Layer Cake 101

Oh hey!  Welcome to week 2 of my Back to Basics series!  Last week we discussed cupcakes and frosting, but today we are jumping right into my favorite subject: Layer Cakes.  Endless combinations of tender cake layers, flavourful fillings, luscious frostings, and edible garnishes – layer cakes were my first true love.  While I occasionally dabble in French pastry and have been having fun experimenting with pies a lot lately, I will always be the ‘cake lady.’  Fittingly, I even wrote the book on it!

Layer Cake 101 from the author of "Layered: Baking, Building, and Styling Spectacular Cakes"

There are so many reasons why I love a good layer cake. Cake + filling + frosting almost always guarantees a delicious bite, but layer cakes mean so much more than just ingredients.  To me, a layer cake means celebration, shared memories, time spent with cherished friends and family, and the heart that goes into baking something so spectacular for a loved one.  As I say in Layered, “It is a layer cake with swooping frosting on which children blow out candles on their birthdays, that happy coulee slice into on their wedding day, an that one parades into a dinner party…”  It is a layer cake that turns an ordinary Tuesday afternoon into a special occasion.  It is a layer cake that turns heads and elicits “oohs” and “awwws” at any party.  It is a layer cake that you will spend countless hours baking up in the kitchen, meticulously frosting its layers, just to make its lucky recipient smile and feel loved.  Want to show someone how much you care about them?  Make them a layer cake!

What I also love about layer cakes is how personal they can be.  When made with that special person in mind, they are very customizable and lets us play around with different flavours in order to make something unique and just for them.  For example, when I make a birthday cake for my husband, I always try to include his love for peanut butter, caramel, and chocolate but when I bake a cake for my mom, it’s more about almond, meringue, and tropical flavours.  When you make a layer cake for (or with!) someone, not only is it made by hand and from the heart, it is a chance to use all of their favorite flavours!  

Layer Cake 101 from the author of "Layered: Baking, Building, and Styling Spectacular Cakes"

But what makes a good layer cake, you might ask?  To me, it is all about balance.  It is about the ratio of cake to frosting/filling, different levels of sweetness, and a mix of texture. If filled with buttercream, I personally strive for cake layers that are twice as thick as the filling (ideally with cake layers that are about 1 inch tall and filling about 1/2 inch thick).  However, this equation doesn’t work for everything.  A rich ganache filling or sweet raspberry jam can usually be enjoyed in smaller doses.  In such cases when I have a super sweet or overly rich filling, I like to halve the cake layers (horizontally) to create more, thinner layers of cake and spread them each with a thin layer of the sweet and/or rich filling.  Make sense?  Of course this is all based on personal preference and my opinion of a great layer cake might be completely different than yours.  

Layer Cake 101 from the author of "Layered: Baking, Building, and Styling Spectacular Cakes"

Once thing that we can all probably agree on is that whether fluffy or dense, the cake itself should be moist and flavourful.  Slather those layers in fluffy fudge, satiny ganache, or silky buttercream and we are in business.  I like to play texture, too.  Decorating with crispy chocolate pearls, a handful of sprinkles or coarse sanding sugar, toasted coconut flakes, and chopped nuts add a bit of crunch to each bite.  Other edible decorations may include candied citrus, fresh berries, cute meringue kisses, abstract chocolate bark, chocolate curls, and even spun sugar. 

Speaking of cake decor, here are some of my favorite ways to make yummy layer cakes appear just as gorgeous as they taste:

Layer Cake 101 from the author of "Layered: Baking, Building, and Styling Spectacular Cakes"
Layer Cake 101 from the author of "Layered: Baking, Building, and Styling Spectacular Cakes"

My TOP TOOLS for Layer Cake Success:

Cake Pans:  I bake 90% of my cakes in 6 and 8-inch round cake pans (and consequently the recipes you will find on this blog and in my book will match).  Occasionally I will use 7 and 10-inch round pans, bundt and, and sheet pans (where cakes are either cut into squares or cut out using a cake ring).  Most cake recipes will call for pans that are at least 2-inch tall.  I have a combination of Wilton, Fat Daddio, and Williams-Sonoma brand pans that I’ve been using since my bakery days.

Candy Thermometer:  Now that I’ve switched from Italian to Swiss Meringue buttercream as my go-to frosting, I usually just use my finger to test instead of using a candy thermometer, but I don’t recommend this for those just starting out (and also, ouch! if it’s too hot!).  I used to have a super-fancy candy thermometer, but could not for the life of me figure out why all my caramels were burning… It was broken.  I’ve since gone back to my $6 Safeway candy thermometer.  At that price, I centrally recommend picking one up to help with buttercreams, caramels, and curds.

Electric Stand Mixer:  A Kitchen Aid stand mixer is such a luxury.  I have two duelling mixers leftover from my bakery days, and honestly don’t know what I would do without them.  Of course, mixing by hand (or with a hand mixer) is completely do-able, but I love the speed and efficiently an electric mixer provides.  They are certainly a costly purchase, but a great investment if you a bake a ton.  My two mixers are each about 9 years old, were treated like workhorses during multiple wedding seasons, and survived all the recipe testing for my book.

Icing Smoother or Bench Scraper:  A nice, straight edge with a 90-degree base is my best way for achieving smooth, straight sides and crisp top corners on my layer cakes.  If you can find one, I like an icing smoother with teeth on the opposite side that acts as an icing comb too!

Long Serrated Knife:  Want perfectly stackable cakes?  Make sure to trim off the dome that occasionally bakes up on the top of your cakes.  Use a long serrated knife to trim and torte cakes for perfect layers.

OffSet Spatulas:  My small offset spatula just might be my most-used tool in my entire kitchen.  From spreading filling and cleaning up top edges, I am constantly reaching for my offset spatulas.  Besides applying icing, I find myself using offset spatulas to create different textures in the buttered, lifting cakes off the turntable, and frosting “homemade” looking cupcakes.

Layer Cake 101 from the author of "Layered: Baking, Building, and Styling Spectacular Cakes"

Oven Thermometer:  As mentioned in my TOP 10 baking tips on Day 1, a grocery-store oven thermometer takes all of the guess work out of trying to figure out what the actual temperature of your oven is.  Too hot, and your cake may burn or crack - too cold and it can collapse.

Pastry Bags and Piping Tips:  You all know I love a frilly cake.  From ruffles and rosettes to basic writing, a small set of piping tips is fairly cheep with big impact.  I have a few big canvas piping bags for frosting dozens of cupcakes, but also keep disposable ones for smaller and messier tasks.

Rotating Cake Turntable:  Another beloved piece of equipment!  If you make a lot of cakes, then I definitely recommend a rotating cake turntable for icing cakes.  If you can, then invest in a metal one.  I find the plastic ones to be cumbersome and not very effective.  Of course the metal ones are more expensive, but I’ve had mine for nearly a decade and its still works great (I love Ateco brand - sometimes found at Williams-Sonoma.)

Rubber, Heat-Safe Spatulas:  I once worked at a bakery where the pastry chefs used a lot of large metal spoons to stir and mix things, but I never liked it.  Instead, I have a drawer stuffed with about a half-dozen rubber spatulas.  I like them soooo much better.  I recommend finding silicone, heat-safe ones that you can use on the stovetop.

Other helpful gadgets include: icing sifter, a variety of whisks, vegetable peeler (for peeling and making chocolate curls!), microplane zester, and a kitchen scale. 

Layer Cake 101 from the author of "Layered: Baking, Building, and Styling Spectacular Cakes"

Last summer, I put together a step-by-step tutorial for How to Frost a Layer Cake.  If you are new to making layer cakes, I definitely recommend starting here.  As mentioned in the my top tools, be sure to trim and torte your cakes (make sure they are completely cool!!) with a long, serrated knife for even, level layers.  All my other cake-stacking tips and frosting tricks can be found in this post.

Ready to take things up a notch?  Learn how to stack a cake here for any large celebration or DIY wedding!

Image by Tessa Huff for Brit.co

Image by Tessa Huff for Brit.co

Some classic layer cakes are simple and straightforward (like tomorrow’s Red Velvet Cake) and only require one cake recipe and one filling/frosting recipe.  Others call for multiple components, sauce, syrups, and garnishes.  Unless you have the luxury of blocking off an entire day to make everything and assemble the cake, then I’d definitely suggest making parts of the cake in advanced.  Most cake layers can be baked and stored for up to about 3 days, and even frozen up to a few months.  Wrap the cakes in a double-layer of plastic wrap.  Most cakes may be left out overnight, but chilling them in the refrigerator will make them easier to cut and stack.  However, chilling butter-based cakes will make them seem dense and firm.  Be sure to allow for an efficient enough time to let the chilled cakes to completely come to room temperature before serving.  This is important when considering a frosted (and chilled) cake too - nobody wants a mouthful of solid buttercream or hardened ganache!  Oil-based cakes (like carrot or some chocolate) will stay tender even when chilled, but still consider the frosting aspect when storing and serving.  Buttercream can be made in advanced and stored in the refrigerator for up to about 10 days. Be sure to bring it to room temperature before re-whipping.  Likewise, caramel and ganache can both last in the fridge for a couple of weeks, but will need to be re-heated before use.  Depending on the sugar and chocolate involved with edible garnishes, storage can be specific and tricky.  Make sure that humidity isn’t going to be a factor and read the directions for each element.  

 

Lastly, be sure to check out this serving chat I illustrated for you all!  Be sure to tune back in tomorrow where I will be sharing some classic layer cake combos, newer flavor pairings, and a recipe for Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting.

And don’t forget to enter the giveaway!  Winners will be announced on Friday:

How to Make the Best Butter Cake

My best tips (and recipe) for making velvety butter cake and whipped vanilla frosting.

Pink Vanilla Birthday Cake

I’ve never been very good at setting New Years resolutions.  Eat healthier, get better sleep, try to exercise more – each year always looks the same.  Being a cake maker, it’s hard to be on a “diet” and even harder to fit in sleep when you are a working mom of a 12-month old.  Instead of a more traditional resolution this year, I’ve decided to quit the excuses and just try to be a little better all around – to make little tweaks here and there to better my health and the lives of those around me.

In order to take this resolution into the kitchen (where I spend most of my time anyways), I hope to be a better baker in 2016.  I want to instill better habits when it comes to prep and organization, be more patient and not rush the process, and challenge myself creatively with more original cake designs and decorative desserts. 

For the blog, I want to help you all to become better bakers in 2016 as well.  Instead of only posting recipes and pretty pictures (although there will still be plenty of those), I want to dive a little deeper.  In addition to a list of ingredients and the dozen or steps it usually take to throw together a cake, I want to take a closer look at why we do particular tasks in the kitchen, what a dough/batter/pastry should feel/smell/look like as it is made, why I choose certain ingredients over others, and a few more details to take you all from point A to point B within a recipe.  Sound good to you?  I hope so =)

Pink Vanilla Birthday Cake
Pink Vanilla Birthday Cake
Pink Vanilla Birthday Cake

Okay, less serious talk and more CAKE.  If you don’t already have a go-to vanilla, yellow, or butter cake, then THIS is the post for you.  Even if you do, I implore you to test this Vanilla Bean Butter Cake out.  I’ve been trying to make the perfect vanilla butter cake since the start of my career.  And while I have been satisfied with different versions along the way, my latest recipe is a keeper.  It’s moist and tender while still being sturdy enough to withstand nearly any filling and able to be stacked sky-high into an impressive layer cake without toppling over.  Best of all, its velvety crumb tastes like real vanilla!

Before we get to the actual recipe, I am sharing my top 5 tips for making a better butter cake.  If you want to become a better cake maker, then I encourage you to try a few (or all) of these practices for the next birthday, celebration, or any other cake-eating day that rolls around:

How to Make a Butter Cake

5 TIPS FOR BAKING A BETTER BUTTER CAKE

1. Consider using cake flour: 
We should really re-think the term “all-purpose” flour.  While it may work best for baked goods like cookies and quick-breads, tender cakes can really benefit from something with less protein, like cake flour.  The protein in flour relates to gluten formation - giving everything from cakes to bread structure.  For lighter, more delicate cake layers, try using cake flour, or even a mix of both cake and all-purpose (as I have done in the recipe below) for a sturdy yet tender cake that is great for layering. 

2. Understand when and why we use baking powder and baking soda:
While creaming the butter and sugar in a recipe can help in the leavening process, a big part (in butter cakes, at least) is due to chemical leavening agents.  I recommend one that is is double-acting - meaning, it is activated by both the liquids in the recipes during the mixing process as well as with the heat of the oven.  This second boost  gives my cakes the lift they need, creates a superior texture, and provides the perfect airy-ness to the crumb.  This slow, controlled second release also spares us time; say if we forget to properly pre-heat the oven.  

 Why both?  Baking powder and baking sodas are both are chemical leaveners, but whether or not a recipe calls for both comes down to the addition of acid.  Baking soda is used to neutralize the acids in a recipe (lemon juice, buttermilk, sour cream, chocolate), but using too much can leave an awful taste behind.  When more “lift” is required beyond the neutralization of these acids, baking powder may also be called for.

If you bake as often as I do, then you probably never doubt the freshness of your leavening agents.  However, if you are questioning the purchase year of that old jar of baking powder in the back of your pantry, then it’s probably time to buy a new one.  To test the freshness, simply add baking powder to warm water or baking soda to warm water with a splash of vinegar.  Since the chemicals in fresh baking powder and baking soda react to heat and acid, you can tell they are working if the water begins to fizz or bubble.

Lastly, baking powder and baking soda are not interchangeable, so be sure to read your recipe carefully.

How to Make a Butter Cake

3. Take the time to properly cream the butter and sugar together:
If I had only one piece of advice for beginner butter cake bakers, this would be it. In my opinion, it’s a crucial step that can be easily overlooked.  To properly cream together butter and sugar, you must start with softened butter.  Once it is mixed until smooth, add in the sugar and crank up the speed of the mixer. 

While mixing on medium-high, the butter-sugar mixture will transition through a few different stages:  At first, the sugar and butter will just casually dance around the bowl then start to incorporate together.  As they get mixed, the two ingredients will start to clump together in the center of the bowl and around the paddle.  As you continue, more and more air is getting driven into the mixture as the sugar granules cut into the butter. Once creamed, the mixture will begin fall back off of the paddle and start to coat the inside on the bowl.  It should be light, fluffy, and pale in color.

Not only do properly creamed butter and sugar make for a more homogenous batter, the air driven into the mixture helps leaven and lighten the cake.  However, it is possible to over-cream, so be mindful of your mixing (and don’t mix on too high of a speed).  Be sure that the butter does not become too soft or that the fluffy mixture starts to deflate.  Usually about 2 to 5 minutes of mixing at medium to medium-high will suffice.

4. Start with room temperature ingredients: 
Speaking of homogenous cake batter, the best way to create a smooth batter is to start with ingredients that are all the same temperature.  In this case, that would be room temperature.  One good indicator for what temperature your ingredients should be is to go off of the butter.  In a butter cake, the butter must be soft enough to properly cream together with the sugar.  So if the butter must soft (room temp), so should the eggs and milk. 

But why should they all be the same?  Using eggs or milk straight from the refrigerator may in fact be cold enough to firm up that beautifully creamed butter.  Trying to incorporate cold eggs may cause the batter to appear curdled, as well.

The small amount of milk used in a cake recipe comes to room temperature fairly fast, so you don’t have to worry too much about spoilage.  To bring eggs to room temperature quickly, place them in a bowl of luke-warm water as you prep and measure your remaining ingredients.

Can you bake a cake with cold milk?  Have I forgotten to bring my eggs to room temperature and continued on anyways?  You bet!  It won’t totally ruin the experience (or your finished cake), but since we are learning about making better butter cakes, then it is best to practice these small habits when possible.

 5. Follow the directions: 
This should be pretty obvious, but I am adding it to the list anyways.  More specifically, I am talking about following the order and manner in which the ingredients are mixed together.

Before even getting started, I recommend reading the directions in their entirety, measuring out all of the ingredients (I’d hate to get halfway into a recipe and realize I don’t have enough milk) and start pre-heating the oven.  This also helps get you into the habit of pulling cold ingredients out to bring to room temperature before you start mixing (see tip 4).

Many butter cake recipes (cookie recipes, too!) start by creaming together the butter and the sugar.  As previously mentioned (see tip 3), this is not a step that should be overlooked or rushed through.  Once you move on and begin adding in more ingredients, the opportunity to properly cream and drive as much air into the batter as possible is gone. 

When adding eggs (typically the next step), be sure to only add in one at a time.  Take the time for each egg to fully incorporate into the batter before adding in the next.

When in doubt, alternate adding in the dry ingredients with the majority of the liquid.  Adding in half of the fflour, followed by the milk, then the remaining flour helps create a smoother, well-mixed batter.  Like the eggs, allow each batch of ingredients to fully incorporate before adding in the next.

I find that adding these ingredients in alternating batches allows the batter to easily absorb the milk without having to over-mix the flour.  Over-mixing can lead to a denser crumb with tunneling and holes within the layers. 

Pink Vanilla Birthday Cake
Pink Vanilla Birthday Cake

Okay, now back to the CAKE!

It’s hard to believe, but I don’t have a pure vanilla cake with vanilla frosting up on the entire Style Sweet CA blog.  Well, until now.  It seems like I am always trying to come up with the next best flavor or incorporate the trendiest ingredients, so I guess it’s no surprise that a vanilla cake with vanilla frosting was missing.  Sure you can take any of my other yellow cake batters and pair them with my favorite vanilla Swiss Meringue Buttercream, but I thought it was high time that we get back to basics for this one.  This post is all about the cake, after all, not fancy flavors and decorations.

Vanilla Bean Butter Cake

  • 1-1/2 cups all-purpose fflour 
  • 1-1/2 cups cake flour 
  • 1 tablespoon Fleischmann's® Baking Powder 
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt 
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 
  • 1/2 cup sour cream 
  • 1 cup whole milk 
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, softened 
  • 2 cups sugar 
  • Seeds of 1 vanilla bean 
  • OR 2 teaspoons Pure Vanilla Extract 
  • 1 teaspoon Pure Vanilla Extract 
  • 2 eggs 
  • 3 egg yolks

Preheat oven to 350°F.  Grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans; set aside. 

Combine dry ingredients together; set aside. Combine sour cream and milk; set aside.

Beat butter on medium-low speed of electric mixer until creamy, about 2 minutes. Add sugar and vanilla bean seeds; mix on medium speed until the mixture is fluffy and pale in colour, about 2 to 4 minutes. Scrape sides of bowl.

Add eggs and eggs yolks, one at a time, beating on low speed until blended. Add vanilla extract; beat on low speed until blended.

Add in half of the fflour mixture.  Once this is incorporated, pour in the milk mixture while the mixer is running on low speed.  Once the milk is absorbed, add in the remaining fflour mixture. After the last streaks of flour are incorporated, mix the batter on medium-low speed for about 20 seconds until smooth. 

Pour batter into prepared cake pans. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in centre comes out clean.

Cool cakes on a wire rack for about 15 minutes or until pans are cool enough to handle; remove cakes from pans. Continue to cool on wire rack until cakes are at room temperature.

Wrap each layer in a double layer of plastic wrap; chill in refrigerator for at least 2 hours or up to 2 days before cutting and frosting.  (Chilling makes the cakes easy to cut.)

When ready to frost, cut each layer horizontally in half; frost with Whipped Vanilla Buttercream Icing.

Whipped Vanilla Buttercream Icing

  • 2-1/4 cups unsalted butter, softened 
  • 6 to 6-1/2 cups powdered sugar 
  • Seeds of 1 Vanilla Bean 
  • OR 2 teaspoons Pure Vanilla Extract 
  • 2 teaspoons Pure Vanilla Extract 
  • 1/4 cup to 1/3 cup milk

Beat butter at medium-low speed of electric mixer until smooth and creamy (1 to 2 minutes.) 

Gradually add 6 cups powdered sugar, vanilla bean seeds,and vanilla extract with mixer at low speed, scraping bowl occasionally. Mix until blended.

Beat at medium-high speed 3 to 5 minutes, until buttercream is light and airy and nearly white.  If needed, add the additional powered sugar or milk until desired consistency. 

Assembly

1)Once the cakes are completely cool, cut them in half (horizontally) with a long serrated knife to create four layers of cake.
2)Place the bottom layer of cake on a cake stand or serving dish.  Spread on about 1 cup of the buttercream with an off-set spatula or the back of a spoon.
3)Top the buttercream with the next layer of cake and repeat.
4)Crumb coat the cake with a thin layer of buttercream and chill until set (about 15 to 20 minutes).
5)Tint the remaining buttercream (if desired) and frost the outside of the cake with a large off-set spatula.

For more tips on how to ice a cake, be sure to check out this tutorial.

 Other helpful tidbits:
·   Scrape the sides and bottom of the mixing bowl often.
·   Check for doneness instead of relying only on the clock.  A toothpick inserted into the center of a cake should come out clean or with few crumbs when done.
·   Prepare the cake pan according to recipe.  When in doubt, line the bottom with parchment.
·   Allow cakes to cool slightly, but not fully, on a wire rack before taking them out of their pans
·   Chilling cakes in the refrigerator (wrapped well in a double-layer of plastic to prevent them from drying out) will make them easier to cut and frost.  A chilled cake tends to crack and crumble less.
·   If making in advance, a well-wrapped cake will typically stay fresh in the refrigerator for a few days or in the freezer up to about two months. 
·   To evenly distribute the batter between multiple cake pans, use a kitchen scale.  Using a scale is much easier and cleaner than trying to measure out the batter in measuring cups then transferring it to the cake pans.
·   Sift together the dry ingredients either with a sifter, mesh sieve, or even just a whisk.  This not only ensures that there are no lumps in your flour, but that everything (particularly the baking powder and soda) gets evenly distributed. 

If your vanilla bean is not soft and flexible, soak in hot tap water until pliable. Place bean on a cutting board and slice lengthwise, using a sharp knife or razor. Open bean and scrape seeds out using the tip of a knife.

Disclosure: This post was sponsored by ACH Foods.  All opinions are my own. Thank you for supporting the brands that allow Style Sweet CA to exist!