Why It Works
- At 60°F (16°C), butter is soft but pliable, ideal for aeration, giving the cake a fine, even crumb.
- Butter and sugar warm to about 65°F (18°C) after creaming, so that's the best temperature for the eggs and milk.
- Vanilla extracted with both water and alcohol, such as Watkins, provides an unusually robust flavor in baked goods.
- Baking in tall, straight-sided aluminum pans will encourage a level rise with a pale and tender crust.
- Leveling the cakes helps them more readily absorb flavor and moisture from the vanilla frosting.
Whether it's a birthday party or New Year's Eve, nothing kicks off a celebration quite like a layer cake. It's a show-stopping 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 Butter and Sugar Until Fluffy and Light
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 Eggs at the Right Temperature
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.
The Purpose of Alternating 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.
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 homogeneous.
How to Prepare Your Pans
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.
How to Cut a Parchment Round for Cake Pans
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, your 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.
Assembling the Cake
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?
How to Level a Cake
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.
How to Layer and Crumb-Coat a Cake
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.
The Best Temperature for Storing and Serving
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 six 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.
For the Cake:
16 ounces plain or toasted sugar (about 2 1/4 cups; 455g)
4 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons (8g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use about half as much by volume or the same weight
8 ounces unsalted butter (16 tablespoons; 225g), soft but cool, about 60°F (16°C)
3 large eggs, brought to about 65°F (18°C)
1/2 ounce vanilla extract (about 1 tablespoon; 15g)
16 ounces whole milk (about 2 cups; 455g), brought to about 65°F (18°C)
16 ounces all-purpose flour (about 3 1/2 cups, spooned; 455g)
1 recipe Swiss buttercream
For the Cake: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat to 350°F (180°C). Lightly grease three 8-inch anodized aluminum cake pans and line with parchment (explanation and tutorial here). If you don’t have 3 pans, it’s okay to bake the cakes in stages, the batter will keep at room temperature until needed.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine sugar, baking powder, salt, and butter. Mix on low speed to roughly incorporate, then increase to medium and beat until fluffy and light, about 5 minutes. About halfway through, pause to scrape the bowl and beater with a flexible spatula.
With the mixer still running, add the eggs one at a time, letting each fully incorporate before adding the next, then dribble in the vanilla. Reduce speed to low and sprinkle in about 1/3 of the flour, then drizzle in 1/3 of the milk. Repeat with remaining flour and milk, working in thirds as before.
Scrape the bowl and beater with a flexible spatula, and resume mixing on medium speed for about 3 seconds to ensure everything is well combined. The batter should look creamy and thick, registering between 65 and 68°F (18 and 20°C) on a digital thermometer. (Significant deviation indicates ingredients were too warm or too cold, which can lead to textural problems with the cake.)
Fold batter once or twice from the bottom up with a flexible spatula, then divide evenly between prepared cake pans (about 20 ounces or 565g if you have a scale). Stagger pans together on the oven rack, and bake until puffed, firm, and pale gold, about 32 minutes. If your oven has very uneven heat, pause to rotate the pans after about 20 minutes. Alternatively, bake 2 layers at once and finish the third when they’re done.
Cool cakes directly in their pans for 1 hour, then run a butter knife around the edges to loosen. Invert onto a wire rack, peel off the parchment, and return cakes right-side-up (covered in plastic, the cakes can be left at room temperature for a few hours). Prepare the buttercream.
For the Crumb Coat: Level cakes with a serrated knife (full directions here) and set the scraps aside for snacking. Place one layer on a heavy cast iron turntable. If you like, a waxed cardboard cake round can first be placed underneath, secured to the turntable with a scrap of damp paper towel. Top with exactly 1 cup buttercream, using an offset spatula to spread it evenly from edge to edge. Repeat with the second and third layers, then cover the sides of the cake with another cup of buttercream, spreading it as smoothly as you can (tutorial here). Refrigerate cake until the buttercream hardens, about 30 minutes.
To Finish: Rewhip remaining buttercream to restore its creamy consistency, then use to finish and decorate the chilled cake as desired. Let the cake sit at room temperature for at least an hour before serving, otherwise it will be too cold inside. Cut with a chef’s knife to serve, and cover the exposed edges with leftover buttercream to keep the cake moist. Under a cake dome, the cake will keep for 3 days at room temperature.
Problems such as doming, cracking, shrinking, heavy crust development, and a coarse or wet crumb stem from excessive gluten formation due to the use of high protein flour. Cakes in particular benefit from all-purpose flours made from a blend of red and white wheat, such as bleached Gold Medal or Pillsbury.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 36g||47%|
|Saturated Fat 23g||113%|
|Total Carbohydrate 116g||42%|
|Dietary Fiber 1g||3%|
|Total Sugars 93g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||0%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|