In this world of ready mixes and canned frosting, baking and decorating layer cakes from scratch often seems like a lost art. But there's hardly a cooking craft more satisfying: not only does it fill your house with that heady aroma, but by the time you finish assembling and decorating the cake, you feel like an architectural genius.
And once you know how to make one layer cake, you know how to make hundreds. All you need is an arsenal of a few reliable components—chocolate and vanilla cake bases, a fluffy whipped-cream filling, and a smooth buttercream (each with multiple flavoring options) and nearly endless options for decorating, from fresh berries to elegant chocolate curls.
Choose your cake style
There are two basic styles here: a stacked, "naked" cake with berries and whipped-cream filling and frosting on, or a cake filled and frosted with homemade buttercream. 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: they won’t bog you down for endless hours—they require just a little more time and focus. If you want to work ahead, consider that buttercream cakes can be assembled the night before and refrigerated, while whipped cream cakes should be assembled shortly before serving.
Bake your cake
Both recipes make two 9-inch round cakes, which will be split into four layers. The Vanilla Butter Cake is tender, not overly sweet, and the perfect neutral backdrop for a variety of filling flavors. The Chocolate Sour Cream Cake is deep, intense, and exceptionally moist. The vanilla cake requires about half as much baking time as the chocolate. No matter which cake you choose, let it cool completely before beginning the assembly process.
Choose a cake flavor
Make your frosting
Whether you chose a whipped-cream frosting or buttercream frosting, you have several options for flavoring it, from basic vanilla to berry purées to citrus zest. See the options below, then refer to the recipes for specifics.
Choose a frosting flavor
Level and split the cakes
If the tops of the cakes have mounded unevenly, level them by removing the top crust with a long serrated knife.
Slice each cake into two layers: start by tracing a line around the middle of the cake with a long serrated knife. Then slowly rotate the cake while following that line with the knife and cut through the cake toward the center. After a few rotations you will have sliced the cake in two.
If you don’t get a straight cut, put a toothpick in each layer, one directly above the other, before separating them, so you can line them up again when assembling the cake. (Watch the video to see how.) This will prevent your finished cake from tilting.
Fill and stack the cakes
If you've chosen a whipped cream-frosted cake, adding berries between
the layers not only tastes great but helps the delicate whipped cream
support the cake. If you've chosen a buttercream-frosted cake, you can
add an additional layer of flavor by spreading liqueur-thinned jam mixed
with 3 Tbs. of liquer on the underside of each cake layer.
the bottom layer on a flat serving platter or a cake stand lined with
strips of waxed paper to keep it clean while assembling the cake. Top
the layer with a scant 1-1/2 cups buttercream or whipped cream frosting,
spreading it evenly with a metal cake spatula almost to the cake’s edge
for buttercream, or right up to the edge for whipped cream.
whipped cream cake, top with 1-1/2 cups berries (see options below),
making sure some of the berries are around the edges of the cake so you
can see them between the layers. Repeat with the next two layers.
Whipped cream cake: choose one to four berries (6-1/4 cups total)
For a buttercream cake, if your're using jam between the layers, stir
together 3/4 cup of the jam and 3 Tbs. of the liquer (see options below) in a small bowl.
Spread a third of the jam on the next cake layer, then lay it, jam-side
down, over the buttercream filling. Repeat with the next two layers.
Buttercream cake: Choose a jam filling (optional)
Frost the cake (buttercream only)
First apply a light coat of frosting (called crumb coating) to seal the cake crumbs in: Spoon about 1/2 cup buttercream into a small bowl. Spread it in a very thin layer over the entire cake with a small metal cake spatula. You should be able to see the cake layers through the frosting. Chill the cake for about 20 minutes or until the frosting is firm.
Spread the remaining frosting thickly and evenly over the entire cake with a large metal cake spatula. Don’t worry about getting a smooth, perfect finish; just make sure the cake is completely covered and the frosting is spread uniformly. You shouldn’t be able to see the layers underneath the buttercream.
Finish the sides of the cake (buttercream only)
Chopped or sliced nuts or chocolate shavings easily stick to the sides of a buttercream-frosted cake, which is also a handy way to disguise a less-than-perfect frosting job.
Working over a large plate or tray to catch the fallout, take a small handful of coconut/nuts/chocolate (see options below) and gently pat them around the side of the cake. Repeat until the sides are completely coated.
Choose a finish for the cake sides (optional; buttercream only)
Chopped hazelnuts, toasted
Sliced almonds, toasted
Large unsweetened coconut flakes, toasted
Finish the cake top
Whipped-cream cakes are finished simply, with more whipped-cream frosting and a crown of the same berries between the layers. With buttercream cakes you have many options: citrus slices, toasted nuts, flaked coconut, chocolate curls and much more.
For whipped-cream cakes, spread the remaining 1-1/2 cups of frosting on top of the cake with the spatula. Arrange the remaining berries artfully on top of the cream.
For buttercream cakes, smear the frosting with the back of a teaspoon and pull it upward to form curls and swirls over the entire cake top (and sides, if you didn't coat it in nuts or chocolate). Arrange any finishing touches (see options below) on top of the cake.
Choose one or two finishes for the cake top (optional; buttercream only)
Component recipes by Katherine Eastman Seeley and Kay Cabrera; Photos: Scott Phillips