This is a big birthday time in my family. My dad’s birthday was last week, on the 13th, my grandpa’s birthday is Monday, the 18th, and my own is this Wednesday, the 20th.
If you ever ask anyone in my family, they’ll tell you that from when I was really little I would hardly eat chocolate. It seems like all little kids like chocolate ice cream, but I’d only eat vanilla. I didn’t even care much for other flavors — if there was vanilla, then that was it. That was the start of my life long love affair with vanilla, and as I got older and realized the different varieties of vanilla that are out there, my palate began to mature. As of today, I have probably 6 different varieties of vanilla in my pantry, from Mexican to Madagascar, from powdered to paste to my favorites, cold-crushed and whole beans (both here and here). I use the scraped out pods for making vanilla sugar (that comes in really handy). Some things just cannot have too much vanilla for me, a fact you’ll notice looking through my tweaked recipes — the vanilla is always doubled or tripled.
So that’s how this cake was born. I found a wonderful recipe online that is a base white cake recipe for cooking schools. Like a chiffon cake uses oil to emulsify the batter and give the finished cake a fluffy crumb, this cake does something similar, but with butter. Most cake recipes first start with a creaming of butter and sugar, then adding of eggs and liquid while alternating with the dry ingredients. But in this cake, the order is completely different. First you measure out your dry goods, and as if you were making a pie crust or dough, you cut the butter into it until you have a fine crumb (I use the whisk attachment on my KitchenAid mixer for this to get it really fine). Then, the chemical reaction while baking is very similar to a dough or crust. The butter coats the flour and other dry goods, so when when melted during baking gives the cake an extra lift.
This is the lightest and fluffiest cake you’ll ever eat. I swear.
And it’s a base recipe. You can very easily make it with any flavor you want sans chocolate (cause that’s a whole different beast!). Lemon? Add some zest and lemon juice. I’ve even made a blood orange one with lime marscapone frosting before. It would be great with tropical fruits — mango, passionfruit, papaya. Or simply make a raspberry coulis to drizzle over the top with some custard and fresh whipped cream. There are so many possibilities!
In the end though, I like it pure vanilla. Some cold-crushed vanilla, an extra couple of pods worth of beans in the batter, then the same in the italian buttercream frosting. That is my very, very favorite birthday cake.
Very Vanilla Bean Cake
1 cup milk, room temperature
6 egg whites
1 tsp almond extract (just to round out the flavor)
1 tbsp vanilla extract (whichever kind you wish, though pure vanilla is always better than imitation)
2 1/4 cups cake flour (this is important for the fine crumb)
1 3/4 cups vanilla sugar (just for extra vanilla flavor, regular white cane sugar is fine)
4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
3/4 cup butter (6 oz), softened and cubed
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Grease two 9 inch cake pans with butter, line the bottom with parchment paper, grease the parchment paper and flour the pans.
Combine milk, eggs whites and extracts in a small bowl with a fork. Set aside.
Combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in an electric mixer and mix at slow speed with a whisk (paddle is fine, whisk is my preference) attachment. Add softened and cubed butter. Continue beating at slow speed until mixture looks like wet sand (If you’re doing this by hand, sift the dry ingredients together and rub/cut in butter as if you were making a pie crust).
Add all but 1/2 cup of milk and egg mixture and beat at medium speed for 1 1/2 minutes. Add remaining milk and egg mixture and beat for an additional 30 seconds, scraping the sides of the bowl if necessary. Do not overmix, some lumps are fine.
Divide batter evenly between prepared pans and gently shake to smooth batter. Bake 30-35 minutes, until toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
Let cakes cool in the pans for 15 minutes then invert onto racks to cool completely before frosting. Unfrosted cakes can be frozen for 1-2 weeks if wrapped in cling wrap and foil.
Optional: Once cooled, level tops for a flat frosting surface with a cake leveler or large serrated knife.
Vanilla Italian Buttercream
1 pound unsalted butter, soft and cut into one inch pieces**
3/4 cup and 1/4 cup sugar, separated
1/4 cup water
5 egg whites
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
Vanilla extract or beans, to taste
In the bowl of a stand mixer, place egg whites, with cream of tartar and 1/4 cup sugar nearby.
Heat 3/4 cup sugar and 1/4 cup water in a small saucepan. Heat over medium high heat until sugar is dissolved.
When sugar reaches 230F on a candy thermometer, turn mixer with egg whites on medium high. When egg whites are frothy, add cream of tartar. Gradually add the 1/4 cup sugar to the beating egg whites. When egg whites begin to form soft peaks, turn the mixer down to medium low and begin to drizzle in the boiling sugar mixture (which should be at approximately 245-250F, firm ball stage). When all of the hot sugar is added, turn the mixer up to medium high and beat until the bowl is no longer warm to the touch (may take around 10 minutes).
When the egg whites are whipped until cool (they’ll look really glossy), start adding the butter one lump at a time, then allowing the butter to whip into the egg whites. Continue alternating between adding a pat/cube of butter and beating it into the mixture until mixture is smooth and fluffy, approximately 12-20 minutes.** You can add all of the butter, but like I said, I like to add a little less. As you’re whipping, the buttercream will look rather like ricotta cheese for a while – just keep beating until it all comes together, it will take quite a while.
Once it is smooth, stir in more vanilla (a small amount of extract is fine, or however many beans you wish) to taste, or any food colorings if you’d like for decoration.
Keep at room temperature – do not refrigerate (this will make the buttercream harden and then you can’t spread it).
Makes enough to frost one 2 or 3 layer, 8, 9 or 10 inch cake, with a little bit left for decorations.
**One Pound of butter is always an overshoot for me, I usually end up using around 60% to 80% of that amount, just until the buttercream comes together. It’s still a TON of butter!