I love cake. If you spend much time here on Serious Eats (or flipping through my cookbook), that fact reveals itself in the sheer number of cake recipes I leave in my wake. What can I say? Few things signal celebration quite like layers upon layers of tender, fluffy cake stacked with an ultra-creamy frosting (and preferably decked out in sprinkles or candles or both).
When it comes to recipes, I don't have a single go-to. Each of the options in my arsenal is designed to fill a specific niche, whether that's a no-frills vanilla butter cake made with ultra-basic ingredients or a fancy strawberry layer cake that pulls out all the stops.
Different occasions warrant different recipes, and this is cake that falls on the decidedly fancy end of the spectrum, with key ingredients like brown butter, toasted sugar, loads of vanilla extract (more than an ounce), and specialty cake flour.*
*For more info, check out our explainer on the differences between bleached and unbleached cake flour.
Rather than dominating the cake's flavor profile, the brown butter and toasted sugar amplify the vanilla, for the most outrageously light, fluffy, tender, rich, complex, and aromatic "plain" vanilla cake around. The results are airier than my all-butter layer cake, butterier than my white mountain layer cake, and more vanilla-y than both. While it's made from whole eggs rather than whites, it aerates so well that it bakes up light enough to pass for a white cake.
That kind of magic takes a bit of planning or else a well-stocked, BraveTart-style pantry and equipment shelf, but it's an effort-to-reward ratio that pays off big for those of us who love to celebrate special occasions with a dramatic layer cake.
It all starts with brown butter.
For some, browning butter is a routine kitchen chore that can be knocked out without much thought, but less experienced bakers needn't be intimidated. The process is super easy, although it requires a bit of care when it comes to the timing and heat, but both can be adjusted on the fly.
If you happen to have a leftover vanilla bean kickin' around the pantry after another project, toss it in while you're melting the butter to infuse it with a deeper flavor. (Don't abuse a fresh vanilla bean here; this is just a good way to get more mileage out of an oldie!)
With or without the vanilla bean, the idea is to melt and heat the butter, so that its water content cooks off as its dairy solids brown, all at a rate and temperature that will move the process along at a reasonable pace and avoid scorching.
For a batch of this size, I like to work with a 3-quart stainless steel saucier. It provides plenty of surface area for browning and evaporation, with a metal that's heavy enough to minimize scorching and light enough to be responsive as I adjust the heat, and it minimizes carryover cooking when I'm done.
With pots that are lighter or thinner or larger, the process will require less heat to prevent the butter from scorching before the water has been driven off. With pots that are heavier or thicker or smaller, the process may require a bit more heat or else the whole project will take forever, and the dairy solids may eventually brown even while much of the water remains.
If the heat is too low, the process will take eons. If the heat is too high, the dairy solids may scorch or else fully brown before the water is driven away.
Most brown butter mishaps are related to scorching, which is generally a sign the butter is cooking too fast over heat that's too strong, and/or is in a pot that's too large. If that describes your experience, try reducing the heat and using a heavier pot. Conversely, if your gripe with brown butter is that it always takes much longer than the time listed in a recipe, make sure you've got the right pot for the job and feel free to bump up the heat.
With the right equipment and heat settings, the whole process needn't take longer than 15 minutes from start to finish for a batch this size. In the end, browning gives the butter a rich, golden color and nutty, toasted flavor, while reducing its mass by about 20 percent (assuming you are using American butter, the basis of all my recipes).
Once browned, the butter can be poured straight into the bowl of a stand mixer to cool over a cold water bath until it is thick, creamy, and opaque, around 75°F (24°C). For that reason, I don't like to use ice, which can make the butter too cold and hard for the creaming method.
To make sure I get all of the toasty brown bits from the pan, I also "deglaze" it with the milk that will be used in the cake batter itself. For those making a cake right away, this will also help warm the milk up so it emulsifies into the batter more readily. As a make-ahead step, the brown butter–washed milk can be refrigerated in an airtight container until needed. It's not a strictly necessary step, however, so don't sweat it if the logistics don't work out.
If you're not in a hurry, the brown butter and brown butter–washed milk can be transferred to individual airtight containers, where they can be refrigerated for about a week and then warmed to about 70°F (21°C) before use.
Because browning and cooling the butter takes a solid chunk of time, I like to make the most of it by multitasking on a batch of quick-toasted sugar.
Compared with plain white sugar, this lightly caramelized sugar will reduce the sweetness of the cake, add a hint of toasty complexity, and deepen the vanilla flavor overall.
Or, if you happen to have any on hand, fully toasted sugar works equally well, as does the lightly toasted sugar left over from blind-baking a pie. It's a sliding scale of flavor, so use what you have or make what you need.
With those key ingredients prepped in advance (whether it's hours or days), the cake itself is a pretty routine affair. Those new to layer cakes may want to brush up on technique with our complete guide to making cake, which includes an in-depth breakdown of the importance of temperatures, technique, and equipment at each stage.
When the brown butter and toasted sugar have both fully cooled (a key requirement), I combine them in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, and cream until soft, light, and pale.
It's worth repeating that the creaming method isn't a process that can be judged by the clock; ballpark figures are included for context, but timing will vary according to the size and power of a given mixer, the specific temperature of ingredients, and bowl-to-beater clearance as well as seasonal considerations like a chilly winter kitchen.
The physical transformations that happen along the way are all that matter, as shown in the photo above.
After the butter and sugar are soft and pale, the cool (not cold!) eggs can be added one at a time, followed by alternating additions of bleached cake flour and milk. The slow and steady addition of these dry and liquid ingredients will help to preserve the batter's emulsion and prevent overmixing.
Give the bowl and beater a thorough scraping with a flexible spatula, folding from the bottom up to be sure there are no unmixed streaks running through the batter. When well-homogenized, evenly divide the batter between three lightly greased, parchment-lined eight-inch anodized aluminum cake pans.
Bake until the cakes are puffed, well-risen, and golden brown, just firm enough to spring back from a gentle poke but soft enough that your fingertip leaves an indentation in the crust, with an internal temperature at or just above 200°F (93°C). This will take about 35 minutes, but it's better to judge by the visual and textural cues rather than a strict timetable.
Cool the cakes directly in their pans, until no trace of warmth remains; meanwhile, whip up a batch of your favorite buttercream. Here, I went with a maple frosting, but it pairs well with everything from chocolate icing to vanilla buttercream, so let your heart be your guide.
To finish, loosen the cakes from their pans with a dull knife, invert onto a flat plate or wire rack, and then peel up the parchment and re-invert the cake onto a work surface. Before frosting, level each cake with a serrated knife (full directions here).
Flat layers are easier to stack, and look prettier, too, but trimming away the crust (the driest part of the cake) helps the interior absorb moisture, richness, and flavor from the frosting. Plus, cake scraps are the best snacks around, and they provide an opportunity to test-drive the frosting to see if it needs any adjustment before it's married to the cake. Like any "sauce" or other accompaniment, buttercream should always be seasoned to taste before use.
I assemble, crumb-coat, and finish the cake on a cast iron turntable, as its heavy base and frictionless spin make it easy to spread even layers of buttercream across the surface and sides of the cake. Especially for beginners, having a turntable makes it faster and easier to beautifully frost a cake, but with patience and care it can certainly be done without one.
For a detailed walkthrough, see our guide to assembling and crumb-coating a layer cake. Whatever the frosting and filling, the finished cake will be something special—with a bold vanilla flavor upfront, backed by the richness of brown butter and toasty depth of caramelized sugar. It's light and moist and big enough to feed a crowd, making it a reliable choice for holidays, family gatherings, or any sort of special occasion.