Don't invent the icing. Magnolia Bakery already did.

Photographer: STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

Friday Food Post: Layer Cake for Labor Day

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
Read More.
a | A

Last week, I tackled that all-American dessert, the sweet pie -- delicious, decadent, unfortunately labor intensive. This week, in honor of America's Labor Day, I am going to tackle that other most patriotic of desserts, the American-style layer cake. Among its many charms is the fact that this takes a lot less work than pie. After all, it's Labor Day! You'll want to honor it by doing as little as possible.

That is not, of course, the only charm of this American dessert. And already I can hear the Europeans grumbling in the back of the room. "You Americans think you invented everything!" they are saying. "We invented cake! Your cakes are just worse versions of ours."

And of course, the Europeans do have cake -- many, many delicious cakes that I would like to eat all of, right now. But while the dessert I am thinking of does of course owe a vast debt to its European forbears, the spacious skies and amber waving grain have put their own special stamp on ours. I am talking about a two-tier butter cake, frosted with buttercream. It is a simple, homely dessert, the signature of a people with a whole lot of grit and dash, but perhaps not an excess of savoir-faire. As American as the proverbial apple pie, and as comforting as Mom's lap.

 You can gussy it up with more layers, marbling, fancy piping. But the magic of the layer cake is that it will still be exactly as good if you slap the frosting on like a drunk mason, and naughtily eat the result while standing in your pajamas at 7 a.m. If the frosting is too much, you can scrape it off and enjoy the simple, delicious cake; if all you like is that sinfully sweet mix of butter and sugar, you can steal the excess from the bowl, and the plate of your more austere neighbors.

Best of all, basically anyone can make a good layer cake. This is not pastry, where you need a certain knack. If you can read directions, your oven thermostat is within a reasonable spitting distance of accurate, you are in possession of the ingredients and two nine-inch cake pans, and you can muster some sort of mechanical mixing device, then you, too, can have a layer cake in the oven almost as quickly as you think "Hmmm, I'd like a layer cake." I am not advising that you do this as often as you think this.

So, what makes a great layer cake?

The first thing is the recipe: It must be a recipe for a butter cake, which is to say, a cake with a lot of fat at its base. Now, I know there are recipes out there for layer cakes made out of sponge cakes, and chiffon cakes, and heaven help us, even angel food cakes. But these always feel inappropriate to me and a little forced, like your bride ran out at the altar and you just slapped a veil on the maid of honor and went ahead with the ceremony anyway. Sponges and so forth are absolutely splendid in their place, but that place is not here, in this column -- or, in my opinion, under two layers of delicious buttercream.

Next, it must be made from scratch, by the creaming method. With this method, you beat sugar into softened butter until both of them are very tired of it, and then you proceed to add some form of eggs, flour, a leavening agent, and assorted flavorings. The sugar makes small holes in your butter which the leavening agent will later fill with air, producing a light cake with a lot of volume. This makes the perfect contrast to the rich frosting you are going to slap on top.

No, I do not want to hear about your special quick method of avoiding this step. Nor do I want to hear any words spoken about salad oil, because the words I speak in reply will be uncontrollably bitter and harsh. (Adept readers will have correctly inferred that I am not a fan of the carrot cake and its many greasy brethren.) And please don't mention cake mixes to me. They taste like -- no, I will not say they taste like chemicals, not with all the good work the Dihydrogen Monoxide Awareness Campaign has recently been doing. They taste of preservatives themselves gone stale, and quiet despair.

There are essentially five secrets to making a great cake by this method.

  1. Preheat your oven to the temperature called for by the recipe. If your oven thermostat is really bad, you can buy a thermometer that will hang off a rack and tell you when it reaches temperature.

  2. Leave your butter at room temperature for two hours before you start, and your eggs for 30 minutes, unless the recipe specifically tells you not to. In a pinch, you can soften the butter in the microwave, though you'll have to start over if it starts to melt, because melted butter will not work with the creaming methods. Don't try the microwave shortcut with eggs. Ahem.

  3. Beat the butter and sugar together for a really long time. Five minutes in a good stand mixer is not too long; some would say it is not quite long enough. Beat it even longer if you're using a hand mixer. Beat it much longer than you think you have to, until you are getting bored and wondering if you have time to watch an episode of "The Wire."  When in doubt, beat it more. At this point, it's beyond suffering anyway.

  4. Unless the recipe states otherwise, sift your flour before measuring, and then sift it again with the dry ingredients. This aerates the flour and gives you both a better result, and a more precise measurement, since recipes tend to be written with sifted flour. You do not need a fancy sifter; you can use any mesh strainer, or -- whee! -- you can pulse it for a few seconds in your food processor.

  5. Read the darn recipe, and follow it exactly. Cooking may be an art, but baking is chemistry, and good chemists are precise. Make sure you have all of your ingredients together before you start, and then measure them out with obsessive precision. Don't cut the sugar in half because you think it will be healthier that way; don't try to substitute baking soda for the baking powder you don't have; don't try to substitute bread flour for cake flour; don't try to substitute. The only things that can be swapped out are flavoring extracts, and even there, you're on very shaky ground because the flavor intensities differ between extracts. Every ingredient in the recipe is doing a necessary job for which it is highly specialized. You wouldn't try to substitute a plumber for a heart surgeon because you happen to have one around, and he's a great guy. 

    Measure your liquid ingredients using a liquid measure that you set on the counter, slowly pouring in the liquid while you watch carefully from eye level. Either weigh your dry ingredients, or measure using the dip-level-pour method and pretend that there is a drill sergeant standing next to you who is going to make you do something tiresome and humiliating if you do not get the top leveled off exactly flat. This applies to everything from a quarter teaspoon of salt, to two cups of flour. If there is an extra grain of dry ingredient in that mix, Sergeant Slaughter is going to be very mad, and you won't like him when he's mad.

  6. Take it out as soon as the cake is done. For those wailing "But how will I know?" there are multiple methods, all of which should give you the same result. The easiest is to stick a toothpick, a skewer, or a thin knife into the center; when it comes out clean, it is done. The second is to look at the sides of the pan; the cake will pull away slightly when it is done. And the third is to lightly touch the center of the cake; if your finger leaves no imprint, than stick a fork in it (metaphorically). But if you're not experienced enough to be really sure using the other two methods, then stick with the first.

If you follow these simple dicta, you almost cannot fail to make a good cake. That's the magic of kitchen chemistry.

 Crisco and its relatives can be used instead of butter, which makes for a very tender cake, but I don't like the flavor so well. I prefer good old fashioned Land O'Lakes. And in the frosting, butter is essential. Otherwise, you might as well just get out the can of Crisco, mash in some confectioner's sugar, and dig in with a spoon. And if you eat cakes from the supermarket or most commercial bakeries, this is essentially what you're doing .

Buttercream is, well, a frosting made with butter and sugar. On this, there are many variations, ranging from the simplest -- beat up soft butter and confectioner's sugar with a little flavoring and milk -- to the complicated world of egg white powder and Italian meringues. You can also make a cooked frosting, though I don't bother. They are often beautifully glossy and make for an impressive presentation, but they always end up tasting faintly reminiscent of marshmallow, and I don't care for marshmallows.

Yes, you in the back, I see you muttering "What about cream cheese frosting?" There are many people who speak well of cream cheese frosting, though they are generally careful not to do so in my presence. I find it too much. Your frosting is the gentle complement to a simple cake, and perhaps, if we are very daring, a filling in the middle. It is like the heroines of mid-Victorian novels: a sweet and simple helpmeet, on the shy side. Cream cheese shoves everyone else aside and demands that everyone listen to it play "Greensleeves" on the pianoforte right now. There is no finer accompaniment to a bagel or a stalk of celery, but it's as out of place here as a chorus girl would have been in the parlor of "Little Women."

Of course, no column would be complete without recipes. Here are my favorite basic cakes--your starter library, if you like. They all use the very simplest buttercream: sugar beaten together with butter and flavored. It is, in fact, technically not a buttercream frosting at all, but everyone calls it that, and who am I to oppose Fashion?

Frosting

Use Magnolia bakery's recipe, which is rich and delicious.

Now, because this is frosting, and technically not baking at all, we can safely play with it to change the flavors. Here's how I modify that basic buttercream. You're basically getting it to the flavor you want, and remember that any overly free hand with the liquid can always be fixed by adding more confectioner's sugar. Yes, you will not have the perfectly exact texture of Magnolia frosting, but it will still be very good:

Chocolate: Melt 5-6 squares of unsweetened chocolate and drizzle it in with the milk until you have the flavor you want.

Mocha: Omit the vanilla and use strong black coffee in place of milk. Make chocolate-mocha by adding a couple of squares of melted chocolate.

Orange: Omit the vanilla and add a tablespoon of grated zest, and substitute orange juice for milk.

Lemon: Omit the vanilla and get out your bottle of lemon extract.  Throw it in the garbage. Add grated lemon zest and lemon juice to taste after you've made up the frosting. (The acid in lemon juice will curdle milk if they get close to each other in their naked state.) 

Caramel: Okay, this is sort of tricky if you haven't done it before. Caramelize half a cup of sugar, then carefully pour in 1/4 cup of boiling water in a thin stream, stirring constantly. (Molten sugar splashing onto your hand is emphatically not a joke.) Assuming no accidents, you have just made caramel syrup. Add 1/2 cup of it to the butter and sugar in place of milk, with a few tablespoons of cream to fatten it up. The syrup should be made up well in advance if you have not caramelized sugar before, because there is a fine line between "caramel" and "burnt sludge clinging to your pan" and many a beginning baker has failed to recognize that line. Don't undercook it either, however, because then it won't taste like anything.

Coconut: Use coconut milk instead of regular. Decorate with flaked coconut.

Maple: Use maple syrup as your liquid; add maple extract (available in supermarkets or from Amazon) to taste.

How to frost a cake: You can't do better than this video. But remember, you don't have to make it look that pretty. You can use a butter knife and just smooth the top and sides, and it will still be delicious.

Now on to the cakes. Remember that this is a place we are not going to play with the mixture. We are going to do exactly what Auntie Megan tells us to do.

For our recipe making purposes today, cakes come in four varieties: white, yellow, chocolate and marble . These are the simple recipes my family has been cooking with for years. All cakes come in one size: the kind that fills two 9-inch layer pans. 

 Devil's Food Cake

This cake, with white vanilla icing, is in many ways the ur-cake of the American table -- or at least, of the American heart. I love that cake even though I'm the opposite of a chocolate freak. I am making it myself for our Labor Day Cookout.

  • 2/3 cup butter, softened
  • 1 2/3 cups sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 2/3 cup cocoa
  • 1 1/3 cup cold water
  • 2 1/4 cups cake flour (MUST be cake flour)
  • gently heaping quarter teaspoon of baking powder (yes, I know what I just told you about precision. This is the exception). You want about half again as much as is in the bowl of the measuring spoon.
  • 1 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and prepare two pans by spraying them with Baker's Joy or Pam for Baking. (Alternative for the old-fashioned).
  2. Put the cocoa in the bottom of a large measuring cup and then slowly add the water, stirring as you go.
  3. Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt (this, and the preceding step can be done while you are creaming butter and sugar, if you are using a stand mixer).
  4. Cream your butter and sugar together with a hand mixer or stand mixer.  
  5. When the butter/sugar mix is nice and fluffy, beat in your eggs, one at a time.
  6. With your mixer on low, stir in half the flour mixture, then all of the cocoa water, and then the other half of the flour mixture, stirring well between each addition.
  7. Stir in vanilla and divide between two pans. Bake 30 to 35 minutes, until done. Cool completely before frosting.

What to do with this cake: The aforementioned vanilla icing is delicious. Mocha is obvious. And for those of us who like the idea of German Chocolate Cake, but not its greasy frosting, I suggest frosting with caramel buttercream, sprinkling a mixture of chopped pecans and toasted coconut flakes on the frosting the middle, and plastering the mixture on the sides. This cake is also delicious if you spread a layer of raspberry jam on the bottom layer before frosting middle, top, and sides with chocolate buttercream.

 Yellow Cake

  • 2/3 cup softened butter
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 1/2 cups cake flour (MUST be cake flour)
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and prepare two pans by spraying them with Baker's Joy or Pam for Baking. (Alternative for the old-fashioned).
  2. Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt (this, and the preceding step can be done while you are creaming butter and sugar, if you are using a stand mixer).
  3. Mix the vanilla and milk
  4. Cream your butter and sugar together with a hand mixer or stand mixer.  
  5. When the butter/sugar mix is nice and fluffy, beat in your eggs, one at a time.
  6. With your mixer on low, stir in half the flour mixture, then all of the milk, and then the other half of the flour mixture, stirring well between each addition.
  7. Divide between two pans. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, until done. Cool completely before frosting.

What to do with this cake: Chocolate frosting on this cake is a childhood favorite. Orange curd or marmalade in the center, with orange or chocolate frosting on top, is delicious. Its sturdy texture and flavor are also a good base for a robust coconut cake, with coconut frosting and coconut flakes plastered all over it. It does well with maple icing and walnuts in the frosting. But a yellow cake is the most unassuming of cakes; it will happily accept whatever you slap on top of it.

 White Cake:

  • 1 cup soft butter
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3 cups cake flour (MUST be cake flour)
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 1/3 cup 1% milk (or thin out whole milk, using half water and half milk)
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 6 egg whites
  1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and prepare two pans by spraying them with Baker's Joy or Pam for Baking. (Alternative for the old-fashioned).
  2. Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt (this, and the preceding step can be done while you are creaming butter and sugar, if you are using a stand mixer).
  3. Mix the vanilla and milk
  4. Beat egg whites until stiff (they are stiff when a spoonful turned vertical stays unmoving in the spoon)
  5. Cream your butter and sugar together with a hand mixer or stand mixer.  
  6. When the butter/sugar mix is nice and fluffy, beat in your eggs, one at a time.
  7. With your mixer on low, stir in half the flour mixture, then all of the milk, and then the other half of the flour mixture, stirring well between each addition.
  8. Fold in beaten egg whites. DO NOT simply stir the egg whites into the mixture, because your cake will be a pancake-flat mess.
  9. Divide between two pans. Bake 30 to 35 minutes, until done. Cool completely before frosting.

What to do with this cake: This cake has a clean, delicate flavor that plays beautifully with lemon curd and lemon frosting--and since you have six egg yolks, now is a good time to make lemon curd. It is elegant with simple vanilla frosting, perhaps with a layer of raspberry puree in the middle. It makes a nice coconut cake, or better, a lemon coconut cake with lemon in the middle and coconut frosting and flakes on the outside. (Make your curd with pineapple juice instead of lemon, and you have a pina colada cake). It will stand up to mocha very well. Any sort of jam or fruit puree does well as a filling; I am very fond of marmelade in the middle, and lemon frosting on top. If you are making a citrus frosting, a tablespoon of zest stirred into to the batter just before you fold in the egg whites will delicately enhance the flavor.

 Marble Cake:

This is basically the cake above. Except before you put it in the pans:

  1. Melt one-and-a-half squares of unsweetened chocolate (1.5 ounces). 
  2. Mix the melted chocolate with 1/4 teaspoon baking soda and 2.5 tablespoons warm water.
  3. Put a third of the cake batter in a smaller bowl and stir in the chocolate mixture thoroughly.
  4. Put the cake in the pans using a cup measure for the white batter, and a half-cup measure for the chocolate batter: one cup of white in each pan, then a half a cup of chocolate, alternating until you've filled both pans.
  5. With a thin knife, start in the center and cut a spiral through each pan until you reach the edge. Bake as normal.

What to do with this cake: chocolate frosting, hand's down.

So there you have it: layer cake for Labor Day. The best part? It took you longer to read this column than it will to make the cake. You should have the whole project finished, including softening the butter, in under three hours, of which only fifteen to thirty minutes will be active time. Most of it can be spent sitting on the couch and luxuriating in the fact that you are not working.

  1. But if you eat regular buttercream, you're just doing that with a stick of butter, I hear you cry. And you say that like I haven't.

  2. I regret that my family's favorite recipe for nut cake, handed down from the Grange cookbook my Great Grandmother received on her wedding day, is not available, since I cannot lay my hands on it at the moment, but will try to include it in a future column. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net