One of the things I love most about baking is occasions to celebrate people. I have a group of friends for whom I have offered to each bake a birthday cake, of their choice, when their birthday came around. There’s something special about knowing something was crafted and baked solely for you. I initially made this cake for my friend Lanette’s birthday in July. I had posted a picture on Instagram and when my friend Liz invited me to her engagement party, she asked if I could bake that cake for the celebration. So this cake will be heading with me today to an engagement party for Liz and her fiancee Danny, who are one of the sweetest couples I know.
As much as I love baking cakes, it’s a big challenge for me. I can err on the side of perfectionism with cakes, and it’s hard to keep that in check sometimes. I used to do ceramics (wheel thrown pottery) and one of the hardest things for me was knowing when to stop. If you’re throwing a bowl, and the walls get too thin, it collapses and you need to start over. Cakes, although a bit more forgiving, are the same sort of challenge for me- specifically in the decorating. But sometimes in the pursuit of perfection, you risk overdoing it. I’m not naturally a precise and artistic person, so decorating takes a lot of effort. It’s something I’ve gotten better at, but I still need to remind myself I’m probably the only one that will see those frosting-related missteps and everyone will be to distracted eating the cake to notice!
I do love this vanilla cake recipe and the tiny flecks of vanilla bean give it a true vanilla flavor, unlike vanilla cake out of a box. There is a lot of mixing for this recipe. And trust me when I say it’s important. The last time I made it I rushed some of the mixing intervals and it just wasn’t the same. It’s a denser cake, but deliciously moist and worth the patience in the process.
Vanilla Bean Cake
3 cups cake flour
1 tbsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
16 tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
5 large eggs, at room temperature
1¼ cups buttermilk, at room temperature
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
- Preheat the oven to 350° F. Prepare three 8 inch round pans and set aside (My usual prep involves parchment paper & some cooking spray, but do what works for you).
- In a medium mixing bowl, combine the cake flour, baking powder and salt. Whisk together and set aside.
- Add the butter to the bowl of an electric mixer (I don’t have a fancy paddle attachment, but if you do, feel free to use it). Scrape the vanilla bean seeds into the bowl of the mixer with the butter and discard the pod (or reserve for another use.) Beat on medium-high speed for 3 minutes, until light and creamy in color. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and beat for one more minute.
- Add the sugar to the butter mixture, ¼ cup at a time, beating 1 minute after each addition (I promise all the mixing is necessary). Mix in the eggs one at a time until incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl after each addition.
- Combine the buttermilk and the vanilla extract in a liquid measuring cup. With the mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients alternately with the wet ingredients, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients and mixing just until incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and mix for 15 seconds longer.
- Divide the batter between the prepared pans. Bake until golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 20-22 minutes (rotate the pans halfway through baking- so they bake evenly). I’ll note this depends on your oven- mine took a few minutes longer. Let cool in the pans about 10 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack and let cool completely.
Whipped Vanilla Buttercream
6.5 sticks of unsalted butter (at room temperature)
6 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
Pinch of salt
2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise (optional)
4 tbsp. heavy cream
2 tbsp. vanilla extract
- Place the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whip on medium-high speed until smooth, about 1 minute.
- Add the confectioners’ sugar to the bowl and mix on medium-low speed just until incorporated. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean pod (if using) into the bowl and add in the salt. Continue to beat on medium-high speed until smooth, about 1-2 minutes.
- Mix in the heavy cream and vanilla on low speed just until incorporated. Increase the mixer speed and whip on high speed until light and fluffy, scraping down the bowl as needed, about 4-5 minutes.
- There’s a few tools I really like when making layer cakes. One of which is a rotating cake wheel/stand. I’ll take it and place a wet paper towel on top, which keeps the cake from sliding around.
I also really like using cardboard cake rounds. It makes it so much easier to carry around and work with when it has a stable base. They have them online and in the craft stores, and I just stock up on them.
- In assembling this cake, you will have extra frosting. Which is not a bad thing. But I have made too many cakes with just barely enough frosting that it’s not worth it to try to skimp. It looks patchy and you’ve got less to play around with for decorating. And when you’re assembling, it doesn’t have to look perfect from the get go. This cake was pretty crumbly on the outside (I have to admit, I think I over-baked it by a minute or so, this time) so I did a crumb coat, but with other cakes, sometimes I skip that. And you can tell I was generous with the frosting, but it’s really light, so it’s not cloyingly sweet.
- I did leave some imperfections. And people still thought it was beautiful. I got the “do you do this professionally?” question a number of times. I have to admit, I think I have a lot to learn, and my cakes are not perfect, but I take that as a massive compliment each time.
- I was at a loss for what to put on the cake. So being a bit crazy, I decided it was the day to try hand lettering. So I freehanded. I had also never written an ampersand (the & symbol) before in my life, so it was a day of adventure. But I have a bit more faith in my writing abilities now.