Maybe because she’s too busy partying in her Manolo Blahnik shoes, punk princess Marie Antoinette, as conceived by filmmaker Sofia Coppola, never offers cake to the angry rabble. But she does put away a lot of it -- and it’s easy to see why. Birthday parties, holiday soirees, coronations: They’re all perfect occasions for a good layer cake.
Rising tiers of delicate genoise layered with ethereal French butter cream -- imagine cirrus clouds caught between fine-crumb strata -- make for glorious culinary architecture. A layer cake is a celebration in sugar. And, unlike many other high maintenance accouterments of civilization (ball gowns, say, or multistoried powdered wigs), you don’t need a team of experts to accomplish it.
Deconstructed, their seemingly intricate parts disassembled and laid out, layer cakes are really pretty simple things. Sure, most of us have a little bad cake history: warped and sliding layers, icing filled with crumbs, the occasional dry and flavorless cake. But, unlike the ill-fated house of Bourbon, we can overcome that history with a handful of sly tips.
The right basic cake recipes -- one for a white cake, another for a chocolate -- and the right kind of frosting -- French butter cream -- are the foundation. Then, you’ll need a few simple techniques borrowed from the pros: brushing the cake layers with simple syrup (which allows you to riff flavors as well as keep your cake wonderfully moist); using a simple tool, the cake leveler, to make perfectly even layers; and briefly freezing the cake layers for easier frosting. Voila! You don’t need a palace pastry chef to make a confection fit for a king. Or a queen.
Three key ingredients
As with any architecture, the key to a successful layer cake is the building materials. Start with a cake recipe that you can use over and over again, one that can stand up to cutting and stacking and can be adapted to many methods and flavors.
Most layer cakes are made with either a standard genoise (also known as a sponge cake) or a creamed butter cake. A genoise, which relies on whipped eggs for its volume and is composed of essentially equal parts sugar, flour and eggs, is often the basic foundation for everything from birthday cakes to traditional tortes to wedding cakes. Unlike a heavier, richer butter cake, it stores well and can make different concoctions such as a raspberry-studded cake with white chocolate frosting or a coffee-flavored cake with mocha butter cream.
Because of this versatility, it’s worth taking the time to master a genoise recipe you like. For the recipe here, The Times Test Kitchen spent two days making cakes, testing recipe after recipe from classic and current cookbooks until we settled on this variant of a recipe I used in culinary school. It’s a quintessential genoise, made with a little butter.
A note about genoise cakes: They’re very simple cakes, relying on equal parts of the three ingredients with the optional addition of melted butter. But many cookbooks, perhaps because they’ve been adapted from old European recipes that rely on measuring by weight, often get the amounts wrong. The eggs, sugar and cake flour need to be in equal proportions by weight, not volume. So though a cup of sugar and a cup of cake flour may seem comparatively equal, by weight they’re almost 2 to 1.
The lesson? If you’re trying out a new recipe, weigh your components first: If the three major ingredients don’t come out to roughly the same weight, reconsider your recipe.
If you’re going the chocolate route, however, you want a somewhat richer foundation than a genoise. Although you can make a chocolate genoise (just sift in cocoa with the flour), the result will be a light, airy cake with a subtle chocolate flavor. And who wants subtle with chocolate?
So we’ve used a recipe from “Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts,” the classic paean to chocolate baking reissued this year on the 25th anniversary of its publication. Dense, rich and chocolatey, this cake is still light enough for layering.
Whether you use a genoise or a chocolate butter cake, the best frosting for layering is not necessarily the thickest or the richest or the one you pile onto cupcakes. You want a frosting that not only can hold up to construction, but specifically aids in it. One that’s adaptive and can act as both decoration and mortar. In other words, you want butter cream. French butter cream.
Unlike frostings made with whipped cream or meringue, French butter cream can be reused and re-whipped to accommodate the vicissitudes of cake assembly. Whip egg yolks with hot sugar syrup and butter for a very rich frosting that is also extremely light and malleable. You can flavor it, adding melted chocolate or coffee or any number of extracts or liqueurs; you can color it or leave it plain. And unless the weather’s very hot, it’s extremely stable.
The third important element in a delicious layer cake is something that many people may not know about (unless they’re bartenders), but which is the secret ingredient in many professional layer cakes and a kind of magic to the home baker. It’s called simple syrup and it’s precisely that: a syrup made simply of equal parts water and sugar.
Dissolve the sugar in boiling water, cool and flavor it with citrus, spices, liqueurs, herbs or extracts. Brushed on the baked and cooled cake layers, it provides moisture to a cake that may or may not have it otherwise, as well as a surprise layer of additional flavor to a normally one- or two-dimensionally flavored cake.
Make an orange simple syrup to flavor a chocolate cake or a coffee syrup to flavor a vanilla cake. Or, for your white cake, make a vanilla syrup spiked with cassis or a caramel syrup infused with cinnamon and Tellicherry black peppercorns.
Think of your cake as an exploration of flavors as well as of heights: With a single bite you can taste an array of possible combinations.
Shape it to your liking
It’s also time to think outside the cake pan. Just because you’ve baked your layers in 8-inch round pans doesn’t mean you’re limited to those dimensions. The pan, in fact, is just the beginning. Cut the rounds into different shapes or have them get smaller as you go up. Consider a square cake or a triangular one. How vertical do you want to go? What kind of decoration? Now that you have your three elements (cake, frosting, syrup), you’re ready to use your imagination and assemble the cakes to fit that vision.
So have the right tools on hand because even for a traditional round layer cake of two or more layers, you’ll need to cut the cakes in half and level the lines. And while most cookbooks say to use a long serrated knife, it’s almost impossible to do this successfully -- at least without a surgeon’s steady hand and a surveyor’s level. So instead use a cake leveler (see Cookstuff, below). With this fun little tool, you can cut your layers quickly and evenly, as well as level off the tops, without driving yourself mad with rulers and improvisational geometry.
It’s also handy for fixing any problems that may have come up (or down) during baking. If your cakes have domed, for example, or fallen somewhat, no worries. The leveler adjusts to different heights and cuts off the uneven tops -- or neatly slices off a top that may have cooked too much.
Whether you’re downsizing your cakes to compensate for problems -- or you’re looking for the right scale for an already sugar-crazed band of kindergartners -- consider cutting the cakes into smaller sizes. Make a series of smaller rounds with cookie cutters or empty tin cans, or cut the circles into a series of smaller squares or triangles. Or cut and frost a stack of semicircles for a moon-shaped cake.
Save the leftover bits and pieces for a trifle or make extra tiny cakes out of the scraps. Freeze them for a surprise individual dessert or an ad hoc afternoon tea or frost them and give them to your kids. If you have chocolate scraps, do what bakers often do: Toast and finely crumble the scraps and use them to decorate the sides of the cake.
Whatever you decide, cut the layers into uniform shapes and lay them out on a cookie sheet or parchment paper. Brush the cake with simple syrup -- you shouldn’t soak the layers, but instead lightly moisten them. Place the cut and brushed layers in the freezer for about an hour. This shores up the crumb of the cake so the layers can be frosted without tearing or crumbling. It also makes spreading the frosting a whole lot easier.
After an hour or so, take the cake layers out one at a time and frost each with a thin coat of frosting. What you’re doing is making what bakers call a crumb coat, which functions as a kind of sealant. You’ll notice that the frosting hardens up on the almost frozen cake. This is a huge added benefit, as it will allow you to create a very smooth surface. Don’t worry if some crumbs get mixed in with the frosting on the cake’s surface (just keep them out of the rest of the frosting in the bowl). Once you have a thinly frosted cake layer, return it to the freezer while you repeat the procedure with the remaining layers.
Next, you will get creative. Put a little food coloring into some of the frosting and make purple layers or have some raspberry jam ready and spread thin strata of that. You can mix it up -- color more frosting and add more hues to your cake as you stack the layers -- or make a ganache (equal parts warm cream and melted chocolate) to glaze the top or even the entire cake.
Spread it on
Whatever you decide to do, when you’ve given each of the layers a crumb coat, you’re ready for the fun part of final assembly. Remove one of the coated layers from the freezer and place it on a cake stand or elevated flat surface that you can rotate. Frost the top. Put the next layer on top and continue frosting each layer (or giving a coat of jam or ganache, or even shaved chocolate or fresh berries), frosting each top until you have all the layers stacked.
Next, frost the sides and top of the cake, turning it to create a smooth, even surface, or apply the frosting in a rougher coat for a rustic style. The crumbs have been sealed in and the cakes, being partially frozen, create a stable surface for the butter cream, which adheres more easily in proximity to the cold cake. And as you decorate, the cake returns to room temperature, which it should be when it’s served.
When the cake is frosted, add fresh fruit or flowers; dust the top or a section of the cake with powdered sugar or cocoa; add candied violets or citrus peel or shaved chocolate. Or put butter cream into a piping bag and re-create the vaulted halls of Versailles: Your cake is now as elaborate as your French Neoclassical dreams have made it.
And since -- unlike Marie Antoinette, for whom baking was not a part of the job description -- you’ve actually made a cake for the party, the only pounding at the gates will be your guests, impatient for the festivities to begin.