Classic Vanilla Layer Cake with Mocha Swiss Meringue Buttercream . . . and My Favorite Swimmer

A while ago my older son Charlie asked me if I'd bake the big cake for his swim team's end-of-year banquet and I agreed. The banquet's being held early next week, so I need to get cracking. It's been a blast watching that kid swim in high school and, since he graduates this year, I will miss it. Forgive me if this sounds too cloyingly corny, but I must say it's been a remarkably gratifying and heart-warming thing for me to witness his passion, perseverance, and joy as a member of that team. Charlie's had a great experience and has grown so much. I'm proud of that guy. So proud, in fact, that I spent the entire morning on Thursday whipping up a crate full of his favorite, hefty oatmeal raisin cookies for the swim team to take with them to the state meet this weekend. There he is, below. (Check out that dimple. Go Bears!)

Anyway, now with just a few days to go, I find myself still wondering how the heck I should decorate the banquet cake. Like Hamlet, I'm plagued with indecision. Plagued, I tell you. I don't want the cake to look like I just carried it out of Costco, nor do I want it to look like it's for a bunch of eight-year old girls. Should I make little swimmers out of fondant? A pool out of piping gel? Ugh. This kind of thing always presents me with a quandary.

Recipe selection, on the other hand is usually much less complicated. With the team's cake in mind, I tested out this vanilla cake from Baking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America. A classic butter-based layer cake, it has warm well-rounded flavor and fine texture. It reminded me, in fact, of the sumptuous layer cakes we used to buy occasionally from Sanders stores when I was a child. Sanders was the purveyor of choice, in the Detroit area, for rich baked goods, incomparably smooth ice cream, and velvety chocolates. If you're from around here and you're at least forty years old, you probably know all about the heyday of Sanders. It's sort of still around, in name at least, though sadly only as a pale version of its former self.

But I digress. Pardon me.

About this recipe . . . 

I altered the cake recipe only by upping the vanilla ante a bit, adding in the seeds from half a vanilla bean. For the icing, I used a swiss meringue buttercream that I found in an old copy of  Icing the Cake, by Jill Van Cleave, and I customized it by adding in a dash of Kahlua to turn it into a tasty mocha buttercream. A swiss meringue buttercream isn't nearly as nerve-wracking to make an as Italian meringue buttercream, and I think it's just as good. No hot sugar syrup to pour slowly between the spinning beaters and the side of the mixing bowl, thank heaven. You just whisk the sugar and egg whites over a double boiler for a while, then put the bowl onto the mixer, slowly add in the butter, then the flavorings, and beat-beat-beat until the cows come home. Eventually, it all comes together into something soft, silky, and supernaturally spreadable.

I reworded both recipes, as usual. Can't help myself.

Vanilla Layer Cake with Mocha Swiss Meringue Buttercream

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

For the cake:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter or grease two 8" round pans, or use baking spray. Cut out 8" rounds out of parchment and place one in the bottom of each pan. Butter/grease the parchment.

3 and 1/2 cups cake flour
2 cups granulated sugar
1 Tbsp. baking powder (Yes, one whole tablespoon.)
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup unsalted butter, diced into small chunks, at room temperature
1 cup milk (I used 2 percent.)
4 eggs, large
2 egg whites, from large eggs
1 and 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
Seeds scraped from half of one vanilla bean (I used a Madagascar bean.)

Sift together, into the large bowl of your mixer, the first four ingredients. Using the whisk attachment, add in all of the butter and half of the milk. On medium speed, until smooth, mix for just about four minutes. Stop to scrape the bowl and beater as needed.

In a medium size bowl, blend together the eggs, egg whites, remaining milk, vanilla extract, and the vanilla bean seeds. In three additions, add this into the mixer bowl, beating on medium speed for no longer than two minutes for each addition. Be sure to stop and scrape as needed.

Portion the batter evenly into the two pans and bake at 350 for 35 to 40 minutes, until the cakes spring back lightly when touched.

Let the cakes cool almost completely on wire racks, in their pans. Run a thin knife or metal spatula around the sides, then carefully invert them out of the pans. 

Mocha Swiss Meringue Buttercream (Yield: 3 cups)

1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into 1/2" chunks
2 oz. good quality bittersweet chocolate, cut into very small pieces (I used Scharffenberger.)
3 large egg whites
1 cup superfine sugar
1 Tbsp. Kahlua (coffee flavored liqueur)

In a small bowl, melt the chocolate, then let it cool to almost room temperature.

Put the sugar and egg whites into the large metal bowl of your mixer. Using a hand whisk, blend the sugar and egg whites. Place the bowl over a large saucepan on the stove, containing a couple inches of simmering water. Whisk continually by hand until the mixture feel very warm, but not hot.

Place the bowl on your mixer and, using the mixer's whisk attachment, beat on medium speed until the meringue begins to form; it should look white, shiny, and form medium-soft peaks. At this point, start to add in the butter one piece at a time, continually. The icing will begin to resemble butter. Still beating on medium speed, add in the melted chocolate, and then the Kahlua. Keep beating until the mixture begins to thicken. This could take at least ten minutes, so be patient. (Some recipes for meringue-based buttercreams, in fact, have you mixing for as long as thirty-five minutes! Don't believe me? Check out some of wedding-cake diva Sylvia Weinstock's recipes!)

If the mixture starts to look curdled, don't worry, just keep mixing and it will come back together. If the mixture looks okay but seems too warm, take the bowl off the mixer and refrigerate it for about five minutes then put it back on the mixer; chances are it will thicken up quickly after that. You want it to be soft and silky, and it should be extremely easy to spread.

Use the finished icing immediately to ice your cooled cake, or cover it well and refrigerate it until you need it.

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