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.
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 a 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 by reviewing the material in my recipe for classic vanilla butter 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 that accompanies step 5 of the recipe below.
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).
How to Level a Cake
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.
How to Layer and Crumb-Coat a Cake
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.
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 notes (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
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 3 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, combine cooled brown butter, 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 frosting.
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 frosting, 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 frosting, spreading it as smoothly as you can (tutorial here). Refrigerate cake until frosting hardens, about 30 minutes.
To Finish: Rewhip remaining frosting 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 frosting 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 knife, cast 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 three days at room temperature.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 36g||46%|
|Saturated Fat 15g||73%|
|Total Carbohydrate 135g||49%|
|Dietary Fiber 1g||2%|
|Total Sugars 102g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||0%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|