Vanilla Vanilla Cake
Some people don’t like chocolate. I don’t know those people, and I’m convinced that secretly they really do like it and are just trying to be different. Either way, they’re out there, and in my experience a lot of them are children…who will grow out of such ridiculousness. But, in the meantime, when a child doesn’t want a chocolate birthday cake, usually they go for vanilla. Ah such lovely little simple beings (hah, no). “But vanilla cakes are so boring,” you hear the adults whine. Well - yes - most of them are, but they certainly don’t have to be.
And thus began my quest to make the tastiest, most vanilla-y cake possible. Of course the only way to approach this is with vanilla beans AND straight up vanilla, and I have a fantastic brand of vanilla to share.
Los Cinco Soles - I discovered it when traveling in Mexico, and luckily they ship internationally! It’s super pure, fantastically strong, and absolutely the cheapest option around, even after shipping costs. What’s even better is that they have CLEAR vanilla, which means our Vanilla x 2 cake can stay beautifully white as snow. Get some right now, and I’ll go ahead and preemptively say, “You’re welcome.”
Top it off with my favorite light & fluffy frosting - of course, also containing a hefty dose of our clear vanilla - and you’ve got one seemingly basic yet hella impressive Vanilla Vanilla cake!
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated & Baked Elements
MAKES one 9” 3-layer cake
CAKE LAYERS INGREDIENTS/SUPPLIES
1.5 cups whole milk
9 egg whites (315g)
3 teaspoons clear vanilla*
1 vanilla bean
3.25 cups + 2 tablespoons cake flour (13.5oz)
2.5 cups + 2 tablespoons sugar (525g)
2 tablespoons baking powder
1.5 teaspoons salt
2.25 sticks butter (soft but still cool)
3 9” cake pans
*It’s most important that your vanilla is pure. DO NOT use imitation extract. If you can get pure vanilla that is clear, great. If not, use regular (brown) vanilla.
CAKE LAYERS DIRECTIONS
Preheat your oven to 350F.
In a medium sized bowl, whisk together gently your 1.5c milk, 9 egg whites, and 3tsp vanilla.
Cut your vanilla bean in half, then split each half lengthwise. On each quarter, flatten out the edges a bit, then with your finger pressing down on one end, scrape the edge of a small paring knife away from your finger down the length of the bean half, scraping up all the seeds and dumping/mixing them into your milk/egg white mixture. (Vanilla beans will likely get on your fingers and may stain for a short period, and will certain smell. If this will bother you, you should wear gloves to do this process. Or, you could just accept it because your hands will smell lovely.)
In the bowl of a stand mixer, briefly whisk together 13.5oz cake flour, 525g sugar, 2TB baking powder, and 1.5tsp salt.
Add 2.25 sticks of butter and mix on medium-low until the mixture resembles moist crumbs.
Add all but 1/2 cup of your liquid mixture, and beat on medium for 1.5 minutes (starting on low so as not to splash everything everywhere).
Add the rest of your liquid, beat for 30 seconds, scrape down the sides/bottom, and then beat for 20 more seconds.
Cake goop up your pans, and then measure/weigh out the batter between the three pans evenly.
Bake 23-25 minutes, or until a tester/toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.
Let the layers rest in their pans for 5 minutes, then invert twice onto cooling racks to cool completely. (Inverting twice means flip them out of the pans onto a cooling rack, but then immediately flip them onto another cooling rack so the side of the layer that was facing down in the pan is now also facing down onto the cooling rack. This will prevent the sticky top from pulling off onto the cooling rack once the layers are cooled).
3 cups sugar (600g)
2/3c all-purpose flour (80g)
3 cups whole milk
2/3 cups heavy cream
6 sticks butter, room temperature (really important! see here how to bring your butter to room temperature quickly)
1.5 tablespoons clear vanilla (see note in cake recipe above about “clear")
1/8 teaspoon salt
12” cake board
Large frosting spatula (straight or offset)
STACKING & FROSTING DIRECTIONS
In a medium/large saucepan (preferably with rounded bottom), whisk 600g sugar, 80g AP flour, 3c milk, and 2/3c cream.
Cook over medium until thick and bubbling, stirring almost constantly. Once it gets hot, if you stop stirring for more than 20 seconds you risk burning the layer on the bottom. Trust me, I’ve done this many times.
Once bubbling, stir & cook for 2 more minutes, then transfer to the bowl of your stand mixer and beat on medium high until cooled completely, 8-10 minutes.
On low speed, add chunks of your butter one at a time. Once all added, mix on medium high for 1-2 minutes or until fluffed up and smooth, almost like a heavy whipped cream. If it doesn’t seem to be getting there, it may be that your butter was too warm or too cold. Try increasing the speed to high and letting it go for a few minutes. If that doesn’t work, pop it in the fridge for 5 minutes and try again.
Add your vanilla and salt and mix on high for 30 seconds.
Once your cake layers are completely cool, you want to make sure the tops are flat and even by cutting them level. I do this using my favorite revolving cake stand and a bread knife, but if you don’t have a stand or lazy susan, you can do as the queen bee does in her tutorial - of note, I rarely take off as much as she does in that video. I’m usually just barely cutting a card-stock thin layer across the top. It’s more difficult, but it preserves more of the cake. Sometimes leveling cake layers is easier if they’re cold, or even frozen.
Pick the smoothest layer with the fewest crumbs falling off the top, and set that aside to be your top layer. Choose one of the other two to be your bottom layer, and place a small dollop of frosting in the middle of your cake board, centering your first layer on top of it. Then slide small strips of wax paper under the edges of the layer all the way around, to present frosting messiness.
Spread 1.25-1.5 cups of frosting evenly over your first layer, making sure to go all the way - and sometimes over - the edges. Having a rotating stand or lazy susan makes this process much easier!
Center your second layer over the first with frosting, and repeat step 8.
Top with your final layer, and then - crumb coat! Doing a crumb coat of frosting is SUPER important for a clean, professional looking cake design. DON’T SKIP THIS STEP! I could post my own tutorial, and maybe I will some day, but for now - back to Martha again. Note that you really don’t need to use much frosting for this layer - it can (and should) be very thin, almost see-through in spots, and doesn’t need to be pretty. Ignore what Martha says about removing the frosting from the bottom edges if you’re using the wax paper strips. Put the cake in the fridge for 20-30 minutes.
Then - frost away! When you’re finished, slide your spatula very gently between the cake bottom and the wax paper strips to easily release them. If you’re left with little empty spots here or there, smooth the surrounding frosting over them gently and carefully.