Basic Brown Butter Vanilla Pound Cake

by Carilyn on November 16, 2020

Calling something “basic” these days is seen as an insult. Pejoratively, basic connotes “bland,” “uninteresting,” or, at its worst, “unworthy”. But the reality is, without “basics” nothing else could flourish and become unique and interesting. We need to understand basic techniques and foundations, both as humans, and as bakers, before we can go off in quirky and wildly imaginative directions – and make something uniquely ours. Or at least something weird. Weird can be good.

But only after you’ve mastered the basics, got it?

This Basic Brown Butter Vanilla Pound Cake is just that, a fundamental cake that is simple to execute, but yields swoony results. It is the type of cake you can make in the morning and turn into the most glorious berry and whipped cream accompaniment to your eggs and bacon (Who am I kidding? – I’d totally skip the eggs.), or in the afternoon with and extra stout cup of coffee. It is both robust and soothing, which can be a great thing in a cake. It will appeal to everyone. No, there are no unicorn sprinkles or exotic ingredients, but sometimes (many times in this pandemic situation we can’t seem to escape) you don’t want food you have to think about. You just want food that tastes really, really good. This is that cake.

Yesterday, when I made it (for the 34th time – it is one of my go-tos), I chose it because I was coming off a two week nougat bender where I’ve been maddeningly trying to perfect a recipe. Candy is no joke. There is very little room for error, so riffing on a classic takes many, many, tweaks and binned batches. I needed something simple. Something soothing. Something that wouldn’t have me waking up in the middle of the night to scribble notes of nougat ideas in illegible handwriting. No. This Basic Cake was going to be the recipe that was going to bring me back from the Nougat Brink.

I set out my mise en place, preheated the oven, buttered my pan, and started the brown butter. I even had classical music playing in the background, better to create the atmosphere of “serene baker” in the kitchen. (I normally listen to Jeff Lewis Live or Reality Checked, but don’t tell anyone. I want to appear to be a “serious” chef.) After calmly creaming the sugar and the eggs, adding in the vanilla, and cream, and then whisking in the dry ingredients, when it was time to drizzle in the brown butter, I lost my mind. Brown Butter! Brown Butter! Brown Butter! I love butter in all forms, but brown butter is hard to beat. The toasty nuttiness that comes from just ten minutes of swirling around in a pan is transformative, not just in this cake, but in life. Brown butter pancakes. Brown Butter poured over vanilla ice cream. Brown butter green beans. Really, I can think of very few things, sweet or savory, that would not be improved by adding brown butter.

The brown butter in this cake is the magic, the ingredient that makes this Basic cake the thing that turns the insult into something you will use as a foundation to elevate many, many other recipes. Trust me. Unlike regular pound cake, when you pull this one out of the oven, the outside is crispy while the inside is still beautiful and tender like a good pound cake should be. So, despite my intentions of making something that would be a nice treat for after dinner, I ended up slicing off a piece right when it came out of the oven, and then proceeded to get off the treadmill about twelve more times to have “one more bite.” By the time Tim got home, I’d eaten a third of the cake.

“So I see you took a break from the nougat,” was all he said, but the judgment was plainly clear on his face. And then he took a bite of the cake. And then another.

This morning, when I went down to the kitchen, there was only a third left.

Basic for the win.

 

Brown Butter Vanilla Pound Cake

(adapted from Dorie Greenspan)

1 stick unsalted butter (8 tablespoons; 113 grams)

1 3/4 cup (238 grams) AP flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 cups (250 grams) sugar

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

4 large eggs at room temperature

1/3 cup (80 ml) heavy cream

 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter/grease/spray a 9 x 5 inch loaf pan (if using butter or grease, make sure to dust with flour and tap out the excess – you don’t want this to stick).

Put the butter in a small saucepan and bring to a low boil. Swirl occasionally to make sure it doesn’t burn. You want brown bits in your deep golden butter, but you don’t want BURNED butter. This can take anywhere from a few minutes to 10-12, depending on your pan, the heat, and the water content of the butter. Be patient, and stay right in front of the butter. It can burn in an instant.

Once your butter is a deep golden color, remove from the heat.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In a stand mixer, with the whisk attachment, beat the sugar and the eggs until they are completely blended – about 2 minutes. Add the vanilla, then the heavy cream.

Add the dry ingredients gradually, until fully incorporated, but do not overmix. You want a smooth batter, but not an overworked one. Slowly pour in the melted butter, beating until just blended.

Pour batter into your prepared pan. Bake for 50 – 60 minutes, or until a toothpick or knife comes out clean.

You want a nice golden crunchy top, from all the delicious butter, but if it is browning to quickly, tent with a loose piece of foil.

 

*This cake is amazing on its own, but it is over the top if you use if for the base of a trifle, french toast, or a bread pudding. Let your imagination run wild!

 

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