Layer cakes are usually made with layers of plain, round cakes, stacked up to turn a simple dessert into a dramatic centerpiece. Occasionally, you will see a layer cake that uses square cakes for a slightly unusual look, but round is the standard for layer cakes. Williams Sonoma recently introduced layer cake pans with a little extra flair that will give your cakes a slightly different look. These Celebration Layer Cake Pans have scalloped edges, which make them look a little bit like large flowers before they’re stacked into eye-catching layer cakes. The pans are large and thin – 9 3/4″ wide and just 3/4″ high. The shallow depth makes it easy to ensure that your cake layers will all be the same thickness (instead of trying to eyeball the right amount of cake batter in a deeper pan), and it also makes the layers easy to remove from the nonstick pans. The pans will cool down quickly once the cakes are removed, so you can quickly clean and re-fill them to bake additional layers without needing multiple sets of cake pans to do so.
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I originally put this Vanilla and Lemon Layer Cake together for a friend who loves lemon. It wasn’t a stretch for me since I love to put lemons into baked goods when I have a bunch of them in my kitchen. The cake is made up of three rounds of vanilla cake that are layered together with homemade lemon curd and a lemon cream cheese buttercream frosting. There isn’t quite as much lemon as you would expect to find in a lemon cake (since the cake base is vanilla, after all), but the lemon flavor pops beautifully here and will win over anyone who is a citrus fan.
The cake layers are easy to make and come together quickly. It is easiest to bake them in three 9-inch round cake pans, although if you want to stretch this cake to four layers, you could bake the cakes in two 9-inch pans and split the cakes in half to get that extra layer. The cake is moist, has a soft, tight crumb and a very nice vanilla flavor. It would actually go very well with just about any frosting, if you want to use it as a base for other cake recipes in the future.
While I waited for the cakes to cool, I made a batch of my favorite homemade lemon curd. You could easily use storebought lemon curd in this recipe, but since you’ll want some fresh lemon zest to boost the lemon flavor in the frosting, you’ll probably have some whole lemons on hand for juicing anyway. My lemon curd recipe makes a little bit more than you’ll need to put the cake together. You could cut it in half, although it is easy to find ways to use up a little extra lemon curd.
The lemon curd is spread between the cake layers, and it is also used to flavor some of the Lemon Cream Cheese Buttercream Frosting that is used as the filling for the cake. The frosting has just enough cream cheese in it to give it that distinctive cream cheese tanginess that goes extremely well with the lemon zest in the frosting. It is a little stiffer than most cream cheese frostings, however, since it uses a lot more butter. This makes it a lot easier to work with when it comes to frosting the finished cake.
The finished cake is beautiful to look at – and even more beautiful when it is sliced into. You get lemon, vanilla and cream cheese in every bite. It’s a great balance of flavors and the overall feeling of the cake is that it is light and almost refreshing to eat. I kept my decorations simple and just added some white chocolate flowers along the sides of the cake to give it a springtime feel. If you don’t want to add too many decorations, just serve yours as-is and it will be a hit as soon as you cut that first slice.
Boston Cream Pie, despite its name, is not a pie at all. Boston Cream Pie is a layer cake that is filled with pastry cream and topped of with an indulgent chocolate glaze. The dessert is said to have been created at Boston’s Parker House Hotel in 1856, and it has been popular ever since – even becoming the official dessert of the state of Massachusetts! It is popular not only because all of the components are so good together, but because the dessert is very unique and you won’t find many other cakes – or pies, for that matter – like it.
The cake for a Boston Cream Pie is usually a yellow sponge cake, chiffon cake or butter cake. It should have a slight yellow color and a slight vanilla flavor, but many chefs will simply use their favorite type of cake rather than sticking to the most traditional sponge cake option. I like to use a yellow butter cake for my Boston Cream Pie. This cake has a nice vanilla flavor to it, and it is very moist and tender. The cake goes very nicely with the creamy vanilla pastry cream in between the cake layers and stands up to the chocolate glaze, too.
The vanilla pastry cream is similar to vanilla pudding, and is made in much the same way on the stovetop. It has a thick consistency so it will hold up to spreading and slicing without running out of the cake. My version has a great vanilla flavor, thanks to some generous use of fresh vanilla beans, and is good enough that you can eat it on its own. It does need to be prepared in advance and completely cooled before using, so start your recipe preparation by making the filling and then moving on to the other components. The pastry cream can also be made a day or two ahead and stored in the refrigerator.
Just as the cake used in Boston Cream Pie varies, so does the chocolate glaze on top. I’ve had thin, almost watery chocolate glazes that only add a little flavor, and I’ve had thick heavy glazes that dominate the cake. My glaze is a very simple ganache made with dark chocolate and butter. It has a dark chocolate bite to it, but it doesn’t overwhelm the other flavors in the cake. The glaze should really only be spread on top of the cake for this recipe, not used to cover the whole thing. The glaze goes onto the cake shiny, but it will set up firmly within an hour or so, which makes slicing the cake much neater and easier.
This cake is excellent when it is fresh, but is also good a day or two after being made, when the layers have had a chance to meld together. It’s a very classic American dessert and a huge crowd pleaser. The recipe below covers the cake, the filling and the glaze for this cake. The pastry cream recipe is very generous because it never hurts to have extra pastry cream, and this allows you to use as much, or as little, filling as you like when you stack up your very own Boston Cream Pie.
The hardest thing about making a layer cake is getting evenly sliced layers. It never seems like it will be that difficult to level the rounded top off of a single layer or cake, or to cut a taller cake into two even pieces, but even pros end up with uneven layers sometimes. The trick to getting even layers is to have a very large knife and a steady hand, but if this kind of thing isn’t your forte, a Frieling Layer Cake Slicing Kit is much more reliable than “eyeballing” your layers. The cake slicing kit comes with a large, adjustable ring mold that fits around cakes from 8 to 10-inches in diameter. The mold has seven evenly spaced slots on it, and you simply run the included knife straight through those slots to get even layers. It is foolproof, and lets you cut a cake into anywhere from 2 to 8 layers in no time at all. Once the cake is cut, you remove the ring and use the included cake lifter – which is a very large, flat spatula – to pick up the layers easily. You can then reassemble your cake, frosting and filling as you go, on your cake stand.
This tool kit isn’t a kitchen must-have unless you bake a lot of cakes, but if you do a lot of layer cake baking, it can really streamline the assembly process and save you a lot of time in the long run – especially because you know that with the ring to guide you, you’ll always have perfectly even cake layers every time you use it.
You can top a cake with whipped cream or glaze it with ganache, but the most popular way to finish off a cake is with a layer of buttercream frosting. Buttercream is a sweet frosting that is rich with butter and has a silky texture that melts against your tongue when you bite into it. There are several types of buttercream and some are far more common than others.
A simple buttercream, also called an American buttercream, is probably the most common buttercream variation. This frosting is made by creaming together butter, confectioners’ sugar, milk or cream, and some kind of flavorings until everything is smooth and fluffy. This type of frosting is sweet, easy to work with and keeps very well, all of which make it a very popular choice with cake bakers. The other common type of buttercream is a meringue-based buttercream. With this type of frosting, either Italian meringue (hot sugar beaten into egg whites) or Swiss Meringue (egg whites and sugar heated together and beaten) is prepared and cooled, then a generous amount of butter is beaten into it until the frosting is glossy. These types of buttercreams have a much lighter texture than a simple buttercream and they have a much more distinct butter flavor to them.
Less well known buttercreams include a French buttercream, which is prepared in a similar way to the meringue buttercreams but uses egg yolks that are beaten until very light instead of egg whites. This type of buttercream tends to be the trickiest to make. There are also custard based buttercreams, where a flavored pastry cream has butter beaten into it to form a rich, thick buttercream typically used for filling cakes rather than frosting them. These additional buttercreams are also excellent examples of how easy it is to experiment and use other ingredients – peanut butter or nutella, for instance – to make your own twist on buttercream that you can use to frost your favorite cake or cupcake recipes.