brown butter layer cake.

i love layer cakes. they’re beautiful. a layer cake can make any day feel like a special occasion.

though i’m in culinary school, studying baking and pastry, i feel completely and totally inept when it comes to frosting and decorating layer cakes.

i blame most of my cake decorating woes on the fact that i’m left-handed. as a lefty, i can’t draw a straight line to save my life, and i hold writing implements in a very strange, contorted way.

i’ve tried teaching myself to knit and crochet with no success for the past five years, because all of the instructions are meant for right-handed people. everything is backwards. opposite. convoluted.

the lament of a lefty. poor woebegone southpaws.

my first week of culinary school, i had a meltdown in my kitchen at home while practicing my knife cuts. though i’d been chopping onions and potatoes my whole life, i had to learn how to hold a knife properly, and how to many straight, perfect, precise cuts. for the first time, holding a chefs knife in my left hand felt unnatural and uncomfortable, and my knife cuts were slanted and clumsy. the curse of the lefty was in full effect.

frustrated, i struggled through my class each day. my right-handed classmates seemingly had no issue making fluid, effortlessly straight knife cuts. my brunoise and batonnet were lopsided, crooked, askew and awful; just awful.

it was a no-holds-barred, full-on sobfest. it wasn’t pretty. i wailed about how terrible i was, and worried that i’d made the wrong decision to go to culinary school. if i couldn’t chop a damn onion properly, there was no way in hell i’d ever be able to cook or bake on a professional level.

i had two options: i  could quit and accept defeat; retreat to the dull, dreary confinement of a desk job, or i could press on and keep chopping and slicing until i got it right.

you know, the funny thing about perseverance is that it really, truly does pay off.

many, many onions and potatoes later, i got my knife cuts down. i faced my fears of failing and looking foolish head on. i practiced, practiced, and then practiced some more. i swear, i must’ve chopped 20 pounds of onions and potatoes at home in those first few weeks of school.

i’ve gotten straight A’s throughout culinary school, because i practice. i work at it. i don’t just blithely do what my chefs instruct, i try to understand the process. i want to know why and how things work.

if i’m not feeling confident about something we made in class, i’ll make it again at home that same day. i learned a long time ago that if you want to be successful, you have to go above and beyond what’s expected. you have to work at it.

those classmates i mentioned earlier that i thought had such perfect knife cuts? two thirds of them have dropped out.

it’s funny, because the left-handedness that plagued me when i started culinary school may very well have also saved me.

research suggests that lefties are more resilient and adaptable than right-handed people. i suppose when the going gets tough, a lot of people jump ship. not me.

lefties also tend to be highly intelligent, creative, quick thinkers, great leaders and very independent and individualistic. while we may be clumsy and accident-prone, we’re also pretty damn awesome. yay lefties!

so, back to layer cakes!

i recently joined the Burwell General Store’s Recipe Swap group, which is a wonderful, dynamic group of food bloggers. the group is given an old recipe from bygone days each month to re-invent, and everyone posts their interpretations of the recipe on the same day. i joined the Recipe Swap because i just love a good challenge (obviously), and i’m always looking for any excuse to think outside the box and push myself creatively.

this month’s recipe was vague, and completely confounded me for a while. the recipe was for a Jelly Cake, and i had no clue how i’d reinterpret it!

pretty ambiguous, right?

i knew i’d be making a layer cake, and i was dreading it. my layers were always uneven, and my frosting and piping skills left much to be desired. a cake decorator i most certainly am not!

from what i can gather, the original recipe was a fairly plain, basic cake, which derived much of its flavor from the spiced raisin mixture and warm jelly.

playing off these flavors, i decided to make a brown butter layer cake, filled with pluot jam i’d made earlier in the week, and frosted with a brown sugar swiss meringue buttercream.

the brown butter cake is absolutely to die for. brown butter lends an earthy nuttiness to the cake, giving it depth of flavor. the tart, slight spiciness of the pluot jam sandwiched between each layer melds beautifully with the brown butter cake. but the brown sugar buttercream really makes this cake sing.

really, the frosting was born out of necessity. i didn’t have any granulated sugar on hand (can you imagine?), so i substituted brown sugar. this is probably the greatest decision i’ve ever made.

this buttercream is sweet, but certainly not cloying. the brown sugar lends a deep hint of molasses, a wink and a nod to the original recipe. it reminds me of cookie dough in the best, most delicious way possible.

i decorated the outside of the cake with almonds, which i completely took artistic license on. honestly, i saw the word “nutmeg” in the original recipe and immediately wanted to cover the outside of the cake with nuts of some sort. i’m strange like that.

you know us lefties, though. we’re a little odd, a bit eccentric. but that’s why you like us.

that’s also why you will love this brown butter layer cake. it’s kind of weird, doesn’t seem to make sense, but once you taste it, you will realize how lovely and wonderful it truly is.

brown butter layer cake

Yield: two 5” cake layers, 12 cupcakes or one 8” cake layer

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 25 minutes

Total Time: 35 minutes

this recipe can easily be doubled!

the recipe for the pluot jam can be found here!


for the brown butter cake

6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons malted milk powder
1/2 cup half & half
1 tsp vanilla bean paste
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder

for the brown sugar swiss meringue buttercream

2 egg whites
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed well
1 cup (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cubed (cube it while cold, then let it get soft)
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste (use same amount of vanilla extract if you don't have paste)


for the brown butter

place butter in a small saucepan and place over medium heat.

allow the butter to melt, and then begin stirring the pan slowly but constantly.

the butter will begin to foam up and bubble, and you will notice it change color slightly from yellow to very light brown. this may take about 3 minutes.

immediately when you see small brown specks in the butter, pull it off the heat and transfer to a small bowl to cool slightly. make sure to scrape all of the brown bits into the bowl! set aside.

for the brown butter cake

in a medium bowl, beat eggs and sugar until pale yellow and frothy, about 2 minutes.

add the malted milk powder, half & half and vanilla bean paste, and stir to combine.

slowly pour in browned butter, whisking continuously until combined.

sift in the flour and baking powder and beat until well-mixed, about 1 minute.

pour batter into prepared pans, and tap lightly against the countertop to release any air bubbles.

bake at 350 degrees F for 20-25 minutes, or until tops of cakes spring back when touched, or a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

allow to cool in the pan for 5-10 minutes before removing and cooling completely on a wire baking rack.

once completely cooled, the cakes can be frosted, or wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and placed in freezer bags. the cakes can then be stored in the fridge for up to five days, and will keep in the freezer for up to three months.

for the brown sugar swiss meringue buttercream

place a small saucepan with about 2 inches of water on the stove over medium-high heat.

in a metal or glass bowl, whisk together the egg whites and brown sugar.

place the bowl over the saucepan to create a double boiler, making sure the bottom of the bowl doesn't touch the water.

whisk the egg whites and brown sugar constantly until the mixture reaches 145 degrees F and does not feel grainy any longer.

transfer to the bowl of stand mixer with the whisk attachment on.

whip the egg white mixture on medium for about 5-10 minutes, or until the meringue is light and fluffy, and the bottom of the stand mixer bowl doesn't feel warm.

switch to the paddle attachment, and turn the mixer on low.

add the butter, one or two cubes at a time, about 10-15 seconds apart, stopping every so often to scrape down the sides of the bowl.

after all the butter is added, the mixture may look slightly curdled or watery, but let the mixer keep working. the buttercream will magically become soft, smooth and fluffy!

add the vanilla bean paste (or vanilla extract, if using), and turn the mixer off. give the buttercream a mix with a rubber spatula. it's ready to use!

assembling the layer cake

using a serrated knife, trim the rounded tops off each cake layer.

to cut each layer in half horizontally, i recommend using a ruler to measure the height of the layer, then with your knife make shallow cuts around the cake at different increments. once your cake is marked off, put one hand on top of the cake layer and with a gently seesaw motion, slice through the cake smoothly.

once your layers are trimmed and separated, it's time to build a cake!

place a dot of icing on a cake board so the cake has something to adhere to. place your bottom layer on the board, and spread about 2 tablespoons of jam on the top, spreading the jam to about 1/4" from the edge of the cake.

if you'd like, you can pipe a small amount of frosting around the edge of the layer after spreading the jam to ensure it doesn't leak over the sides!

repeat with each remaining layer, except for the very top. don't put jam on the top layer!

put your cake in the fridge for at least 30 minutes to firm up.

once the cake is firm, it's time for the crumb coat.

start off with about 1/4 cup of frosting on top of the cake, and using a spatula (i like a small offset one!), spread the icing along the top and over the sides, covering the entire cake in a very thin layer of frosting.

it's okay if you can see the cake through the frosting layer!

once the cake is thinly coated in frosting, put it back in the fridge for at least 30 minutes to let the crumb coat firm up.

now it's time to frost the cake for real!

this time, you'll use about 1/2-1/3 cup of frosting, and start with it on the top center of the cake. using your spatula, smooth the icing over the top of the cake and down the sides, using a gentle back and forth motion.

once the cake is completely coated in frosting, clean off your spatula and smooth the top of the cake. clean off the spatula again, and run the spatula along the sides of the cake, holding it vertically to ensure the sides are smooth.

spread about 2-3 tablespoons of the jam you used to fill the cake over the top of the cake, stopping about 1/2" from the edge.

put some frosting in a piping bag with any tip you like attached (i used a large star tip), and pipe a decorative border on the top edge of the cake, making a barrier for the jam so it doesn't run over the sides.

if you like, you can cover the sides of the cake with slivered almonds like i did, or leave it alone. if you don't add almonds on the sides, i would pipe a border on the bottom edge of the cake.

place the cake in the fridge for at least an hour to firm up.

you can serve the cake straight from the fridge (i love cold cake!), or let it stand at room temperature for 20-30 minutes before slicing and serving.

brown butter cake adapted from the little red house

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20 Responses to “brown butter layer cake.”

  1. #
    Burwell General Store — July 10, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    Beautiful post! I love the black-on-black setting, too, especially for something this delicate – it’s a great juxtaposition.

    Thanks for being a part of the recipe swap! I hope you’ll jump in again- it’s a blast, isn’t it?

  2. #
    PolaM — July 10, 2011 at 8:30 pm

    Welcome to the swap! Those are some great layers: it seems that perseverance really pays off ;)

  3. #
    Lana — July 10, 2011 at 8:57 pm

    Ha!Your cake looks so beautiful, and yet, you say that you are not good at decorating:) Every time I need to pipe frosting on my girls’ birthday cake, I fret, and with a reason – I have a degree in liberal arts and languages, nowhere close to a cooking school:) Looking at your cake, I can only smile and congratulate you, and wish you the best! I am convinced that your left-handedness will take you to some really great heights:)

  4. #
    Emily | Nomnivorous — July 10, 2011 at 9:07 pm

    Your cake is blowing me away. Brown butter? Brown sugar? Pluot jam? Almonds? Holy moly does it sound great! I love the wink and nod to the original recipe.

  5. #
    Lindsay @ Rosemarried — July 10, 2011 at 11:53 pm

    So glad you’ve joined our swap group. Beautiful recipe, beautiful photos, beautiful post. Seriously, fabulous idea all the way around.

  6. #
    Sasha @ The Procrastobaker — July 11, 2011 at 5:18 am

    I found this post really interesting, id never thought how a lefty might struggle in the baking world before! You could never tell you have trouble with layer cakes, this is reallyreally beautiful and i am very tempted to make the cake and the frosting just because you got me craving them so bad! I love the fact this is a small recipe as it were, no worries about me halving things wrongly being the klutz i am. Gorrgeeeouusss recipe and pictures too :)

  7. #
    monique — July 11, 2011 at 9:11 am

    Beautiful photos and recipe. Will be fun to see what you create in the next recipe swap!

  8. #
    MaryJane — July 11, 2011 at 9:14 am

    As a leftie myself who went through Catholic school when you weren’t supposed to be a leftie, and as the mom of a leftie, I felt your pain.

    I eventually learned to do everything but write with my right hand, but my daughter is a true leftie through and through. She is looking into culinary as a career, so I’m definitely forwarding this blog along to her.

    We have quite the crew of lefties here at King Arthur too. If you’re ever nearby, give us a jingle. We’d be glad to shake your (south) paw.

    ~ MaryJane

  9. #
    Alli — July 11, 2011 at 10:24 am

    What a great idea to use brown butter! Sounds like it would add a nice richness to the cake. And your pictures are beautiful!

  10. #
    Home with Mandy — July 11, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    What a beautiful, beautiful post!!!

  11. #
    Dixie Caviar — July 11, 2011 at 5:44 pm

    This looks lovely. I kind of want to smash my face into it… in the best way possible!!

  12. #
    Latrice — July 11, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    WOW!!! I’ve been forced by my church to hone in on my baking skills…they’re always ordering cakes from me. This one must be added to the growing list of cakes I’ve made for them. Thanks so much for sharing. This will also make for a great addition to my all sweets party I’m throwing for my God Mother’s surprise birthday in Sept. Thanks again, truly amazing!

  13. #
    alex — July 12, 2011 at 9:42 am

    just found your site through the recipe swap..this cake has me drooling! I love anything with brown butter! and layer cakes are the pretty and double the frosting!

  14. #
    brandi — July 13, 2011 at 7:24 am

    well, as another lefty, i have to say that your layer cake looks better than any I’ve ever made! Gorgeous :)

  15. #
    Katie — July 15, 2011 at 8:08 am

    Wow – the cake looks gorgeous my dear!

  16. #
    Lauren — July 16, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    This looks absolutely gorgeous! I’ve seen a few blogs lately mention the Recipe Swap. I may have to try it out.

    I saw your comment on punk domestics about thrift stores–I need to become a more dedicated thrift store shopper!

  17. #
    Carolina @ Peas in a Blog — July 17, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    Wow, this cake looks incredible! How did I miss you yesterday at the CFLBlogCon? You’re a girl after my own heart! I love to bake :)

  18. #
    Puja — February 5, 2012 at 9:07 pm

    I made this cake for the first time this weekend, and it was good to the very last bite – and trust me, not a single crumb was left. (I didn’t eat the whole thing! It was for a friend’s birthday, I promise.) I had never browned butter before, but it was easy and I could definitely taste the difference. I love this recipe – definitely a go to from here on out. Thanks for sharing it!

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