Whether it's a birthday party or New Year's Eve, nothing kicks off a celebration quite like a layer cake. It's a showstopping labor of love that makes any occasion feel special. There are a million recipes to choose from, but none more classic than a simple butter cake. A quick primer: yellow cakes get their custard-like flavor and richness from egg yolks, while fluffy white cakes owe their lightness to egg whites, but butter cakes are a whole-egg affair. That distinction puts it squarely between the two styles, with a mellow flavor and light but velvety crumb.
Butter cake is a perfect showcase for lightly toasted sugar, which brings a hint of caramel into play, but the real star is vanilla. I highly recommend looking for bottled vanilla extracted with both water and alcohol, such as Watkins. Compared to those derived from alcohol alone, this style of vanilla extract has a broader range of flavor that can stand up to the heat of the oven. It's not my favorite general purpose vanilla, but it's a true knockout for any sort of cake.
Another ingredient worthy of special attention is flour. For a butter cake, you don't need to fuss with finding a special cake flour, but you do want to avoid strong, high protein flours made from 100% hard red wheat. Instead, look for an all-purpose brand that includes soft white wheat as well. Blended all-purpose flours offer an ideal balance of protein and starch, for fine-grained cakes with a tender and fluffy crumb. I've said it on a few occasions before, but my favorite is bleached Gold Medal, which consistently produces delicate, high-rising cakes.
Even with the right ingredients, butter cakes require a mastery of technique. I don't say that to scare anyone off, but as a reminder that there are a number of moving parts, and each requires a bit of care. Unless you understand what's going on under the hood, winging it is a hit or miss affair, so it's important to follow the directions as closely as you can. Let's break them down one by one.
Creaming the Butter and Sugar
Start by combining the sugar, baking powder, salt, and butter. Adding the leavening agent up front has a slightly waterproofing effect, coating it in butter. This prevents a premature reaction with liquid ingredients, keeping the leavening active until the batter starts to warm in the oven. It also ensures perfectly uniform distribution, for the most even rise. (If you'd like to know more about how baking powder works, I wrote a bit more in depth about it here.)
For proper aeration, the butter should be around 65°F (18°C) to keep it pliable and cool as it's beaten. At warmer temperatures, butter will lose its plasticity, making it too soft and squishy to fold over on itself and entrap air. Without those air bubbles, butter and sugar form an ultra dense paste that gives cakes the texture of a wet brick. But with cool ingredients and a little patience, butter and sugar will indeed cream up as "fluffy and light" as most recipes suggest (deep dive on that topic here). This sets the stage for the cake to rise, creating a network of air cells that will later be expanded by steam and carbon dioxide in the oven.
Incorporating the Eggs
Creaming typically takes about five minutes on a stand mixer (longer with a hand mixer, and a lifetime by hand). Use that time to ensure your eggs are at the right temperature. It takes only two minutes to warm up three large eggs in hot tap water (say, 110°F, or 43°C). The goal is to bring the eggs to about 65°F so they can be easily combined with the butter, creating an emulsion of water, fat, and air.
If the eggs are much colder, they'll cause the butter to seize, curdling the batter. This breaks the emulsion, producing a cake with an uneven crumb (think weird pockets and tunnels, streaks of gumminess, or low volume overall). Eggs that are too warm can make the batter too runny and thin to hold those carefully formed air cells, causing a loss of volume that will make the cake dense.
When adding the eggs, work one at a time and mix only until the batter is smooth. The batter is already aerated through creaming, so incorporating the eggs (which are mostly water) is simply about maintaining the emulsion. Go too fast and it'll break.
To avoid over-aerating the batter, mix only until smooth. If mixed significantly longer than necessary, the batter may take on more air than it can manage, leading to cakes that rise and then sink in the middle, or cakes that are riddled with tunnels and holes.
Adding the Flour and Milk
Once the eggs have been incorporated, scrape the bowl and beater with a flexible spatula, then resume mixing on low. Sprinkle in about a third of the flour and when it disappears, add about a third of the milk, and so on until you're done.
Alternating these ingredients does a few things: It coats the flour in buttery batter, which interferes with gluten development, and it prevents the flour and milk from combining with each other in a lumpy mess. It also prevents the batter from being overwhelmed, preserving the air bubbles created through creaming.
Adjusting the Batter
If you notice the finished batter has a slightly curdled appearance, scrape the bowl and beater with a flexible spatula, then mix on high for just two or three seconds.
Thanks to the high proportion of butter and sugar, that short burst won't encourage much gluten formation, but it will restore the emulsion, giving the cake a more even texture. After mixing, fold the batter once or twice with a flexible spatula to make sure it's perfectly homogenous.
The fastest way to ruin a well-made cake batter is to bake it in a crappy pan. Not only will bad pans cause problems like doming, excessive browning, a gummy bottom layer, and a tough crust, they can also exacerbate any existing problems with the batter. Check out my guide to cake pans to be sure your pans aren't sabotaging your efforts.
The best choice is an 8- by 3-inch anodized aluminum pan, but 8- by 2-inch pans (whether anodized aluminum or aluminized steel) are a solid runner up. In either case, line the bottoms with parchment and grease with oil or pan spray. Brushing the pans with butter and dusting them with flour will only encourage the development of a thick, brown, and somewhat tough crust. But parchment and pan spray work to minimize crust formation and browning, keeping the cake as delicate as can be. Plus, after baking and cooling, the cakes will pop out with zero risk of tearing.
Divide the batter between two or three prepared pans; if you only have two, just set the remaining batter aside until the other layers have baked and cooled, at which point you can reuse a pan for the third layer. Thanks to that nifty trick of creaming the butter and baking powder together, the batter will happily wait with no loss of volume.
If using a pan that's only two inches deep or less, you cakes will still be pretty tasty, but bear in mind they'll rise less, which will give them a denser texture, a more pronounced dome on top, and deeper surface browning. In a great cake, those aren't make-or-break defects, but a cake that bakes up thick, flat, and pale (indicative of a more delicate crust) is the ideal.
Let the cakes cool for an hour, which is more than enough time to whip up a batch of vanilla-flecked Swiss buttercream, then loosen them from their pans with a dull knife. Invert the cakes onto a flat plate or wire rack, then peel up the parchment, re-invert onto a work surface, and level their tops with a serrated knife (full directions here). Not only does that make the layers flat and easy to stack, trimming away the crust helps the cakes absorb moisture, richness, and flavor from the filling. Plus, I mean, free cake scraps, right?
There's a complete guide to assembling and crumb coating your cake here, but I think the process is a lot easier to show than tell.
Once the cake is crumb coated and chilled, you can finish it however you like. I'm all about simple swirls of vanilla frosting, with a sprinkling of crunchy Valrhona pearls, but don't hesitate to decorate it however you like.
Truth be told, a classic butter cake doesn't need any special touches. It's soft and light, with a pronounced vanilla flavor from the double whammy of its tender crumb and creamy frosting.
Store and serve the cake at room temperature. It's best served within the first 24 hours of assembly, but will keep for about four days all told.
If you need to make a cake in advance for a special occasion, refrigerate the uncut cake as soon as you've finished decorating it. Once the buttercream has hardened, wrap it in plastic to protect it from absorbing funky odors. Return it to the fridge, where it can be stored for about 36 hours without any loss of quality.
From there, let the chilled cake stand at room temperature for at least 6 hours before serving. If the cake hasn't warmed to an internal temperature of at least 70°F (21°C), it will seem crumbly, dry, and greasy all at once, thanks to the way cold butter hardens and resists melting on the tongue. But give it time and a once-refrigerated cake can absolutely be restored to its former glory, which is something glorious indeed.