Why It Works
- Brown butter and toasted sugar work together, creating layers of nutty, toasty, caramelized flavor.
- Cooling the brown butter until thick and opaque ensures it has enough structure for the creaming method, allowing it to aerate and give the cake a fine, even crumb.
- Bleached cake flour provides the optimal balance of protein, starch, and pH; unbleached alternatives will produce a coarse and heavy crumb.
- Baking in tall, straight-sided aluminum pans will encourage a level rise with a pale and tender crust.
- Leveling the cakes helps them more readily absorb flavor and moisture from the frosting.
This fluffy white cake may not be quick or easy, but ingredients like brown butter and toasted sugar are well worth the time to prepare, as they give its vanilla profile a wonderfully rich and complex depth. Despite the use of whole eggs rather than egg whites and dark ingredients like brown butter and caramelized sugar, it bakes up light enough to pass for a white cake, with an intense vanilla flavor to match.
- For the Cake:
- 21 ounces sugar (about 3 cups; 595g)
- 12 ounces unsalted butter (about 3 sticks; 340g)
- 2 tablespoons baking powder
- 1 1/4 ounces vanilla (about 2 tablespoons plus 1 1/2 teaspoons; 35g)
- 3/4 ounce water (about 4 1/2 teaspoons; 21g)
- 1 tablespoon (12g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use about half as much by volume or the same weight
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 4 large eggs, brought to about 65°F/18°C (about 7 ounces; 200g)
- 20 ounces bleached cake flour, such as Swans Down, see note (about 4 1/2 cups, spooned; 565g)
- 22 ounces milk, any percentage will do (about 2 3/4 cups; 625g), brought to about 65°F/18°C
- To Finish:
- About 6 cups of frosting, any style
Toast the Sugar: Adjust oven rack to middle position, preheat to 350°F (180°C), and place the sugar in a 10-inch stainless steel skillet. Toast in the oven until fragrant and pale gold, like white sand, stirring thoroughly every 20 minutes or so to circulate sugar away from the edges of the pan. The whole process will take about 1 hour, but it can vary significantly depending on oven temperature accuracy, skillet size and shape, and frequency of stirring. Pour warm sugar into a 2-quart glass baking dish (or similar) to speed cooling and let it cool to approximately 70°F (21°C) before use. The cooled sugar can be used right away, or it can be stored in an airtight container indefinitely.
Brown the Butter: In 3-quart stainless steel saucier, melt butter over medium-low heat until fluid. Increase to medium and simmer, stirring with a heat-resistant spatula while butter hisses and pops; adjust heat as needed, so that dairy solids will not scorch before all the water can boil away. Continue cooking and stirring, scraping up any brown bits that form along the pan, until butter is golden yellow and perfectly silent (an indication the water has entirely boiled away). The entire process should take about 15 minutes; substantially shorter or longer times may indicate improper heat settings.
Pour into bowl of a stand mixer (there will be about 9 3/4 ounces or 276g), along with all the toasty brown bits, and cool until thick, creamy, and opaque, or approximately 70°F (21°C). This can be done passively over the course of several hours, or in about 20 minutes with a cold-water bath using a few ice cubes. Alternatively, the brown butter can be refrigerated up to a week in an airtight container and then warmed to about 70°F (21°C) before use.
Getting Ready: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat to 350°F (180°C). Lightly grease three 8-inch anodized aluminum cake pans and line with parchment (explanation and tutorial here). If you don’t have three pans, it’s okay to bake the cakes in stages; the batter can be held at room temperature during this time.
For the Cake: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combined the cooled brown butter, the cooled toasted sugar, baking powder, vanilla, water, salt, and baking soda. Mix on low speed to roughly incorporate; then increase to medium and beat until soft, fluffy, and pale, about 8 minutes. About halfway through, pause to scrape the bowl and beater with a flexible spatula.
With the mixer still running, add eggs one at a time, letting each fully incorporate before adding the next. Reduce speed to low and sprinkle in about 1/3 of the cake flour, then drizzle in 1/3 of the milk. Repeat with remaining flour and milk, working in thirds as before.
When the batter looks smooth, scrape the bowl and beater with a flexible spatula; then fold the batter once or twice from the bottom up to be sure everything is well-combined. The batter should look creamy and thick but not stiff.
Divide evenly between prepared cake pans (about 27 ounces or 765g). Stagger pans together on one oven rack and bake until puffed, firm, and pale gold, about 35 minutes. If oven has uneven heat, pause to rotate the pans after about 16 minutes. Alternatively, bake two layers at once and finish the third later.
Cool cakes directly in their pans until no trace of warmth remains and then run a butter knife around the edges to loosen. Invert onto a wire rack, peel off the parchment, and return cakes right side up (covered in plastic, the cakes can be left at room temperature for a few hours). Prepare buttercream.
For the Crumb Coat: Level cakes with a serrated knife (full directions here) and set scraps aside for snacking. Place one layer on a heavy cast iron turntable. If you like, a waxed cardboard cake round can first be placed underneath, secured to the turntable with a scrap of damp paper towel. Top with exactly 1 cup buttercream, using an offset spatula to spread it evenly from edge to edge. Repeat with second and third layers and then cover the sides of the cake with another cup of buttercream, spreading it as smoothly as you can (tutorial here). Refrigerate cake until buttercream hardens, about 30 minutes.
To Finish: Rewhip remaining buttercream to restore its creamy consistency and then use to finish and decorate the chilled cake as desired. Let the cake sit out until it reaches an internal temperature no cooler than 70°F (21°C) before serving, otherwise it will be too cold and seem greasy and dense. Cut with a chef’s knife to serve and cover exposed edges with leftover buttercream to keep the cake moist. Under a cake dome, the frosted cake will keep for 3 days at room temperature.
10-inch stainless steel skillet, 3-quart stainless steel saucier, Stand mixer, Digital thermometer, 8-inch anodized aluminum cake pans (three), Serrated knifecast iron turntable (optional), Offset spatula
This cake's light structure and fine crumb depend on the use of bleached cake flour, unbleached alternatives will not perform as well, giving the cake a coarse and dense crumb. For more information, see our primer on the differences between bleached and unbleached cake flour.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The toasted sugar can be stored indefinitely in an airtight container.
The prepared brown butter can be refrigerated up to a week in an airtight container; warm to about 70°F (21°C) before use.
Under a cake dome, the frosted cake will keep for 3 days at room temperature.