Just this month, we checked out Bake It Like You Mean It by Gesine Bullock-Prado. We don’t think we’re quite up to tackling one of her astounding creations; soon, though (check out the Because You’re Mine Cake on the cover — it takes 26 eggs, and 3 pounds of butter — now that’s a cake, and it’s on our to do list). Her credo when it comes to baking, as summed up in the title, is one to which we should all aspire.
Think about it for a minute. You’re baking a cake (or perhaps just cooking up a dinner or another dish) for family and friends. Do you really just want to go through the motions, perhaps taking a shortcut here or there, knowing that the outcome will still be acceptable, but not quite as good as if you hadn’t skipped that particular step? Think now, because this is for people you care about. Ah, we thought not; you, too, deep down, see the importance of Baking It Like You Mean It, and, as we do, only needed a little reminder.
Even though this cake does not come from the above-mentioned tome, but instead from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours, let’s get scratchin’ and bake it like we mean it! If you haven’t baked many cakes before, don’t worry about the length of these instructions; if you take it step by step, you’ll have a nice cake that you can be proud of, and you’ll be improving your baking skills at the same time. Win-Win!
Makes one 8-inch layer cake
Cake flour. We’re going to say, use it. This cake is a nice, bright, white cake, and, cake flour is whiter than all-purpose, so it will make a small difference there, but, more importantly, the batter for this cake is beaten a lot. We don’t think you want all that beating to develop the gluten in all-purpose flour, resulting in a tough cake. Lemon zest, try to get an organically-grown lemon, but, failing that, we wash the lemons with dish detergent, place them in a colander, and rinse with boiling water to remove the applied wax. Butter, yes, let it get warm and soft. In fact, make sure all your ingredients are room temperature before mixing them. It’ll help make a light, tender cake. Finally, as far as raspberry jam goes, we’ve had good luck with Santa Cruz Organic brand. Great flavor, easy to spread, and nothing in the ingredient list that we wouldn’t want to put in our mouths. If the company would like to send us a couple of jars for that unpaid endorsement, well, we’d probably accept.
Procedure in detail:
Mise en Place. A lot of these steps are getting everything ready for the final mixing; for cakes, this allows the ingredients to come to room temperature, which is important, but it also makes it much, much, easier when you actually start work. If you haven’t done it yet, try it once and we doubt that you’ll go back. Below, we show you everything we did.
Set out butter. Take the butter out of the fridge and let it sit out on the counter; bringing it to room temperature is part of getting everything ready. You cannot cream butter and sugar together properly with cold butter.
Measure buttermilk. We knew in advance that we’d be pouring buttermilk and egg whites into the batter, so we used a 2-cup measuring cup with a spout. It made it easy to measure, and we could just drop the egg whites right in there, too.
Separate eggs. If possible, separate the eggs while they are cold, as the yolks are less likely to break. Now, we don’t think that the cake would be ruined by the addition of a bit of yolk — we won’t be whipping the egg whites — but we still like to take our time and get it right. We find it really useful to separate the eggs one by one into a small bowl, then add the whites to wherever we need them, in this case the buttermilk. Yep, just pour the whites right into the buttermilk. Let it sit on the counter to warm to room temperature.
Whisk flour, salt, and baking powder. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and baking powder. Whisk it well, so that the baking powder and salt will be thoroughly distributed throughout the flour.
Sift flour mixture. I hear you saying, what? Sift the flour, too? Yes, get out your sifter and run the flour mixture through it. Besides, you have to wait for the buttermilk and egg whites to warm, anyway, so you have plenty of time.
Zest lemon. If you have a zester or a microplane grater, you might use that. A grater will work, too, or even a sharp knife will allow you to remove the zest of a lemon (the yellow rind, but omit the white pith below). Then, make sure that it’s finely zested, grated, or chopped. Big pieces of zest will make it harder for the cake to rise.
Mix sugar and zest. In the mixer bowl, mix together the sugar and the lemon zest. Get your hands in there — wash them first, of course — and really grind that sugar and zest together. Keep rubbing the sugar and zest together until the sugar is moist and fragrant.
Prepare pans. Now’s the time to butter your baking pans. Butter the sides and butter the bottoms of two 8-inch round cake pans, then cut out round pieces of baking parchment, place them on the bottom of the pans, and butter those, too. Is the parchment really needed? You’ll know the answer to that question the first time you omit it and the cake sticks to the bottom and breaks apart as you are removing it.
Wait. There, everything is ready; it didn’t take too long, so now you need to wait for the buttermilk and egg mixture and the butter to come to room temperature. Do not try to rush, just relax for about an hour. We used the time to find a recipe for using up the egg yolks, which we will be posting, oh, probably next week.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Adjust a rack to the center of the oven.
Cream butter and sugar. Your butter is soft, right? If not, go back to the previous step. Otherwise, add the butter to the sugar, place it on the mixer and beat on medium speed. Beat. Scrape down sides of bowl. Beat some more. Still more. More. Beat the sugar and butter together until it’s light. For us, this took about 10 minutes, and we were so glad we weren’t making this by hand. Oh, what the heck, beat it a bit more.
Add extract. While the mixer is running, measure in the lemon extract. Let it run for a bit, then scrape down the sides, and beat it on medium speed for a minute more.
Add some flour. Add about 1/3 of the flour mixture to the creamed butter and sugar, and, yep, you guessed it. Beat it in on medium, for about a minute. Scrape down the sides, and….
Add some buttermilk and eggs. Whisk together the buttermilk and egg whites, then add about half of the liquid to the batter, and beat it in on medium speed for about a minute.
Finish batter. Now, just like before, add about 1/3 of the flour mixture, beat it in, then add the remaining buttermilk and eggs, beat that in, then add the final 1/3 of the flour and beat that in. Now, as part of the final push for a light cake, scrape down the sides of the bowl, and beat the batter on medium for a good 2 to 3 minutes.
Bake. Divide the cake batter between the two prepared pans (we find that using a scale helps to ensure that we get the same amount of batter in each). Place them side by side in the oven and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a thin knife inserted into the center comes out clean, and the tops are springy.
Cool. Let the cakes cool in the pans for about 5 minutes, then run a sharp knife around the edge, and invert to remove the cakes. Remove the paper, turn right side up, and let cool to room temperature before assembling. Now’s the time you want to make up that double batch of lemon buttercream frosting. Keep the buttercream frosting covered with a piece of plastic wrap pressed against the surface when you’re not using it.
Get a cake plate ready. Whew! Everything to this point seems like a lot, but we are now in the home stretch, so let’s start putting together the cake. Place four strips of waxed paper on your preferred cake plate. Make the strips wide enough and arrange them so you’ll have the entire plate covered once you set the cake in the middle, yet you’ll be able to pull out the strips easily once you’re finished putting together the cake. These strips help keep your cake plate nice and clean while you’re applying the frosting, jam, and coconut.
Slice cakes. Using a long serrated knife, carefully slice each cake round in half horizontally, giving you a total of four rounds.
Make first layer. Place bottom layer on the plate, center it, and adjust the wax paper strips as necessary so you’ll have a wide border with which to catch spills, etc. Spread about 1/3 of the raspberry jam on the top of this layer.
Freeze. Now, freeze that layer for about 15 minutes, so the jam stiffens up. If you’re like us, you want to skip this step and just work straight through. Having done it both ways — freezing versus not freezing — we really suggest that you freeze. Your frustration level will be so much lower and your cake will look much nicer, since you’ll be able to apply frosting without tearing the cake.
Build next two layers. Apply a layer of buttercream on top of the jam, then set another round of cake on top and press it down lightly. Spread jam on the top of that layer, and, again, freeze for 15 minutes. Then, repeat with the third layer, reserving a cake round that came from the bottom of the pan for the final layer.
Build final layer. This layer is slightly different. Place the last round that came from the bottom of the cake pan upside-down on top of the third layer, and press it lightly in place. This will provide a nice flat top to the cake, making it easier to frost, and it’ll look nicer, too. And, once again, freeze for 15 minutes.
Apply crumb coat. We’ve learned two tricks for frosting a cake so that you don’t get crumbs in the frosting while you’re working. The first is freezing the cake between steps, which we’ve been doing, and, the second is this: apply an initial thin layer of frosting all over the cake — the crumb coat. Follow that with a final layer for show. So, frost away, and don’t worry that some of the cake shows through; it should. Don’t worry if crumbs get into the crumb coating, that’s what it’s for. Once you’ve finished with the crumb coat: freeze for 15 minutes to seal any crumbs into the frosting.
Apply frosting. Now, spread frosting over the top of the cake, and smooth with a long, thin spatula, a dough scraper, or any utensil that’s long and has a straight edge. You’ll notice that, as you work, the buttercream will thicken as it cools against the nearly-frozen cake, making it easy to get a smooth coating. Apply frosting to the sides and smooth it the best you can. If you’re going to be applying coconut, you don’t have to worry too much about the sides, but we tried to get them as nice as we could. It’s good practice for future cakes. Let the cake start warming back to room temperature, so the coconut will stick.
Apply coconut. Using your hands, press coconut into the frosting around the sides of the cake, trying not to get any on top. When you have the coconut in place, carefully slide out the wax paper sheets, removing excess frosting and coconut that would have been spread on the plate, leaving a cake that will impress.
This cake is almost everything a cake should be: it’s tender, moist, light, has a good flavor, and, is easy to handle and frost. The only thing that keeps it from getting five stars is that we would really like it if it were to rise a bit more. So far, the best we’ve been able to achieve is to have each cake round rise to about an inch thick. That’s thick enough to make a nice-looking four-layer cake, but we think that if it were to rise just a bit more, the cake would be even more impressive when it’s sliced. Note that this is almost all aesthetics; when it comes to flavor, this cake has it. It has a bright lemony flavor, with a nice clean raspberry accent, and, by using a fluffy buttercream frosting, makes for such a dreamy cake that everyone will be wanting another slice. Everything considered, four stars, but a really high four stars.