There are two words in the English language when used in combination will get me to click every. single. time. Those words are Brown Butter. If you’ve never had brown butter before, then your life is about to change, my friends. Before I started this blog it was a rare occurrence for us to have butter in the house. Not because we don’t like butter, but specifically because we like butter. Now that I have an obligation (read: excuse) to bake regularly, I find myself buying butter in larger and larger quantities. The size of my ass is starting to reflect this. It is no secret that a copious mound of butter is the key to delicious baking, brown butter just takes it one step further.
So what is brown butter, you ask? Brown butter is when butter is cooked in a saucepan until the water evaporates and the milk solids start to, you guessed it, brown, creating a nutty and caramelly flavor that is seriously amazing. (For another amazing use of brown butter, check out my Brown Butter and White Chocolate Blondies)
A lot of people fear brown butter, afraid that they will overcook and burn it. Do not fear, it’s easier than you think, and honestly, I prefer brown butter that is taken just to the edge of burning. Dark and delicious, that’s the secret.
If you want to fear something, fear caramel. That shit is anxiety in a pan.
This Gingerbread Cake recipe by Julian of Historias Del Ciervo contains one of the best uses I’ve found for brown butter to date: frosting. Put it on top of a gingerbread cake with apple filling and you’ve got yourself a festive winter treat.
This frosting is, without competition, the best buttercream I’ve ever tasted. I like frosting, but I’ve always preferred it to be the complement to a cake, not the star, but this is the first frosting I’ve found that I could eat straight from the bowl. It tastes very similar to a caramel buttercream I’ve made before, only much more flavorful, not too sweet, easier to pipe, and you don’t have to sweat over fickle caramel. Gingerbread is its perfect accompaniment, flavorful enough to not be overshadowed, but subtle enough not to compete.
The cake was also a little bit dense, which I like both for flavor, and for cake construction. It is also my personal belief that denser cakes stay moist longer than light, airy cakes. The only part I wasn’t a fan of was the apple filling. Don’t get me wrong, the filling itself was delicious, but I felt that the flavor of green apple kind of took over the whole ensemble and didn’t allow the cake and frosting to shine through. That’s why it lost the one spoon. When I made this recipe for the second time I opted to leave out the apples and double the frosting instead and it turned out amazing. Added bonus: leaving out the apples also means less time and money.
I almost didn’t want to make this cake only because Julian’s photos are gorgeous and I knew I couldn’t hope to compete. If one day my photography is 70% as good as his, I will die of pride. Seriously. Do yourself a favor and just scroll through some of his other posts, it will put you into the most relaxing food-photography induced trance. It also makes me want a charcoal gray wall in my kitchen.
I like to think my photos held up alright, though. Can you replicate some of the beauty of this cake on your own, though? With the right tools, I believe so. It’s just a matter of patience and a little practice. There’s a photo at the bottom of the second time I made this cake and I think the frosting came out much better. Partially because I decided to double the frosting and not do a “naked” version, but also because I learn a little more about cake frosting every time I do it.
This cake does take a bit more planning, patience, and carefulness than my average posts, but it’s definitely worth it. Let’s talk about the most important part first: the brown butter. Simple Recipes has a video of how to make it that gives a pretty clear picture of the “stages” of brown butter. The technique itself is pretty easy, just melt and simmer butter, the trick is knowing when to stop cooking it.
When the butter first melts white foamy bubbles will form on the top, then as it cooks the bubbles will turn clear, then eventually subside. The color will go from bright yellow, to golden, to dark golden brown. You know it’s done when as you stir it you see little brown flecks flow up from the bottom. At that point you can take it off the burner and pour it into a bowl. Don’t leave it in the pan as it will continue cooking from the residual heat. Make sure you get all those little brown flecks in the bowl, that’s the good stuff.
The second “hard part” is frosting and assembling the cake. Here are a couple of tips:
- If possible, make the cakes the day before. After they cool, wrap them tightly in a double layer of plastic wrap and put them in the freezer. Frozen cakes are firmer and therefore easier to cut and move.
- To get even layers you have to level your cakes. This means cutting off the domed top so that the cake is flat. I do this with a serrated bread knife. As for cutting the cakes in half, I use one of two methods. The first is, buy yourself a slicer, like this one from Amazon . If you don’t make cakes often enough to make $8 and annoyance of yet another kitchen gadget worth it, you can use the floss trick. Check out this video tutorial to learn how.
- Use room temperature frosting. This video by Chelsweets is a pretty good tutorial on how to get even frosting. The only thing I do differently is instead of using a spatula to put the frosting on the sides, I use a piping bag with a large round tip just to make sure I’m getting a tick even layer before smoothing it out. The majority of the pictures of this cake I did not have a cake smoother and was trying to do the scrapey thing with my offset spatula. As you can see from my clearly not professional photo of round two below, it’s much easier with the scraper. The sides still aren’t perfect, but I’m sure with a little practice, I’ll get there.
Although this recipe is clearly accomplishable, I did feel that it lacked detail and required a bit of know-how and intuition to get through. That could partly be because the recipe may be translated. I also feel that most recipes once they reach a certain skill level expect that you know a bit about baking and don’t need as much detail. I do and don’t agree with this.
On one hand, I was able to follow and accomplish this recipe without much issue both times. On the other hand, I feel that I was able to do so because I’ve messed up so many similar recipes in the past. I’m not upset by it, that’s part of learning a skill, however, I think it could be off-putting to someone who is maybe still a bit of a beginner and wants to “level up” and try something a bit harder. That’s just my two cents.
Still not nearly as expensive as meat pies, this little cake came in at around $11.50. I probably spent a little bit more as I used European style butter (and there’s a lot of it, especially the second time around when I doubled the frosting). Really the only things I didn’t have on hand were the fruits and milk (as we don’t usually keep milk in the house). It does deplete your stocks pretty considerably though.
Well it’s for sure not an “easy dessert you can have on the table in less than 10 minutes” kind of recipe. But it also tastes and looks way better than those kinds of recipes do anyway. The making of this cake did go much faster the second time around, as most things do. The trick is to plan ahead, know which steps require downtime and plan tasks during that time. I broke my task list down as follows:
- Bake the cake the night before, cool, wrap, freeze.
- The next day, make brown butter, place in fridge to cool.
- While butter cools, make apples.
- While apples cool, level and slice cakes.
- Make frosting
- Assemble and frost cake.
This first time I made it I didn’t make the butter until after the apples, then was kicking myself that I had to wait a damn hour for the butter to cool before I could finish my frosting. I broke my cardinal rule of reading the whole damn recipe before you start and I paid for it
I must say I am quite proud of this cake. It will definitely be getting a replay every winter from now on. What do you think, are you brave enough to give it a go?