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How-To

Brown-Butter Almond Cake

A few flavor-enhancing techniques turn this one-layer cake into an elegant cool-weather dessert

Fine Cooking Issue 53
Photo: Scott Phillips
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On the job as a pastry chef, I’m often fussing over elaborate cakes and meticulous pastries. But when I’m baking at home, my favorite desserts are those that keep the emphasis on the proverbial “less is more.” That’s why I love to make this brown-butter almond cake. I’ve borrowed a few tricks for boosting flavor from the savory cook’s repertoire—toasting nuts and browning butter—and combined them with a classic pastry technique—making a soft meringue—to create a single-layer cake with satisfying flavor and a tender texture. My friends love this cake with just a simple dusting of confectioners’ sugar, but sometimes I dress it up for an autumn evening by serving it with pears roasted in butter and sugar. As a bonus, I make an easy caramel sauce to drizzle over the cake by adding a little cream to the pan in which the pears were roasted.

Toasted nuts and brown butter set this cake apart

Two main components give this cake its delicate flavor: finely ground almonds and browned butter. I like to lightly toast the almonds first to really tease out their flavor. It only takes a few minutes in the oven for the almonds to turn a light golden brown. Just be sure to let them cool completely before grinding. When warm, the natural oils in the almonds turn to liquid, and you risk ending up with ground nut butter.  

Melting the butter until the milk solids turn brown adds another layer of nutty flavor to the cake. The French term for this butter is beurre noisette, or hazelnut butter. It gets this name from its color and aroma. I also like to stir a little rum into the melted butter (once it’s cool) to add a sweet dimension to the cake without making it taste boozy.

Toast the almonds before processing to heighten their flavor. Let them cool and then pulse them with the sugar until they have a gritty, almost sandy texture. The sugar helps absorb the oils and prevents the ground nuts from turning into a paste.
Brown the butter for an even nuttier taste. Swirl the milk solids around in the melted butter until the flecks turn a deep hazelnut brown. Transfer to a heatproof bowl to stop the cooking.

A soft meringue gives this single-layer cake its volume

Since the butter for this cake is melted, you can’t beat it with sugar for leavening as you would in a creamed-butter cake. Instead, I rely on the lifting power of whipped egg whites. Slowly adding sugar while you’re beating the whites helps to add stability to the whipped whites and minimizes the risk of overbeating. With a soft meringue like this, folding will be smooth and easy, and you’ll retain more volume than with a firm meringue that’s lumpy and deflates easily.  

Unlike an angel food cake, this cake will only rise about an inch in the oven, because the weight of the ground nuts works against the light foam. But it still requires a cake pan with about three-inch sides. A ten-inch springform pan works perfectly.  

I love that this cake can be made ahead and served at room temperature. But I find it especially satisfying on a cool, fall night brought out to the table still warm from the oven.

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