I love layer cakes, their tender, tasty layers filled and frosted with a rich and creamy icing. These festive creations are quintessentially American, and they deserve to be made a lot more often than they are today.
The heyday for layer cakes began in the mid 1920s — when the electric mixer first came into our kitchens — and ended in the mid 1950s, when boxed cake mixes stormed onto supermarket shelves, causing the near demise of the “from scratch” lovelies.
By the mid-1950s, homemade layer cakes became ‘affectionately’ known as “dump cakes,” where all the batter ingredients became commingled at once in a continuous beating frenzy. Were these cakes any good? Yes. Some, at least. One even took the top prize at the Fifth Grand National Pillsbury Bake-Off. But here’s the rub. Instead of butter, dump cake recipes most often contained tasteless shortening, so they lacked the rich flavor of a traditional layer cake. Why shortening?
Because shortening contains no water, but butter is about 20% water, and water activates gluten. Too much gluten and your cake will be tough instead of tender. If you’re going to beat the heck out of a cake batter at the outset, shortening ensures you’ll wind up with a tender cake.
Even so, after decades of cake baking, I still find that the creaming method produces the tenderest, lightest, tastiest layer cakes. During creaming, you beat the butter and sugar together continuously for 5 minutes to create tiny air bubbles that will expand during baking with the help of baking powder, baking soda, or both sometimes, to give you a cake you can be proud of.
The beauty of layer cakes is you can flavor them with just about anything. In this recipe, I wanted mocha, so I combined coffee with chocolate.
The chocolate is cocoa, and I use a high fat natural cocoa, which delivers more flavor than its low fat cousin. Because there’s acidic buttermilk in the batter, I add baking soda to neutralize it. Dutch process cocoa has been treated with alkali, so don’t put it into this cake. You can, however, make the frosting with it. This uncomplicated recipe comes together quite quickly. I’ve included a small amount of shortening along with the butter to lighten the cake’s texture a bit more than would butter alone.
One more thing. Be sure to use cake flour. It’s sold in 2-pound boxes with the Softasilk or Swans Down label and is especially formulated to give you light-textured, fluffy, old-fashioned cakes. Three cheers for that!
Chocolate espresso layer cake
Cocoa, coffee and vanilla flavor this is a dream of a layer cake. The texture is classically light and fluffy, with only a small amount of baking soda included to neutralize the acidity in the cocoa and buttermilk. The frosting is creamy and buttery and very chocolaty, but not too sweet. Make this anytime. For yourself even. The cake keeps well for about three days at room temperature.
Makes 12 to 16 servings.
2¼ cups sifted cake flour
¼ cup unsweetened natural (not Dutch process) cocoa
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon instant espresso coffee powder
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at a cool room temperature (about 65 degrees)
¼ cup vegetable shortening
1½ cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at a cool room temperature
2 large egg yolks
½ cup unsweetened cocoa (Dutch process or not)
1 tablespoon instant espresso coffee powder
⅓ to ½ cup heavy cream or milk
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 cups (8 ounces) confectioners' sugar
1. Adjust an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter or grease two 9-inch layer cake pans. Line the bottoms with rounds of cooking parchment or waxed paper. Butter the papers and dust the bottoms of the pans only with all-purpose flour. Knock out excess flour and set the pans aside.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together thoroughly the flour, cocoa, salt, baking soda and instant espresso.
3. In a large bowl, beat the butter and shortening with an electric mixer on medium speed for about 1 minute, until smooth. With the machine running on medium speed, gradually sprinkle in the granulated sugar. When all the sugar is incorporated, beat in the vanilla. Stop the mixer and scrape the bowl and beater. Then beat uninterrupted for 5 minutes on medium-high speed. Scrape the bowl and beater.
4. With the machine on medium-high, add the eggs one at a time, beating only until each is well-incorporated, about 30 seconds, before adding the next. Scrape the bowl and beater.
5. On low speed, add the dry ingredients in three additions alternately with the buttermilk in two additions, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Beat only until the batter is smooth. Stop to scrape the bowl and beater as necessary.
6. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans. To level the batter, which will be on the thick side, have the pans on your countertop. Grasping a pan between the palms of your hands, rotate the pan on the countertop gently going left to right and back again a few times. It's not necessary to smooth the top of the batter; that will happen during baking. Place the pans on the oven rack in a diagonal arrangement, leaving about 1 inch of space between the pans and the oven wall. Bake 35 to 40 minutes, until the layers spring back when gently pressed.
7. Cool the cakes in their pans for 10 minutes. Run the tip of a butter knife all around the sides of the layers to release them, cover with wire racks, and invert. Carefully lift off the pans (the papers will probably come off, too). Cover the layers with other racks, and invert again to cool completely right side up.
8. For the frosting, beat together the butter, egg yolks, cocoa, instant espresso, ⅓ cup cream or milk and vanilla in a large bowl with an electric mixer on low speed just to combine well. Beat on medium speed for 1 to 2 minutes, until smooth. Add the confectioners' sugar and beat on low speed until incorporated, then beat on medium speed until smooth. Add more cream or milk, if necessary, to make the frosting of spreading consistency.
9. Line a cake plate with four strips of wax paper in a hashtag pattern. Place one of the cooled layers with its original top side down onto the plate, covering the inner edges of the wax paper strips. Spread with about one third of the frosting. Place second layer with its original top side up on the frosting. Spread remaining frosting over sides, then top of the cake. Gently tug on each strip of wax paper by a short end, pulling it straight out towards you. The cake plate will be clean. Let stand about 1 hour until the frosting has set. To serve, rinse a sharp knife in hot water and shake off excess water before making each cut.