Bake from Scratch

GREAT AMERICAN LAYER CAKES

Red Velvet Cake

Once upon a time, red velvet cake was a reddish-brown delicacy favored by the Victorians. Natural cocoa powder and tangy buttermilk gave red velvet its signature flavor as well as its russet hue, with the acidic cocoa and buttermilk reacting with basic baking soda to create a touch of red. So how did the barely red velvet cake transform into the gruesome red velvet armadillo groom’s cake featured in Steel Magnolias? Cocoa, like everything else, has changed over the years. Natural cocoa powder has been superseded by Dutch cocoa powder, which makes a run-of-the-mill brown-hued cake. By the 1960s, the mild red produced by cocoa powder was traded in for the brilliant results of red food coloring. Today, anything from beets to wine can be used to color a velvet cake—just as long as it's red.

German Chocolate Cake

Despite its misleading name, the American home baker should thank the Lone Star State for this coconut, caramel, pecan, and chocolate extravaganza. The original recipe called for a heaping dose of German’s Sweet Chocolate, a baking bar invented by Samuel German for Baker’s Chocolate Company in 1852. Flash forward to 1957, when the Dallas Morning News featured “German’s Chocolate Cake” as its delectable recipe of the day. Chocolate cake recipes were (and are) a dime a dozen, but this one had an instantly iconic component: a cooked coconut-pecan filling.

Italian Cream Cake

Certainly, there is such a thing as a real “Italian” cream cake, a ricotta- and fruit-filled dessert you can find in true Italian bakeries. But the American Italian cream cake is another 20th-century Southern invention: dense, covered in cream cheese frosting, and packed with some Southern favorites (coconut and pecans). Rumors and good recipes spread like wildfire in the South, so we don’t know who invented it or when exactly it came to be. The most debated factor of an Italian cream cake is its coconut-to-pecan ratio. Whatever the baker’s preference, there must be both, preferably packed in the cake layers and on the frosting. Because that’s the true American-Southern-Italian way.

Burnt Sugar Cake

Also known as burnt Leather Cake, burnt sugar cake has been a golden classic since the early 1900s and was particularly beloved by the original American gourmand, James Beard, whose mother made a famed family version. In fact, he included a recipe for it in his seminal 1972 James Beard’s American Cookery. White sugar is cooked in a dry skillet until it liquefies and “burns” or caramelizes and then boiling water is poured in to create a sputtering amber syrup. Added directly to the cake layers, the burnt syrup has a purer flavor than the cream- and butter-filled caramels of today and puts the focus on the golden sugar flavor.

Spiced Fruit Cake

This cake is an amalgamation of many great American classics. Inspired by the fruit-filled lane cake and Lady Baltimore cake but with the flavor profile of a boozy English fruitcake crossed with a spice cake, this hybrid beauty celebrates all that an American holiday cake can be. Fruitcake came to the United States via Europe, and over the years, we’ve tinkered with the recipe, adding jewel-toned red and green candied maraschino cherries and packed with America’s favorite nut: pecans. We also have a penchant for stuffing our cakes with spirit-soaked fruit, like in the aforementioned lane cake and Lady Baltimore cake. Then there’s the Japanese fruitcake, a Southern favorite that has nothing to do with Japan whatsoever. Two delicate white cake layers sandwich a spiced ambrosia-like fruit filling all while coated in dreamy seven-minute frosting. With each of these classic cakes in mind, we invented this two-layer stunner to embrace the best of all worlds.

ITALIAN CREAM CAKE

Makes 1 (8-inch) cake

We kept our cake batter—studded with chopped pecans and sweet coconut flakes—light by folding in whipped cream. Then we brought this fluffy cake back down to earth with a heavy coat of Cream Cheese Frosting, appropriately adorned with more pecans and toasted coconut.

1 cup (227 grams) unsalted butter, softened
1½ cups (300 grams) granulated sugar
½ cup (110 grams) firmly packed light brown sugar
4 large eggs (200 grams)
2 teaspoons (8 grams) vanilla extract
2½ cups (313 grams) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon (5 grams) baking soda
½ teaspoon (1.5 grams) kosher salt
1 cup (240 grams) whole buttermilk
½ cup (120 grams) heavy whipping cream, room temperature
1¼ cups (126 grams) packed sweetened flaked coconut
¾ cup (85 grams) chopped pecan pieces
Cream Cheese Frosting (recipe follows)
Garnish: toasted coconut, chopped pecans

1. Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Butter and flour 2 (8-inch) round cake pans.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and sugars at medium speed until fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes, stopping to scrape sides of bowl. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla.

3. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt. With mixer on low speed, gradually add flour mixture to butter mixture alternately with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour mixture, beating just until combined after each addition.

4. In another medium bowl, whisk cream by hand until soft peaks form. Using a rubber spatula, fold whipped cream into cake batter in two additions. Fold in coconut and pecans. Divide batter between prepared pans, smoothing tops with an offset spatula.

5. Bake until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes. Let cool in pans for 10 minutes. Remove from pans, and let cool completely on wire racks. Spread Cream Cheese Frosting between layers and on top and sides of cake. Garnish sides with coconut and pecans, if desired. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

CREAM CHEESE FROSTING

Makes about 6 cups

16 ounces (455 grams) cream cheese, softened
1 cup (227 grams) unsalted butter, softened
2 teaspoons (8 grams) vanilla extract
½ teaspoon (1.5 grams) kosher salt
7½ cups (900 grams) confectioners’ sugar

1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat cream cheese and butter at medium-low speed until smooth and creamy, about 1 minute. Add vanilla and salt, beating until combined. With mixer on low speed, gradually add confectioners’ sugar, beating until combined. Increase mixer speed to medium, and beat until fluffy, about 1 minute.

SPICED FRUITCAKE

Makes 1 (9-inch) cake

Lightly spiced with ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, our Spiced Fruitcake is at once tender and aromatic. For our boozy Fruit Filling, brandy-soaked dried figs, cranberries, cherries, and apricots combine with crunchy slivered almonds for a triumph of texture and taste. To top it off, we enrobed our cake in the ultimate vanilla-scented frosting: American buttercream.

1 cup (227 grams) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
1 cup (220 grams) firmly packed light brown sugar
4 large eggs (200 grams)
2 teaspoons (8 grams) vanilla extract
3 cups (375 grams) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons (4 grams) ground cinnamon
1½ teaspoons (3 grams) ground ginger
1 teaspoon (5 grams) baking powder
1 teaspoon (5 grams) baking soda
1 teaspoon (1 gram) ground nutmeg
¾ teaspoon (2.25 grams) kosher salt
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup (240 grams) whole buttermilk
Brandy Simple Syrup (recipe follows)
Vanilla Buttercream (recipe follows)
Fruit Filling (recipe follows)

1. Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Butter and flour 2 (9-inch) round cake pans.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and sugars at medium speed until fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes, stopping to scrape sides of bowl. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla.

3. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cinnamon, ginger, baking powder, baking soda, nutmeg, salt, and cloves. With mixer on low speed, gradually add flour mixture to butter mixture alternately with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour mixture, beating just until combined after each addition. Divide batter between prepared pans, smoothing tops with an offset spatula.

4. Bake until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Let cool in pans for 10 minutes. Remove from pans, and place on wire racks. Brush warm cake layers with Brandy Simple Syrup. Let cool completely.

5. Place 2 cups Vanilla Buttercream in a piping bag, and cut a ½-inch opening. Pipe a thick border around edge of first cake layer. Using an offset spatula, spread chilled Fruit Filling inside piped border. Top with remaining layer, and spread remaining Vanilla Buttercream on top and sides of cake. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

BRANDY SIMPLE SYRUP

Makes about 1 cup

⅔ cup (133 grams) granulated sugar
⅓ cup (80 grams) water
⅓ cup (80 grams) brandy

1. In a small saucepan, bring sugar and ⅓ cup (80 grams) water to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat, and stir in brandy. Let cool completely. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

VANILLA BUTTERCREAM

Makes about 6 cups

2 cups (454 grams) unsalted butter, softened
2 teaspoons (12 grams) vanilla bean paste
½ teaspoon (1.5 grams) kosher salt
7½ cups (900 grams) confectioners’ sugar
½ cup (120 grams) heavy whipping cream

1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter, vanilla bean paste, and salt at low speed until smooth. Add confectioners’ sugar, about 1 cup (120 grams) at a time, alternately with cream, about 1 tablespoon (15 grams) at a time, beating just until combined after each addition. Increase mixer speed to medium, and beat until smooth and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes.

FRUIT FILLING

Makes about 2 cups

¼ cup (57 grams) unsalted butter
⅔ cup (133 grams) granulated sugar
4 large egg yolks (76 grams)
¾ cup (85 grams) chopped slivered almonds
¼ cup (32 grams) dried cranberries
¼ cup (32 grams) dried cherries
¼ cup (32 grams) chopped dried figs
¼ cup (32 grams) chopped dried apricots
3 tablespoons (45 grams) brandy

1. In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Stir in sugar until combined. Whisk in egg yolks until well combined; cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture is very thick, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in almonds and all remaining ingredients. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing wrap directly onto surface of filling. Refrigerate until completely cool.

GERMAN CHOCOLATE CAKE

Makes 1 (9-inch) cake

Our German Chocolate Cake has melted chocolate folded right into the batter and an extra dose of cocoa powder. We decided there’s plenty of room for both a Creamy Chocolate Frosting and the Coconut-Pecan Filling. Piping a thick border of frosting on the top allows our coconut-pecan custard to pool without overflowing.

1 cup (227 grams) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
1 cup (220 grams) firmly packed light brown sugar
4 large eggs (200 grams)
1 teaspoon (4 grams) vanilla extract
2½ cups (313 grams) all-purpose flour
¼ cup (21 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder
½ teaspoon (2.5 grams) baking powder
½ teaspoon (2.5 grams) baking soda
½ teaspoon (1.5 grams) kosher salt
1½ cups (360 grams) whole buttermilk
6 ounces (175 grams) sweet baking chocolate, melted and cooled
Creamy Chocolate Frosting (recipe follows)
Coconut Pecan Filling (recipe follows)
Garnish: flaked coconut, chopped pecans

1. Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Butter and flour 2 (9-inch) round cake pans.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and sugars at medium speed until fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes, stopping to scrape sides of bowl. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla.

3. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. With mixer on low speed, gradually add flour mixture to butter mixture alternately with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour mixture, beating just until combined after each addition. Stir in melted chocolate until combined. Divide batter between prepared pans, smoothing tops with an offset spatula.

4. Bake until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes. Let cool in pans for 10 minutes. Remove from pans, and let cool completely on wire racks.

5. Place 2 cups Creamy Chocolate Frosting in a piping bag fitted with a medium open star tip (Wilton No. 4B). Pipe a thick border around top edge of first cake layer. Using an offset spatula, spread half of chilled Coconut Pecan Filling inside piped border. Top with remaining cake layer. Pipe Creamy Chocolate Frosting in a swirl pattern around top edge of cake layer, and spread remaining Coconut Pecan Filling inside border. Spread remaining Creamy Chocolate Frosting on sides of cake. Garnish with coconut and pecans, if desired.

CREAMY CHOCOLATE FROSTING

Makes about 4 cups

1 cup (227 grams) unsalted butter, softened
¼ cup (21 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder
⅔ cup (160 grams) sour cream
5 cups (600 grams) confectioners’ sugar

1. In the bowl of stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter at medium speed until smooth and creamy, about 2 minutes. Add cocoa, and beat at low speed until combined. Beat in sour cream until smooth. With mixer on low speed, gradually add confectioners’ sugar, beating until smooth and creamy.

COCONUT PECAN FILLING

Makes about 4 cups

1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
1 cup (247 grams) evaporated milk
½ cup (113 grams) unsalted butter, softened
3 large egg yolks (57 grams)
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
1½ cups (180 grams) packed sweetened flaked coconut
1 cup (113 grams) chopped pecans*
2 teaspoons (8 grams) vanilla extract

1. In a medium saucepan, whisk together sugar, evaporated milk, butter, egg yolks, and salt until smooth. Cook over medium heat, whisking frequently, until mixture has thickened and coats the back of a spoon, 10 to 12 minutes.

2. Remove from heat, and stir in coconut, pecans, and vanilla. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 3 days.

*We used Sunnyland Farms Raw Georgia Pecan Halves.

BURNT SUGAR CAKE

Makes 1 (8-inch) cake

Our cake is nothing without the essential Burnt Sugar Syrup, a simple caramel syrup that will remind you sugar can offer complex flavor all on its own. With a further nod toward tradition, we covered the tender cake layers in silky waves of Penuche Icing. (See opposite page for the lowdown on this classic frosting.)

1 cup (227 grams) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
¾ cup (165 grams) firmly packed dark brown sugar
4 large eggs (200 grams)
2 teaspoons (8 grams) vanilla extract
3½ cups (437 grams) cake flour
1 tablespoon (15 grams) baking powder
1 teaspoon (3 grams) kosher salt
1 cup (240 grams) whole milk
Burnt Sugar Syrup (recipe follows)
Penuche Icing (recipe follows)

1. Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Butter and flour 2 (8-inch) round cake pans.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and sugars at medium speed until fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes, stopping to scrape sides of bowl. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla.

3. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. In a small bowl, combine milk and Burnt Sugar Syrup. With mixer on low speed, gradually add flour mixture to butter mixture alternately with milk mixture, beginning and ending with flour mixture, beating just until combined after each addition. Divide batter between prepared pans, smoothing tops with an offset spatula.

4. Bake until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Let cool in pans for 10 minutes. Remove from pans, and let cool completely on wire racks. Spread Penuche Icing between layers and on top and sides of cake. Store in an airtight container.

BURNT SUGAR SYRUP

Makes about ½ cup

½ cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
½ cup (120 grams) boiling water

1. In a small heavy-bottomed saucepan, spread sugar; cook over medium-low heat, without stirring, until sugar begins to melt. Using a silicone spatula, gently drag melted sugar to center of pan so sugar melts evenly. Cook, without stirring, until melted sugar turns a light amber color. Remove from heat, and slowly add ½ cup (120 grams) boiling water. (Be careful—it will steam, and it can splatter.) Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until smooth and mixture looks like maple syrup, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, and let cool for 15 minutes.

PENUCHE ICING

Makes 4½ cups

1½ cups (340 grams) unsalted butter, softened and divided
1½ cups (330 grams) firmly packed dark brown sugar
½ cup (120 grams) heavy whipping cream
½ teaspoon (1.5 grams) kosher salt
4½ cups (540 grams) confectioners’ sugar, sifted

1. In a small saucepan, melt ¾ cup (170 grams) butter over medium heat. Pour into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Let cool slightly.

2. In same saucepan, whisk together brown sugar, cream, and salt over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until sugar is melted and mixture starts to boil. Add to melted butter. Add half of confectioners’ sugar, and beat until smooth. Add remaining confectioners’ sugar, beating until combined. With the mixer on medium speed, slowly add remaining ½ cup (170 grams) butter, 1 tablespoon (14 grams) at a time, until smooth and combined. Cover, and let stand until icing has reached a spreadable consistency, 10 to 30 minutes.

RED VELVET CAKE

Makes 1 (8-inch) cake

Rich, tender, and deeply red, our Red Velvet Cake comes equipped with the luxurious crumb and tangy taste you’ve grown accustomed to. We opted for the more traditional Ermine Icing, a frosting with a cooked roux base and an infinitely smooth finish.

1 cup (227 grams) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups (400 grams) granulated sugar
4 large eggs (200 grams), room temperature
2½ cups (313 grams) all-purpose flour
½ cup (43 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon (5 grams) baking soda
½ teaspoon (1.5 grams) kosher salt
1 cup (240 grams) whole buttermilk
1 (1-ounce) bottle (30 grams) liquid red food coloring
1 tablespoon (15 grams) distilled white vinegar
2 teaspoons (8 grams) vanilla extract
Ermine Icing (recipe follows)

1. Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Butter and flour 3 (8-inch) round cake pans.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and sugar at medium speed until fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes, stopping to scrape sides of bowl. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

3. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt. With mixer on low speed, gradually add flour mixture to butter mixture alternately with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour mixture, beating just until combined after each addition. Stir in food coloring, vinegar, and vanilla. Divide batter among prepared pans, smoothing tops with an offset spatula.

4. Bake until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, 28 to 30 minutes. Let cool in pans for 10 minutes. Remove from pans, and let cool completely on wire racks. Trim each layer flat; reserve trimmings for garnish. Spread Ermine Icing between layers and on top of cake. Spread a thin layer of Ermine Icing on sides of cake; using a bench scraper, smooth icing, leaving sides of cake exposed. Crumble reserved cake trimmings on top of cake. Store in an airtight container.

ERMINE ICING

Makes about 3 cups

5 tablespoons (40 grams) all-purpose flour
1 cup (240 grams) cold whole milk
2 teaspoons (8 grams) vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup (227 grams) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar

1. In a small saucepan, cook flour and milk over medium heat, whisking constantly, until thickened and pudding-like and an instant-read thermometer registers 170°F (77°C), 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat, and whisk in vanilla and salt. Pour into a small bowl; cover with a piece of plastic wrap, pressing wrap directly onto surface to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until completely cool, about 1 hour.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat butter until creamy and smooth, about 2 minutes. With mixer on medium speed, slowly add sugar, and beat until smooth and fluffy, 6 to 7 minutes. Slowly add cooled flour mixture to butter mixture, and beat until light and fluffy. (It should look like whipped cream.) Use immediately.

Icing Intel

THESE CAKES AREN’T THE ONLY SWEET ICONS FEATURED—THEIR ICINGS ARE NATIONAL TREASURES IN THEIR OWN RIGHT. HERE, WE SPOTLIGHT TWO LESSER-KNOWN BUT STILL ESSENTIAL AMERICAN ICINGS.

Ermine Icing: Before confectioners’ sugar was invented, home bakers had to create creamy frostings through high heat, like the boiled, ethereal seven-minute frosting. From this tradition came ermine frosting, a cloud-like spread that begins on the stovetop with a roux. Milk and flour thicken into a pudding-like mixture, which then chills in the fridge before being whipped with butter and granulated sugar. The end result? A fluffy frosting that looks like whipped cream and feels like luxurious silk. Long before cream cheese frosting came into the picture, this was the frosting of choice for red velvet cake.

Penuche Icing: Penuche is a buttery, praline-like candy brought over by the Portuguese to New England in the 18th century. Boiled brown sugar and milk create a caramel-flavored fudge and, with the case of our Penuche Icing, a golden feather-like icing. In Hawaii, where the Portuguese also brought their penuche, the frosting (called panocha frosting) was often used to cover banana or prune cakes. Unsurprisingly, it’s also a perfect pairing for our Burnt Sugar Cake.