Strawberry Buttermilk Layer Cake

We celebrated my older girl’s third birthday last week — how did that happen? It seems not that long ago that we were celebrating her impending arrival — and now she’s a happy, rambunctious child who loves kimchi, unicorns, pickles, rainbows, and berries.

Unlike her older brother, Hannah didn’t have too many requests regarding her birthday cake: just “strawberries.” So here we are with strawberry cake! I am happy to report it was a huge hit with the birthday girl, who usually isn’t too much of a cake person — she gasped with delight when she saw the cake, asked for seconds, and gobbled up the leftovers the next day. I think I know what her birthday cake tradition will be now.

A few notes:

  • The main challenge when baking with strawberries is that strawberries contain a lot of moisture. I chose to cook down the strawberries until they were reduced in half by weight — this concentrates the flavor beautifully. The reduction is easy to track if you use a kitchen scale. For this recipe, you’ll want to start with 240g strawberries (either fresh or frozen works), which is double the weight of the needed reduced puree. Add the strawberries to your saucepan (halved if large) and weigh the entire pan with the strawberries inside. Then subtract 120g from that number: this is how much your pan should weigh when your strawberries have reduced enough.
  • For this particular cake, I wanted a small but tall cake so I could do a rainbow effect. I divided the batter among three 4-inch pans (filled about 2/3 of the way, about 225g each), and baked off the rest of the batter as cupcakes. Pro tip: if you’re just baking a cupcake or two, pop your cupcake liners in individual ramekins so you don’t have to take out your entire cupcake pan!
  • The 4″ cake layers are thick, so I cut each in half for a total of 6 layers. You can do this with 6″ layers as well if you prefer more frosting and filling. Note that you’ll need a little extra frosting and filling if you go for additional layers.
  • For the rustic rainbow effect, I divided about a cup of swiss meringue buttercream (recipe from my book) into 5 equal parts, then tinted using gel food coloring (I mixed the colors individually, so sorry — no specific colors here). After crumb-coating and chilling the cake, I used a small offset spatula to swipe on equal bands of color, starting at the bottom. I placed Callebaut crispearls around the top edge for the gold “crown.”
  • Boxed strawberry cake has something of a cult following, but isn’t something I grew up eating. One of these days I’ll try the boxed version to see if this bears any similarities! My main objective for this cake was that it should taste like real strawberries and use real strawberries, preferably without fake extracts or difficult-to-find ingredients. I did use a tiny (1-2 drops) of red gel food coloring for a lovely pink hue — if you omit this, your cake will be tinted mauve/purple.
  • I wasn’t originally planning to blog about this cake, so sorry — I don’t have any great interior shots. The next time I make this cake I’ll update this post with more photos!

Strawberry Buttermilk Layer Cake

Makes one 2-layer, 6-inch cake

Ingredients:

For the reduced strawberry puree:

  • 240g strawberries, halved if large, fresh or frozen (but defrosted)
  • A couple pinches of granulated sugar, if needed

For the strawberry buttermilk cake:

  • 100g all-purpose flour
  • 100g cake flour
  • 120g reduced strawberry puree (see notes above)
  • 70g buttermilk, at room temperature
  • 1-2 drops of red food coloring (optional, for more intense color)
  • 85g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 200g granulated sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 3/4 tsp kosher salt (Diamond Crystal; use 2/3 the amount for another brand of kosher salt or 1/2 the amount for table salt)
  • 30g neutral vegetable oil (I use grapeseed)
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp pure almond extract

To assemble:

  • 2-3 cups of frosting, depending on your design (see notes above)
  • Strawberry jam, if desired

Method:

  1. Make the reduced strawberry puree: Place the 240g strawberries and sugar, if using, in a medium saucepan. Weigh the entire pan with the strawberries inside. Subtract 120g from this weight and write this number down — this is how much the pan should weigh when your berries are sufficiently reduced. Heat the berries over medium, stirring frequently, until the berries break down and come to a boil. Turn the heat down to medium-low and continue simmering and stirring until the mixture is thick like tomato sauce and the pan hits the target weight — about 25-30 minutes, but will depend on the size of your pan and heat of your stove. Scrape the bottom and the sides of the pan frequently to avoid scorching. When the berries are sufficiently reduced, transfer to a heatproof container and cool to room temperature before using.
  2. Make the strawberry buttermilk cake: Preheat the oven to 350ยฐF (175ยฐC) with a rack in the middle. Line the bottoms of two 6-inch (15-cm)-round cake pans with parchment paper, then grease the pans and dust them with flour.
  3. In a small bowl, sift together the all purpose and cake flours and whisk together thoroughly.
  4. In a glass measuring cup, whisk together the reduced strawberry puree, buttermilk, and food coloring (if using).
  5. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the butter, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Mix on low to combine, then increase the speed to medium and cream until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Use a flexible spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle a couple of times during this process. Add the oil and mix well to combine. Scrape down the bowl and the paddle.
  6. Add the eggs one at a time, making sure each is well incorporated before adding the next. Add the vanilla and almond extracts and mix well to combine. Scrape down the bowl and the paddle.
  7. With the mixer on low, add the flour and strawberry-buttermilk mixture in five additions, beginning and ending with the flour. Use a flexible spatula to fold from the bottom of the bowl a few times to make sure the batter is well-mixed.
  8. Divide the batter equally between the prepared cake pans, about 385 grams of batter each. Use an offset spatula to smooth the tops.
  9. Bake until the cakes are puffed and set and a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean or with a few moist crumbs, about 25 to 32 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Once the pans are cool enough to handle, run an offset spatula around the edges and turn the cakes out to finish cooling completely. For easiest assembly, wrap and chill the cakes in the fridge before filling and frosting.
  10. Assemble the cake: Trim the tops of the cakes to level if needed and peel the parchment paper off each one. Fill a piping bag fitted with a plain round tip with about 1 cup of buttercream. Place a dollop of frosting on a cake board, plate, or cake stand and place the first cake round on top. Pipe about โ…“ cup of buttercream onto the first cake round and spread it on smoothly using a small offset spatula. Pipe a ring of buttercream around the edge of the cake to create a dam. Fill the center with an even layer of strawberry jam. Finish by placing on the last cake round, top side down (this keeps the crumbs in while also ensuring a flat top). Use an offset spatula to spread a thin layer of buttercream over the entire cake to lock the crumbs in. Refrigerate for about 10 minutes, until set. After the cake has chilled, frost and decorate as desired. Serve at room temperature. Refrigerate leftovers in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

Peanut Butter and Chocolate Cake

peanut butter chocolate cake
I love making birthday cakes. While I don’t have a problem with having a little dessert every day, I do think there’s unique joy in having something made just for you on your special day — hopefully with your tastes and preferences in mind.

This cake was for my father-in-law’s birthday. He’s one of the most non-picky eaters I know; but while he eats everything, he especially likes chocolate and nuts. This was for a small family celebration, so the cake is quite small: two 6-inch layers. If you want to make it into a double layer 8-inch cake, refer to the original chocolate cake recipe and make 1.5-2x the frosting (this recipe makes a generous amount; I gave this cake a fairly thick layer and still had enough leftover to frost 20 mini cupcakes).

Some notes on the frosting: I’ve had mixed experiences with Swiss Meringue Buttercream (SMBC); although I’ve made it sort of successfully in the past, to be honest I didn’t really like the flavor of it before — it just tasted like sweet butter. (Which I guess it is.) This time was different, for a couple of big reasons:

  • I borrowed my sister-in-law’s stand mixer. It still took awhile to make the frosting, but my hand didn’t feel dead at the end. My previous attempts at SMBC were with a hand mixer; it’s possible that way, but the stand mixer really does make the process way easier and more enjoyable, IMO.
  • Peanut butter and cream cheese. They go so well together, and in this case they combine to make the fluffiest, silkiest, and most tasty peanut butter icing I’ve ever had. I’m generally not a huge icing person, but I could have eaten it straight with a spoon. The brown sugar added a little something something too; a nice depth of flavor that reminded me of honey roasted peanuts. Yum.

I’ve read a lot of SMBC tutorials and recipes (see here, here, and here just for starters), and they vary pretty widely on the ratio of egg whites to sugar to butter. I aimed somewhere in the middle, and chose to be conservative in the sugar amount since I prefer my icings not too sweet. There also seem to be varying opinions on how much cream cheese works in this type of icing, and I know some people have trouble with cream cheese SMBC breaking because of the water content of the cream cheese. I went for a half-butter, half-cream cheese ratio, and kept a couple extra tablespoons of butter on the side in case I needed it to help emulsify the mixture. In the end, I did end up using the extra butter. I also refrigerated the icing for about 10 minutes during that scary curdling stage, then just kept whipping at a low speed and it eventually came together. My advice is to just be patient and not panic; read a few tutorials on how to fix broken buttercream ahead of time so you know what to do if and when your icing reaches that stage. This is honestly one of the tasiest frostings I’ve ever made so I do hope you give it a try!

To add a little texture, I made some peanut brittle for garnish. This was my first time making peanut brittle, which was exciting because I got to use my brand-spanking-new candy thermometer! Last year I attempted making soft caramel candies a couple of times and failed; later I realized it was because my thermometer was a good 15 degrees off…basically the difference between delicious and burnt. The lesson here is: check your thermometer’s calibration by putting it in a pot of water and bringing it to a boil. It should register 212F / 100C when the water boils. Hopefully that’ll save you a few burned batches of sugar!

peanut butter chocolate cake from above

Peanut Butter Chocolate Cake with Maple Peanut Brittle

Makes one 2-layer, 6-inch cake

Ingredients

For the Midnight Chocolate Cake

A half batch of this recipe, baked in two 6-inch pans, with the following changes:

  • Use half all purpose, half cake flour
  • Use black cocoa for the cocoa powder
  • Start checking for doneness around 25 minutes

For the Maple Peanut Brittle

Recipe adapted from Layered: Baking, Building, and Styling Spectacular Cakes

  • 55g / 4 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 110g brown sugar / 1/2 c (I used light)
  • 1/4 c maple syrup
  • 1/4 c light corn syrup
  • Heaped 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 t kosher salt
  • 150g / 1 c roasted, unsalted peanuts

For the Peanut Butter Cream Cheese Swiss Meringue Buttercream

  • 135g egg whites, room temperature
  • 220g light brown sugar
  • 150-180g butter, cut into cubes, at cool room temperature
  • 150g cream cheese, cut into cubes, cool room temperature
  • 1/2 Tbsp vanilla extract
  • Smooth creamy peanut butter, such as Skippy or Jif, to taste (I used three large spoonfuls)
  • Pinch of salt, to taste

To finish

  • Chopped roasted, unsalted peanuts
  • Various chocolate candies (I used bite sized Snickers and some white chocolate covered almonds)

Method

Make the Maple Peanut Brittle:

  1. Line a sheet pan with parchment or a Silpat and set aside.
  2. Combine the baking soda and salt in a small bowl. Have your peanuts measured and ready to go as well.
  3. Combine the butter, brown sugar, maple syrup, and corn syrup in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally with a silicone spatula, until the mixture reaches 298F / 149C on a candy thermometer. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the baking soda and salt. Fold in the peanuts and pour the mixture evenly onto the prepared baking sheet (work quickly as it does harden rather fast).
  4. Let the brittle cool completely (about an hour) before breaking in pieces to use for decoration. Store leftovers, layered between pieces of parchment paper, in an airtight container.
  5. Note: To easily clean your sugar work pans, fill with water, cover, and bring to a boil for several minutes. It’ll melt the sugar right off.

Make the Peanut Butter Cream Cheese Swiss Meringue Buttercream:

  1. Place egg whites and brown sugar in a heatproof bowl (such as the bowl of your stand mixer) and whisk to combine. Set bowl over a pot of just simmering water to create a double boiler and whisk until mixture reaches 140-160F. Don’t allow the bottom of the bowl to touch the water.
  2. Transfer the bowl to a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whisk the egg white-sugar mixture on low for a couple of minutes and gradually increase the speed to medium high. Continue whisking until the meringue reaches glossy stiff peaks and both the meringue and the bowl are at room temperature (about 10 minutes).
  3. Switch out the whisk for the paddle attachment. With the mixer on low, add the butter one cube at a time. Wait until the butter is completely incorporated before adding the next cube. When the butter is incorporated, repeat with the cream cheese.
  4. Continue mixing on low until the mixture is smooth, then add the vanilla, a pinch of salt, and peanut butter a spoonful at a time (to taste). Taste and add a touch more salt if the mixture tastes too sweet. Mix on medium speed for a couple minutes, or until the buttercream is smooth, silky, and fluffy.

Assemble the cake:

  1. Level your cakes if desired. (Note that this chocolate cake is very tender and moist, so I highly recommend working with them chilled.) Set your first cake round on a cake board and spread a generous amount buttercream evenly over the top, followed by a sprinkling of chopped peanuts. Set the second cake round on top and spread a thin coat of buttercream over the top and sides to trap all the crumbs. Refrigerate until buttercream is firm, about 20 minutes.
  2. Add a thicker layer of buttercream over the top and sides, using an offset spatula and icing scraper for evenness.
  3. To get the “rustic” look, use an offset spatula or back of a spoon to create random swoops.
  4. Top with chopped peanuts and peanut brittle if desired. If you’re not serving the cake right away, store in the refrigerator but bring to room temperature before serving. Just before serving, garnish with peanut brittle and candies. (Don’t put the brittle on too soon or it may soften and weep.)