Some time over the past few years, I became the kind of person who likes making layer cakes. I still don’t quite understand it. Considering how scattered and slapdash I am in other parts of my life, it seems odd that I’d derive so much satisfaction from stacking cakes on top of each other and painting them with frosting. But I do. I really do.
I think a big part of it is the love. A layer cake might be the purest edible expression of love I know of. There’s absolutely no reason to make one except out of love for (yourself and) others. Layer cakes are celebration food, the thing you make when it’s time to shower love on someone. Even if you make a layer cake to celebrate yourself, you’ll still end up feeding it to people you love. It’s a project–a messy, multi-hour project–the kind of thing you wouldn’t undertake unless you really cared about the person or people whom you’re making it for. But if you like baking, making a layer cake is also a kind of therapy, a way of showing yourself some love while preparing to spread it to others.
This cake is the perfect example. I made it for Audrey’s birthday party, partly at her request and partly of my own initiative. She wanted Smitten Kitchen’s pink lady cake; I know how much she loves lemon, so I decided to give the frosting a lemon kick. It was the perfect cake for Audrey, who loves berries and lemon and gets impatient with chocolate. As it turned out, the strawberry flavor in the cake was incredibly subtle, so that the puckery lemon frosting stole the show. When she sliced into the cake, the layers revealed themselves to be a delicate purple-pink, the perfect color for a non-girly-girl who likes wearing pink.
But there was also some self-care in it for me. The planning of the cake was elaborate and specific, but creating it was a lazy breeze, a perfect excuse to spend the day indoors. I rolled out of bed in the morning, slapped the batter together and threw it in the oven, then went back to bed and did crossword puzzles until the layers were baked. While they cooled, I showered, ate brunch, and watched a nature documentary. I had a little bit of strawberry puree left over from making the cake layers, so I mixed myself a berryoska and sipped it while I frosted the cake. And then I brought it to the party, covered it in sprinkles, and presented it with great affection to the birthday girl.
Pink Lady Cake (makes one 9-inch, three-layer cake)
From Smitten Kitchen
1 (16 oz) bag frozen strawberries, thawed
4 1/2 cups cake flour OR 4 cups all-purpose flour + 1/2 cup cornstarch
2 cups granulated sugar
5 1/4 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup (3 sticks/12 oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup milk
8 large egg whites
Preheat oven to 350º F, and position an oven rack in the middle. Grease and flour three 9-inch cake pans.
Place the thawed strawberries in a blender and puree until smooth. Measure out 1 1/2 cups of puree, and set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flour (or flour and cornstarch), sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add butter and strawberry puree and beat with an electric mixer on low speed until incorporated. Raise the speed to medium and beat for 2-3 minutes, or until the batter is light and fluffy. Beat in milk, followed by the egg whites in two or three additions, mixing until the last dose of egg white is almost incorporated before adding the next. Continue mixing until the liquid is just combined and the batter is almost smooth–a few lumps are fine.
Divide the batter among the prepared cake pans. Bake on the center rack for 30-35 minutes, or until the cakes are golden brown and springy, and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Remove the cake layers from the oven and place the pans on cooling racks. Let the layers cool in the pans for 10-15 minutes, then invert the cakes onto the racks and let cool completely, at least 1 hour. You can wrap the cooled cake layers in plastic wrap or aluminum foil and leave them at room temperature overnight; this will make them easier to maneuver and frost. The cake layers can also be individually wrapped in a double layer of plastic wrap and frozen for up to 3 months.
Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting (makes about 4 1/2 cups)
Adapted from this recipe
24 oz cream cheese (three 8 oz packages), at cool room temperature
1 1/2 cups powdered (confectioner’s) sugar
Juice and finely grated zest of 1-2 lemons (depending on how lemony you want your frosting)
Combine all ingredients in a medium mixing bowl. Beat with an electric mixer on low speed until the sugar is incorporated, then boost the speed to medium-high and continue beating for another 3-4 minutes, or until the frosting is light and fluffy. Use immediately, or transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate for up to a week.
To finish the cake
Lay strips of wax paper or parchment paper around the edges of your cake plate, to help keep the plate clean. If your cake layers are domed on top, use a serrated knife to level them.
Place one of the cake layers upside down in the center of the cake plate. Brush away any stray crumbs, then spread a layer of frosting evenly over the top (or, really, the bottom) of the cake layer. Place a second layer on top, upside down; brush away stray crumbs and spread a layer of frosting evenly over the top. Place the final cake layer on top, upside down.
Brush away any stray crumbs from the top and sides of the cake, then spoon off about 3/4 cup of the frosting and spread it on the cake in a very thin layer. Put the cake in the fridge for 15-30 minutes to let this “crumb coat” set, then cover the cake with the rest of the frosting. Gently pull the pieces of wax paper out from under the cake, leaving behind a neatly frosted cake and a clean cake plate.
If you want a video demonstration of how to frost a layer cake, the New York Times has a good one here.