I began rolling this post around my thoughts a week or two ago while making one of my favorite ittie bittie cakes, financiers. I was planning to expound upon the ease in preparation of the batter, and the seemingly fail-safe results that consistently come out of the oven. I had clever anecdotes contesting pie for it’s place in the term, “easy as….”, and nut variations on the almond that is ground for the batter.
But as I started to distinguish the qualities of the financier that I liked best, I continuously came back to one in particular. The flavor of the financier, while based off the almond, is made truly spectacular by the addition of brown butter. Legend has it that the thin cakes were created at a bakery in the heart of a Paris banking district, and were said to be as rich as the financiers they were sold to. It is not a stretch then to say that brown butter, the rich heart of these wealthy cakes, is liquid gold.
Made by cooking butter until the milk solids caramelize, the french have named it Beurre Noisette. Meaning “hazelnut”, the term aromatically describes the nutty scent that wafts from the pan. Visually, the brown bits of milk solids fleck the butter as bits of stubborn hazelnut skins dot a cookie.
Brown butter is no secret to a seasoned chef. Many home cooks are in on it too. This is particularly true of cooks near New Orleans, a city who’s distinct cuisine has long taken advantage of the nutty flavor. Restaurant chefs borrow brown butter for both sides of their menu, sweet and savory, and I suggest we all follow in suit.
I have seen brown butter used to enrich a wintry squash soup, added to a pan to saute fish or vegetables, and used as a condiment spread atop toasted bread or warm sweet muffins. It has been found in bakeries gilding cupcake icing, hiding in tart fillings, deepening caramels, and has lately been seen flavoring ice cream in haute kitchens across the country. The versatility and generosity of flavor suggest keeping a little jar in your fridge at all times. Creative additions of brown butter to your cooking will surprise both you and your audience.
Brown butter is simple enough to make, provided you can take the pan off the stove at the appropriate time. Cut unsalted butter into cubes, and place it in a cold sauce pan. Cook the butter over medium heat and step back. Just watch as the butter melts and begins to sizzle, a sign that the water is evaporating. When the sizzling dies down, the butter will begin to foam, and soon the milk solids will brown and drop to the bottom of the pan. This is the point in which you want to remove the pan from heat and strain the brown solids from the butter oil.
I’ll warn you, it takes a few tries to find the perfect balance. If underdone the butter is not nutty enough, but if left too long the aroma from burnt milk solids permeate the butter detrimentally. The caramelization of the milk solids begins when all the water, which can equal 15 to 20 percent of the butters weight, evaporates. At this point the milk solids have a short window in which they go from light brown, to burnt very quickly. Keeping the flame on medium, or low depending on your stove, helps keep your window open a bit longer, but it truly takes a watchful eye to pull the butter from the heat at the most opportune moment.
So go, grab a stick of butter and practice. Burn it on purpose, and remember what it looked like moments before the blackening began. When you get it right, try making financiers. After all, they are where this post began.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees
Have ready oblong financier pans, regular or mini muffin tins, or individual tart pans, coated well with flavorless non stick cooking spray (Pam) or canola oil.
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter
- 1 1/3 cup powdered sugar
- 1/2 cup finely ground almonds (almond flour)
- 4 egg whites
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1/3 cup cake flour
- Brown the butter over medium-low heat, and strain immediately through a fine mesh strainer. Set this aside in a warm place.
- Sift the powdered sugar into the bowl of a kitchenaid, and add the finely ground almonds and salt. Place the bowl on the mixer and fit it with the paddle attachment. With the mixer on low, combine the sugar and almonds.
- Add the egg whites and mix on medium speed until an even paste forms. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the brown butter. Mix again on medium speed until the batter emulsifies and makes a smooth paste.
- Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the cake flour. Mix the batter on low until the cake flour is just incorporated.
- Transfer the batter to the prepared pans, filling them to a depth of approximately 2 centimeters. Bake the cakes in a 400 degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes. Rotate the pans front to back half way through baking. The cakes are done when they are nicely golden brown and begin to pull away from the edges of the pans.
- Cool the cakes in the pans for 10 minutes before unmolding them. When they are completely cool, they can be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days, if they aren’t devoured immediately.