Sweetly layered cakes

When I was a kid, my Aunt Margie used to make birthday cakes. Since I was a spring baby, she once presented me with a stunning confection decorated with little coconut bird’s nests and jelly-bean eggs. For a 5-year-old, it was magnificent.

Today, it’s fabulous Southern layer cakes that give me goosebumps.

Inspired by some great bakers I know, I’ve been concocting some very flavorful strawberry-pink and lemon-yellow stacks. Pretty as Easter eggs, they have been known to cause some people — I won’t name names — to break their Lenten fasts. They also make sweet birthday treats for special people, like my Mama, who turned 89 on March 12.

But before I could load up my car with the three cakes you’ll read about here and head off for Mama’s party, I did a little recipe-rousing, calling on some wonderful friends I’ve made via social media and the blogosphere.

Just recently, my friend Nancy Cloud Kirbo e-introduced me to her daughter-in-law, Natalie Bristol Kirbo, who writes a blog called Oysters and Pearls and lives in my hometown of Bainbridge. A lawyer who married into a family of lawyers, Natalie is a seriously talented baker and do-it-yourselfer who makes sky-high cakes and almond extract from peach pits and vodka.

I called up oystersandpearls.net, took one look at her 14-Layer Vanilla Cake With Blueberry Buttercream Filling and became too depressed to leave the house. No way I could do that!

But with a little coaching from Natalie — who created the 12-Layer Cake With Strawberry-Cream Cheese-Swiss Meringue Buttercream Frosting for this article — I came close. I also picked up some invaluable baking tips from her. Natalie swears by her baking spray, knows the importance of mixing ingredients at room temp, and makes pretty rosettes using a pastry tube and tip. (Maybe one day she’ll give me a cake-decorating demo. For now, I’ll just go with fresh strawberries.)

Perhaps my favorite layer cake of all time is my Aunt Libby’s Lemon Cheese Cake. Ben Mims, a Mississippi-born pastry chef who once ran the test kitchen at Saveur magazine, does Aunt Libby one better with a lemon layer cake that’s a triple shot of tart.

Mims’ trick is to put lemon zest in the batter, drizzle the layers with lemon syrup and slather the whole thing with butter-and-lemon-curd frosting flecked with lemon zest. A masterpiece of cake.

Meanwhile, back on Facebook, I’ve developed a food crush on Charleston, S.C., chef Linda Rogers Weiss, who studied at Le Cordon Bleu after a successful career in real estate. Weiss says she can fly a plane and has worked as a flight attendant. But it was her riff on a classic coconut layer cake that sent me into the clouds.

She created the cake a few years back after spotting a jar of pineapple preserves in her pantry. She added the fruit to the batter, whipped up a mascarpone frosting and covered the whole thing with ginormous flakes of toasted coconut. It’s easy to put together, pretty as an Easter bonnet and so delicious.

Weiss suggests I add a bird’s nest (white-chocolate-dipped pretzels) and fill it with robin’s egg candy. The 5-year-old in me would love that. My birthday is this month. I just might try it.


Here are recipes for three pretty layer cakes for spring. There’s a mile-high 12-layer cake with fresh strawberries, a very tart lemon-curd cake and an easy confection of coconut and pineapple preserves. All these cakes will slice better if chilled.

Natalie’s 12-Layer Cake With Strawberry-Cream Cheese-Swiss Meringue Buttercream Frosting

Hands on: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Total time: 3 hours

Serves: 12-14

Blogger Natalie Bristol Kirbo of OystersandPearls.net told me to invest in four 8-inch baking pans and a can of Pam Baking spray before I made this cake. I followed her instructions, and the cake came out great. To make the strawberry puree, pulse fresh berries in a food processor or blender. You may also use frozen strawberries. The payoff is when you slice the cake to reveal a jaw-dropping 12 layers.

For the layers:

Butter or baking spray for greasing pans

4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 1/2 cups granulated sugar

6 large eggs, at room temperature

3 cups whole milk (may use 2 percent milk)

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For the frosting:

6 egg whites (200 grams)

1 1/3 cups granulated sugar (260 grams)

3 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces and softened to room temperature

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 teaspoon almond extract

8 ounces cream cheese, cut into cubes and softened to room temperature

1/3 cup strawberry puree

Whole or sliced strawberries for garnish (optional)

To make the layers: Position racks in center of oven. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease four 8-inch cake pans very generously. (As an extra precaution to prevent sticking, you may place a parchment-paper round in the greased pan and grease the top of it.)

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a medium bowl, and set aside. Beat the butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle blade on high speed until light in color and texture, about 3-5 minutes. Beat in eggs 1 at a time, allowing each to incorporate fully before adding the next. Scrape down the side of the bowl periodically. On low speed, add the dry ingredients and milk alternately, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Beat until smooth (again, scraping sides and bottom of the bowl periodically), about 5-8 minutes. (Note: Clumps of cold butter in the batter will result in holes in your delicate cake layers, which is why it is important to have the butter at room temperature.) Once the batter is smooth, add the vanilla extract and mix at medium-high until fully incorporated, about 1 minute.

Add a scant cup of batter to each cake pan and allow it to spread out evenly. Rap pans gently on countertop to remove air bubbles. Bake layers four at a time until they feel firm when pressed in the center and are just barely beginning to pull away from the sides of the pan, about 12 to 15 minutes. Cool the layers in the pans on wire racks for 5 minutes; then turn out onto wire racks to finish cooling. (If using parchment paper, be sure to remove it.) Wipe down, re-grease pans, and repeat the process until you’ve created 12 layers.

To make the frosting: In the base of a double boiler, bring water to a low simmer, making sure the water is not touching the bottom of the top boiler. (If you don’t have a double boiler, use a metal bowl that fits snugly over a boiler or saucepan.) In the top bowl, combine egg whites and sugar. Whisk vigorously and constantly until the mixture reaches 160 degrees on a candy thermometer, about 8 minutes. Pour mixture into the bowl of an electric stand mixer. Whip on high speed until the bottom of the bowl is room temperature, about 15-20 minutes and possibly longer. When the bowl is no longer warm, turn the mixer to medium-low, and begin adding the butter piece by piece. Let each piece fully incorporate before adding the next piece; do not rush the process. Once all the butter has been added, add vanilla and almond extracts. Mix on medium-high speed until well combined, about 1 minute. Add the cream cheese. Mix on medium-high until fully incorporated, about 2-3 minutes. Now mix in strawberry puree until well combined, about 2 minutes.

To assemble the cake: Place a layer on a plate or cake stand. Top with about 1/3 cup frosting and smooth it over with a knife or spatula. Repeat until all 12 layers are stacked and frosted. Smooth over the top of the cake and around the sides. If you are seeing crumbs in the frosting, you may want to chill the cake until the frosting is firm, about 10 minutes; then finish by applying a smooth layer all over the cake. Cover and chill before serving. Garnish with strawberries, if desired.

Per serving, based on 12: 1,014 calories (percent of calories from fat, 54), 14 grams protein, 104 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 61 grams fat (37 grams saturated), 271 milligrams cholesterol, 258 milligrams sodium.

Linda’s Toasted Coconut Layer Cake With Pineapple Preserves

Hands on: 1 hour, 5 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Serves: 10-12

If you like pineapple and coconut together, you’ll love this cake by Charleston, S.C., chef Linda Rogers Weiss. Weiss uses Whole Foods’ dried organic coconut, which you can find on the baking aisle in a 7-ounce package. The super-size flakes are stunning. She uses Publix brand preserves.

For the cake:

1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

1/3 cup pineapple preserves

4 large eggs

3 cups self-rising flour

1 cup sour cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the frosting:

7 to 8 ounces dried coconut flakes (preferably Whole Foods brand dried organic coconut)

1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened

12 ounces mascarpone (may substitute cream cheese)

1 1/2 pounds confectioners’ sugar

3 teaspoons coconut extract

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour four 9-inch cake pans. (May use three pans for a taller cake.) With an electric mixer, beat the butter, sugar and pineapple preserves until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs 1 at a time, mixing well after each egg. Add alternately the flour and sour cream, ending with the flour. Add the vanilla and beat on high speed for 2 minutes.

Divide batter evenly between the pans. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. (Watch the cake at 20 minutes.) Remove from the oven. After 10 minutes, remove layers from the pans and cool the cakes on wire racks.

To make the frosting: Place the coconut on a cookie sheet and toast in a 350-degree oven. Watch carefully and stir often until coconut is light brown. Remove from oven and set aside to cool.

With a whisk attachment in mixer bowl, beat the butter and mascarpone until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.

Add the confectioners’ sugar and the coconut extract. Continue to mix until well blended. Place a layer on a plate or cake stand. Frost the top, smooth it over, sprinkle with toasted coconut. Repeat with remaining layers. Frost the top and sides and cover with the toasted coconut.

Per serving, based on 10: 1,128 calories (percent of calories from fat, 45), 10 grams protein, 146 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 58 grams fat (27 grams saturated), 216 milligrams cholesterol, 604 milligrams sodium.

Ben’s Lemon Layer Cake

Hands on: 1 hour

Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Serves: 10-12

For this wonderfully tart cake by Ben Mims, former associate food editor at Saveur magazine, you need only two 9-inch cake pans. But you create 4 layers by cutting 2 cakes in half with a long, serrated bread knife. The first time I did that, I was terrified that the layers would tear. But they sliced like a dream. Love this cake.

For the cake and syrup:

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened, plus more for pans

2 1/2 cups cake flour, plus more for pans, sifted

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 3/4 cups sugar, divided

1 tablespoon lemon zest

4 eggs

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

For the frosting:

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/4 cup cornstarch

1/4 cup lemon zest

1 teaspoon kosher salt

10 egg yolks

1 cup fresh lemon juice

1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, softened

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

To make the cake: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 9-inch cake pans, and set aside.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl; set aside. Whisk together milk and vanilla in a bowl; set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, cream butter, 1 1/2 cups sugar and zest on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. On low speed, alternately add dry ingredients in 3 batches and wet ingredients in 2 batches. Increase speed to high and beat until batter is smooth, about 5 seconds. Divide batter between prepared pans, and smooth top with a rubber spatula; drop pans lightly on a counter to expel any large air bubbles. Bake cakes until a toothpick inserted in middle comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Let cakes cool for 20 minutes in pans; invert onto wire racks, and let cool. Using a serrated knife, halve each cake horizontally to produce four layers; set aside. Bring remaining sugar and juice to a boil in a small saucepan over high heat. Remove from heat, and set syrup aside.

To make frosting: Whisk together sugar, cornstarch, zest and salt in a 4-quart saucepan. Add yolks, and whisk until smooth; stir in juice. Stirring often, bring to a boil over medium heat; cook, stirring constantly, until very thick, about 3 minutes. Remove lemon curd from heat, let cool and transfer to a bowl. Chill. (To do this quickly, immerse the bowl in a larger bowl filled with ice water.) In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, beat butter and 1/4 of the curd on medium-high speed until fluffy and smooth, about 1 minute. Add half the remaining curd, beating until smooth, and then add remaining curd and vanilla. Increase speed to high; beat frosting until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes.

To assemble cake: Place 1 cake layer on a cake stand, drizzle with 2 tablespoons syrup, and spread with 3/4 cup frosting; top with another cake, drizzle with 2 tablespoons syrup, and spread with 3/4 cup frosting. Place another cake over the frosting, drizzle with 2 tablespoons syrup, and spread with 3/4 cup frosting; top with remaining cake, and drizzle with remaining syrup. Cover top and sides with remaining frosting; chill cake to firm frosting. Serve at room temperature.

Adapted from a recipe in Saveur magazine’s March 2012 issue.

Per serving, based on 10: 877 calories (percent of calories from fat, 54), 9 grams protein, 94 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 54 grams fat (31 grams saturated), 422 milligrams cholesterol, 547 milligrams sodium.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.