the bottom of the cake mold is filled with a perfect circle of prebaked dough. (Veronica’s Note: I decided to use the same molds to cut out the circles since it is simple enough to just roll it out a little bigger than the mold)

Almond Tea Cake

1 cup blanched almonds

½ cup plus 1 tbs flour

1 vanilla bean

16 tbs butter (8 ounces)

7 egg whites (approximately 7 liquid ounces)

1 cup powdered sugar

½ cup granulated sugar

½ tsp salt

Grind the Almonds

            Combine the almonds and 1 tablespoon of the flour in a food processor and grind to a fine powder. Set aside.

Brown the Butter

            Using a paring knife, split the vanilla bean open and empty the tiny black seeds into a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the vanilla bean and the butter and cook until the mixture caramelizes and emits a rich nutty vanilla aroma. Remove from heat, fish out the vanilla bean, dry it and save it for another use. (Veronica’s Note: the butter should reach about 250 °F. Brown bits start to appear on the butter’s foam and the color of the butter would have turned a golden yellow.)

Dissolve the sugar in the egg whites

            In the bowl of a bain-marie, whisk together the egg whites and the two sugars until the whites become warm to the touch and the granulated sugar has dissolved. Remove the bowl from the heat.

Add the dry ingredients

            Slowly whisk the remaining ½ cup of flour, ground almonds, and salt into the egg whites. The mixture will become thick. Smooth it out with a few turns of the whisk.

Emulsify the butter

            This step is very important. You must whisk the butter into the egg mixture slowly making sure that it is incorporated into the batter slowly. Adding the butter too quickly will not emulsify the butter properly which will result in a greasy and heavy cake.

Filling the ring molds

            Fill a pastry bag with the batter. Pipe the cake batter into the ring molds, filling them half way. Press one frozen cube of crème brulee into each mold, pushing them down as far as you can. Pipe a drop over the top to conceal the frozen custard.

Bake at 350 °F oven until the cakes are browned and risen, about 20 to 25 minutes. Allow them to cool, and unmold them. Reheat to serve. (Veronica’s Note: You can also use convection as Kate has stated on her blog. The baking time will need to be lessened for this.)

More Cooking Notes:

            This cake is technically a financier. It is made with ground almonds, melted butter, egg whites and powdered sugar. This recipe adds some granulated sugar. It is interesting to note that unlike other cakes, the butter is melted instead of creamed and the egg whites are not whipped. This adds to the longevity of the cake because of less air in the batter which makes it oxidize less.

            The crème brulee and the sweet tart dough is more than enough to make several batches of this dessert. The dough can be frozen up to two weeks and I believe that the crème brulee can remain frozen for that same amount of time.

            This cake is crunchy at the top and very moist inside. I had a lot of ooohs and aahhs from my tasters as every bite was filled with heavenly buttery goodness.  You almost have to close your eyes with every bite and savor the melting texture of the crème brulee as well as the unusual crumb of the almond tea cake. Brown butter infused with vanilla – that is a combination I am sure to try again … and soon!





29 thoughts on “The Essence of Brown Butter

  1. Wow, this looks and reads like over the top wonderful. It's it fun how much of cooking/baking can be detective work. Both the photos are fantastic!

  2. Veron,

    This is amazing!
    The cakes look beautiful – and delicious – and your explanations are very good, too!

    I've never made anything with brown butter and now you just made me curious. 😉

  3. Absolutely beautiful! And I love how, once you figured out how to make all the components, you're able to explain it so clearly for the rest of us.

  4. Thanks Tanna – this is becoming my favorite cake. I never thought something that has no chocolate be so good.
    Thanks Patricia – definitely try brown butter.
    T.W. – that's a very lovely comment. Thank you!
    Peabody, thanks!
    Hi Lydia – you cannot imagine the elation I felt when the steps to make this fell into place.
    Thanks Bea – because of your success , you inspired me! Definitely try those tall molds, also I'm thinking of making chocolate ones with an espresso creme brulee filling.
    Hey Brilynn, glad the seduction part works ;).
    Thanks susan – glad that you find the post informative.
    Hi passionfordecor – it's perfectly fine to drool , I do it all the time 😉
    Thanks valentina – it was really hard to take the picture while the cake was sitting there all inviting!

  5. Fantastic post! The combination of the cake and brulee centre sounds decadent (I'm finding that I'm using this word quite a lot on your site :))to say the least. Brown butter is also nice with fried sage leaves on pasta.

  6. Hi Veronica, Thanks for visiting my blog. You have a lovely collection of recipes here that I just can't wait to try them out. =) And this almond tea cake looks so yummy!! =)

  7. Thanks Ivonne!
    Hi gilly – i felt that brown butter was the main player of the flavor here which is why I emphasized its use.
    Thanks gattina – recipe did look delicious which is why I was so tempted to make this
    Thanks Helen – I sent you an email to remind you to send me the brown butter glaze recipe 🙂
    Thanks Mary!
    Thanks for the suggestion on the pasta,Steven! I love sage on mine and the brown butter would definitely make it very tasty!
    Hi Sue – you do need patience at first but once you get the hang of it it should be easier to make.
    Thanks Jacelyn – I definitely recommend trying the almond tea cake. Even without the creme brulee center it could stand on its own.

  8. Holy crap – you, my friend, can seduce me any time you'd like! I don't even like vanilla – but my heart went aflutter when I saw this. Beautiful! =)

  9. This dessert is out of this world. I am not a fan of Vanilla at all. Veron made this with vanilla bean and eating and tasting this was such an experience! I am not a fan of sweets but I finished a whole one of these including the figs and the apples on the side!!!

  10. Hi Veron – this dessert looks absolutely lovely, I must give it a try soon 🙂 All the components sounds so temtping, thank you for sharing.

  11. I made Almond cake twice – once in a friend's birthday and for Easter. This was liked by all who had it. I changed no ingredients and it just turned out great. But never served this with tea.

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