I love making layer cakes. Whether it’s Mother’s Day, my daughter’s birthday, or a special celebration with friends, I always seem to be baking a cake. But somehow very few of my friends share my enthusiasm. No matter how hard I try to convince them that it can be easy and fun, they still think making layer cakes is out of their league and that anyone other than a seasoned baker should steer clear of it. If you’re of the same opinion, think again. Trust me, making stunning four-layer cakes isn’t that difficult. With a few base recipes, you can make almost any cake you want.
Through the years, I’ve developed three simple cake “components”: A reliable and versatile vanilla base cake, a fluffy whipped-cream filling, and a smooth buttercream. I use the whipped-cream filling to make a casual, whimsical stacked cake with fresh berries; when I want something fancier, I use the buttercream for both filling and frosting. Now here’s the best part: By choosing different flavors for either the whipped cream or buttercream, I can make more than a dozen different cakes with just these three recipes.
Before making your cake, consider how much time you have. If you’re running short on time, opt for a whipped-cream-filled cake. Making it is a cinch, and the cake looks spectacular with whipped cream and berries oozing between the layers. But don’t be afraid of buttercream cakes: The ones on these pages won’t bog you down for endless hours—they require just a little more time and focus. The good news is that you don’t have to spread buttercream to perfection. Using a small spoon to make swirls and curls with the frosting is a lot more fun—and forgiving—than creating a perfectly smooth surface. You’ll have a pretty cake that doesn’t need much in the way of decoration. And if you decide to dress it up a little, choose a simple embellishment to keep things quick and trouble-free (see “Finishing touches,” below). You’ll be surprised by what a handful of artfully arranged berries or a small mound of chocolate shavings piled in the center can do for a cake.
My tricks for easy cake-making
A quick method for Vanilla Butter Cake will speed things up quite a bit. The vanilla butter cake I make is tender, not overly sweet, and impossibly easy. Instead of the more traditional creaming method, which involves beating butter and sugar together until they’re airy and fluffy, I use the quick-blend method. I start with the dry ingredients and mix in the wet ingredients in two stages: first the butter and milk, then the eggs. This method is so easy that the hardest part is remembering to bring the butter, milk, and eggs to room temperature.
To get the fluffiest whipped-cream filling, finish it by hand. I don’t have to tell you that making whipped cream is, well, a piece of cake. But I can offer one tip for getting the best consistency for whipped cream that you want to use as a cake filling. I start whipping with a stand or hand-held mixer, but I always stop beating when the cream starts to thicken. I finish it by hand so I have more control over the final thickness. I like the whipped cream for these cakes to be smooth and quite thick (but not overbeaten), so that if you scoop a dollop onto a plate, it stands up softly.
My fuss-free method makes a smooth, bakery-style buttercream. Taking a tip from cookbook author Rose Levy Beranbaum, I make this classic cake frosting using corn syrup to replace some of the sugar. I have no doubt this buttercream will become your favorite cake frosting. It’s incredibly airy and smooth and easier than traditional buttercream (see Buttercream 101).
Favorite cake combinations
Whipped-cream cakesVanilla whipped cream and strawberries
Chocolate whipped cream and raspberries
Raspberry or strawberry whipped cream with mixed berries
Lemon whipped cream with mixed berries
Buttercream cakesChocolate buttercream with brandy-thinned raspberry jam and toasted, sliced almonds
Raspberry buttercream with brandy-thinned raspberry jam and fresh raspberries on top
Coffee buttercream with chocolate-covered espresso beans on top
Grand Marnier buttercream withGrand Marnier-thinned orange marmelade and chocolate shavings
Jam adds an extra hit of flavor
If you like, use jam thinned with liqueur to add another layer of flavor to your cake. For a four-layer buttercream cake, mix 3/4 cup seedless jam with 3 Tbs. liqueur, such as brandy or Grand Marnier. After you’ve spread the buttercream on the first cake layer, spread a third of the jam on the next cake layer, flip it, and lay it over the buttercream filling. Repeat the process for the next two layers.
Decorating a finished layer cake can be as simple or as elaborate as you make it. I like to keep it neat and simple, with only a few elements arranged artfully on the top or the sides. Nut slices or coconut flakes will easily stick to the sides of a cake: Just grab a small handful at a time and gently pat them all around the cake. Step back from your work to get a better view of what you’re doing. You can fill gaps and correct small mistakes at the end. Here is a list of my favorite finishing touches:
Lemon-or orange-zest curls
Fresh berries and fruit (slices or wedges)
Toasted nuts (slices, slivers, or whole)
Shaved chocolate curls (made with a vegetable peeler)
Chocolate-covered espresso beans
Melted chocolate drizzled from a pastry bag