I adore vanilla cake. I have such fond memories of it, and well, it just tastes so perfect and simple. I still remember every year as a little girl, I would have a heart-shaped vanilla birthday cake with the yummiest, sugariest, pastel-coloured frosting. There are so many types of vanilla cake recipes out there, and I know this because I’ve been on a quest to find the perfect one. Just when you thought vanilla cake was simply vanilla cake–there are butter cakes, sponge cakes, genoise cakes, and more. I’m working my way through many different vanilla birthday cake recipes to determine a favourite.
My philosophy is that there really are no bad vanilla cake recipes, so when I say favourite, it’s really just personal preference for me and, well, my husband Grant. He, for some reason, doesn’t eat dessert as a rule (yes, almost unthinkable), and he really doesn’t have much to say one way or the other when it comes to dessert, with the exception of vanilla cake–the man has put some serious thought and emotion into this. And, under no circumstances, would he go anywhere near chocolate cake. I won’t hold that against him, though, because for the first 30-ish years of my life I too chose vanilla over chocolate. I now love them equally and unconditionally. Maybe it was a scientific shift after I had my babies, but since then I simply cannot live without chocolate cake. Now that I’ve got that out in the open, let’s talk vanilla cake…
I’m pretty familiar with baking butter cakes, because it’s predominantly what I use for my fancy fondant-covered cakes. As far as classic frosted birthday cakes go, though, I really haven’t experimented that much yet, so I am eager to see what type of vanilla cake is the biggest birthday crowd-pleaser. My first experiment was with this classic butter cake. I pretty much knew what to expect, but rather than using my existing recipe, I searched for a popular alternative. I came across this recipe from the Joy of Baking website. It was pretty straight-forward and similar to my recipe, but uses the combination method of mixing (when you whip the egg whites into a meringue and fold them into the batter, in order to get more volume and a lighter texture) and calls for cake flour, as opposed to all-purpose flour, so I was curious to give it a try.
Once the cake was baked and cooled, I layered it and filled/frosted it with a fluffy buttercream frosting that I tinted a pastel blue (Grant’s favourite icing colour). The truth is, I don’t often make this kind of sugary frosting for cakes. I’ll admit that I’ve become a bit of a buttercream snob, and am quite partial to the gorgeous consistency and sophisticated flavour of Swiss Meringue Buttercream (an icing that is made from whipping vanilla and copious amounts of pure butter into a fluffy meringue base) for cakes — there’s simply nothing better, in my opinion. It’s what’s widely used for filling/frosting most wedding cakes, occasion cakes, and even cupcakes in many cases, because of its buttery flavour and silky texture. It’s not super-sweet, it compliments almost any type of cake, and it can be flavoured with pretty much anything and still tastes amazing. That being said, my husband simply loves sugary blue frosting on vanilla cake, so that’s what I made for this birthday cake.
The verdict: Grant and I both loved it and thought the vanilla flavour that came through was especially amazing in this cake. As far as texture goes, I did really love it, but I always notice a very cakey taste when cake flour is used. You could replace the cake flour with all-purpose to give it a slightly different texture and taste, if desired. Actually, you can also play around and experiment by switching the milk for yogurt or sour cream, just to see what happens. Have fun with it!
- 4 large eggs (separated), at room temperature
- 3 1/2 cups (420 g/14.5 oz) sifted cake flour
- 4 teaspoons (20 g) baking powder
- 1/2 (3 g) teaspoon salt
- 1 cup (227 g/2 sticks/8 oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2 cups (400 g/14 oz) granulated sugar, divided
- 2 teaspoons (10 mL) pure vanilla extract
- 1 cup (250 mL) milk, at room temperature
- 1/4 teaspoon (1.25 mL) cream of tartar
- 1 cup (227 g/2 sticks/8 oz) unsalted butter, softened
- 6 cups (750 g/1 lb + 10 oz) icing sugar (confectioners')
- 1/2 cup (125 ml) whipping cream (35%)
- 2 tablespoons (30 mL) pure vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon (15 mL) water
- a pinch of salt
- Preheat oven to 350°F (180° C) and place rack in center of oven. Butter and flour three - 8 inch round cake pans. Line bottoms of pans with parchment paper and grease and flour parchment paper.
- While eggs are still cold, separate them, placing the yolks in one bowl and the whites in another bowl. Cover the two bowls with plastic warp and allow the eggs to come to room temperature before using, about 30 mins.
- In a medium mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter until soft (about 1-2 minutes). Add 1 1/2 cups of the sugar and beat until light and fluffy (about 5 minutes).
- Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the vanilla and beat until combined.
- With the mixer on low speed, alternately add the flour mixture and milk, in three additions, beginning and ending with the flour.
- In the clean bowl of your electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites until foamy. Add the cream of tartar and continue beating until soft peaks form. Gradually add the remaining 1/2 cup sugar and continue to beat until stiff peaks form.
- With a rubber spatula gently fold a little of the whites into the batter to lighten it, and then fold in the remaining whites until combined. Do not over-mix the batter or it will deflate.
- Divide the batter evenly between the three prepared pans and smooth the tops with an offset spatula.
- Bake in preheated oven for approximately 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. Cool the cakes in their pans on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Place a wire rack on top of the cake pan and invert, lifting off the pan gently. Once the cakes of completely cooled, wrap in plastic and place the cake layers in the freezer for at least an hour (to make filling and frosting the cakes easier).
- In an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and icing sugar on low speed until just combined. Increase speed to medium and beat until well-incorporated, about 3 minutes.
- Add the vanilla, water, whipping cream and salt, and whip on med-high speed until fluffy and smooth--about 3 more minutes. If consistency is too thick, add more water 1 teaspoon at a time, then whip again for 30 seconds or so. If your frosting is too thin, you can add more icing sugar a few tablespoons at a time until you achieve desired consistency.
[cake layer recipe adapted from Joy of Baking]