Let’s talk about layer cakes. I get a lot of questions about them. Not gonna lie; mine aren’t the easiest. BUT (and it’s an important but), that doesn’t mean you can’t learn to bake an advanced cake, regardless of your skill level. You need to be willing to invest in some reasonably priced equipment, and learn a few techniques. You need to be willing to practice, but baking cakes and whipping up buttercream isn’t exactly a chore. Even the failures taste pretty darn good.
There’s a lot of info in this post, so if you’re just here for the recipe, scroll to the bottom!
Equipment makes a huge difference. You don’t NEED to use everything I’m recommending, but each tool serves an important purpose. With the exception of the KitchenAid stand mixer, I’m not particular about any of the brands linked below. I know that all of these work well, but if you can find a better price on offset spatulas, have at it. Disclosure: I’m linking these products through my Amazon affiliate store.
KitchenAid Stand Mixer – This is the only pricy item that you really need. You can make some cakes without a stand mixer but you do need it to make buttercream. It’s one of those kitchen tools that is worth the investment if you love to bake. I use the classic 4-1/2 quart model which is MUCH cheaper than some of the newer models (and sturdier, I’ve heard). Mine is a 3rd generation hand-me-down.
Kitchen Scale – I really hate including volume (cup) measurements for the flour with this cake, but people always ask me for it so happy birthday. I’ve said it a million times, but it needs to be repeated: you need to weigh the flour. For this recipe you should weigh the cornstarch as well. I don’t care about the sugar, it’s not going to matter nearly as much. But if you measure the flour using cups and your cake doesn’t look like mine, don’t blame me. A cup of flour can weigh anywhere from 3 1/2 – 5 1/2 ounces depending on how you measure it.
8-inch Cake Pans – Don’t mix and match different brands if you’re making a double or triple layer cake. I speak from experience. Pick something and buy 3 of them.
Parchment Rounds – Pre-cut parchment rounds are awesome and will ensure that your cake never gets stuck to the pan.
Large Sheet Pan – This sheet pan is not essential, but it fits all 3 cake pans and makes transferring them in and out of the oven at once a breeze. This size basically fills an entire oven shelf so it’s also great for baking large batches of cookies or roasting a lot of vegetables at once.
Revolving Cake Stand – I consider this an essential. It makes decorating and achieving flat, even layers SO much easier and faster. You can gently spin the cake while spreading the buttercream with an offset spatula, keeping an eye on all sides to make sure the lines are even.
Offset Spatula – The offset spatula is an essential for cake decorating. You use it to spread the buttercream evenly on the tops and sides of the cake. It’s also good for leveling out the cake batter before baking.
Cardboard Cake Rounds – Since cakes need to be cooled completely before frosting, I often bake them 1-2 days in advance. You can place the cakes on these rounds before wrapping in plastic to ensure they hold their shape. However, I mainly use cardboard rounds as a base on top of the revolving cake stand. The cake needs to be chilled before a final layer of buttercream is applied. The cardboard can easily be transferred between the revolving cake stand and the refrigerator.
Cake Lifter – Truly an essential for transferring the cake from the revolving cake stand to a pretty display stand. At one point I lost mine and tried to get by without it for a few cakes. Had to repurchase.
Digital Thermometer – My recipes always call for a candy thermometer when making meringue buttercream, but I have a secret: I use a digital meat thermometer. I love a multitasking tool, and this gets the job done perfectly well.
Serrated Bread Knife – Not an essential, but no matter how much you try to even out the batter, sometimes cakes aren’t level. When this happens, I use a serrated bread knife to carefully slice away excess cake to even out the top.
Meringue Buttercream Basics
Italian meringue buttercream takes some practice. If you don’t want to deal with it, you can swap out my recipe for a basic buttercream, the kind that uses butter and confectioners’ sugar. But meringue buttercreams are wonderful; they’re lighter and less dense. They make the dessert feel less heavy and rich overall. There are a few important things to understand about meringue buttercream:
- Meringue buttercream is made from 3 main ingredients: sugar syrup cooked to the “soft ball” stage, egg whites, and unsalted butter.
- The hot syrup cooks the raw egg whites, making them safe to consume. However, you want to add the syrup to the eggs very slowly, otherwise you’ll get scrambled eggs.
- Once you begin adding the butter, it’s not uncommon for the buttercream to break (I have done this countless times) but it’s easy to fix broken buttercream. More on that below.
- The best way to avoid breaking buttercream is to make sure all of the ingredients are the same temperature and to be patient when adding the butter. Add it slowly. Full disclosure: I’m impatient, which is why I often break my buttercream.
- Meringue buttercream is best served at room temperature. Cold buttercream has the texture of cold butter.
How to Fix Broken Buttercream
If your buttercream breaks, don’t panic. I’ve never met a broken buttercream I wasn’t able to fix. Buttercream breaks if the butter is added too quickly or if the temperature of the butter is different from the meringue (if the meringue hasn’t cooled enough or if the butter is too cold). It will look kind of like cottage cheese. To bring it back together, the temperatures needs to be equalized. There are several ways to do this, but I find the easiest, most foolproof method is to scoop about 2-3 tablespoons of the broken buttercream into a small ramekin and microwave it for 5-10 seconds until it’s just melted. Turn the mixer on high speed and pour the liquified buttercream back into the bowl to incorporate. If that doesn’t fix it, repeat the process a few more times. This always works for me.
The Perfect Slice
People often ask me how I get such perfect cake slices for my photos. If you’re serving the cake to eat immediately, you don’t want to do exactly what I do. For photography, I slice the cake when the buttercream is cold so I get clean lines. But as I said above, meringue buttercream is best served at room temperature. You can still follow the rest of my method and the slices will be sharp, though the icing lines won’t be quite as clean:
- Run a long sharp knife (I use a slicer but you don’t need something that fancy) under hot water. Wipe off the knife with a clean dish towel.
- Firmly press the knife down into the cake and pull it straight out as opposed to up.
- Run the knife under hot water again, dry, and repeat on the other side of the slice.
- 10½ ounces (approximately 2 cups + 1½ tablespoons) all-purpose flour
- 3 ounces (9 tablespoons) cornstarch
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1½ teaspoons kosher salt
- 1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1½ cups good quality eggnog
- ¼ cup dark or spiced rum
- 2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
- 9 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
- 2¼ cups granulated sugar
- 6 large eggs, room temperature
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- ¼ cup water
- 5 large egg whites
- 16 ounces unsalted butter, cubed and at room temperature
- 2 tablespoons good quality eggnog
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 3-4 tablespoons dark or spiced rum (to taste)
- 1 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg (plus more for cake garnish)
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Place an oven rack in the middle position. Lightly grease the bottom of 3 (8-inch) cake pans (I use baking spray with flour) and cover them with parchment rounds. Set aside.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. In a liquid measuring cup, whisk together the eggnog, rum and vanilla extract.
- In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar together on medium-high speed for 5 minutes until light and fluffy. On low speed, add the eggs one at a time, periodically scraping down the bowl and allowing each egg to incorporate before adding the next. Scrape down the sides of the bowl again. With the mixer medium-low speed, quickly alternate between adding the dry and liquid ingredients (ending with the dry) until just combined. Scrape down the sides well, making sure to reach the bottom of the bowl. Turn the mixer up to medium-high and allow the batter to mix for an additional 30 seconds.
- Distribute the batter evenly between the 3 prepared cake pans (for best results use a kitchen scale to weigh out each pan). Use a spatula to level out the tops of the cakes as much as possible.
- Bake until the a toothpick comes out of the center of each cake clean, approximately 33-36 minutes. Allow the cakes to cool completely in the pan before removing. Allow the cake to cool completely (make ahead: prepare the cakes the day before and allow to cool overnight).
- Add sugar and water to a medium sauce pan. Cover and turn the heat to medium-high. Once the liquid begins to simmer and steam has developed, remove the cover (the steam helps prevent sugar crystallization). Using a candy thermometer, cook the sugar to the soft boil stage, 235-240 degrees F, approximately 5 minutes.
- While the sugar is cooking, Place the egg whites in a stand mixer with the whisk attachment. Whisk on high speed until a soft peak has formed.
- Turn the mixer down to medium-low and slowly pour the syrup down the side of the bowl into the egg whites. Don’t pour the hot syrup directly into the meringue or the eggs might scramble.
- Once the syrup is completely incorporated, turn the speed to high and allow the meringue to continue forming a stiff peak while cooling to room temperature. To speed up this 15-20 minute process, ice packs can be placed around the bowl.
- Once the meringue is at room temperature, very slowly begin incorporating the butter on medium speed. Once all of the butter has been incorporated, turn the mixer up to high speed and slowly add the eggnog, vanilla extract, rum and nutmeg.
- Place the first layer of cake on a revolving cake stand and remove the parchment paper. Placing a cardboard round below the cake is optional but will make Top the cake with 1 cup of buttercream and spread it around evenly with an offset spatula. Add more buttercream as needed to reached the desired thickness. Repeat with the second and third layer (don't forget to remove the parchment each time). Use an offset spatula to apply a thin layer of frosting to the side and top of the cake. Chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to set this first layer of buttercream (this is known as the crumb coat). Cover the entire cake with a final layer of frosting. Top with freshly grated nutmeg.
- This cake is best when served at room temperature.