Vanilla Snacking Cake with Berries and Tart Lemon Icing
Soft, fluffy squares of vanilla butter cake, flavored with lemon, packed with berries, and slathered with sweet-tart lemon icing. This is a cake for picnics and cookouts, for camping trips and after school snacking. Mostly, this is a cake for whenever the craving for cake and icing strikes. It’s the kind of cake you leave out on the counter so that anyone and everyone can grab a square any time they like.
It’s quick and easy to make, as all snacking cakes should be, easily adaptable to what you have on hand and what you like. Make it with fresh or frozen berries (or no berries at all), and with or without the tart lemon icing (or sub vanilla or almond extract for the lemon).
Sprinkles recommended. Plate and fork not required.
I love the very idea of a snack cake
Aside from the kind of little cakes you can buy at any gas station and know that they are so well preserved you can keep them indefinitely, I have no idea if there are rules about what can, and can’t be considered a “snack cake”.
As far as I’m concerned, the only criteria is that it’s the kind of cake you want to snack on. As in, “I’m not eating dessert before lunch. I just need a little snack.” Or, “I just need a little snack before I can face that report/ email/ homework assignment/ household chore/ family member/ et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.”
Cakes can, of course, be grand affairs. A multi-layered, labor of love to mark special occasions with awe and delight.
But, snack cake suggests something you can pick up with your fingers and eat while standing over the kitchen sink in the middle of the afternoon. It’s the kind of cake that should bake up quickly and pick you up even on the dreariest of days.
Snack cake is the type of thing you can add to a lunch box or serve as an after school treat. It’s an unpretentious bake-sale-worthy casual affair, plate and fork not required.
And, whenever possible, there should be sprinkles.
Snacking cakes are easily adapted to what you like and what you have
This is the kind of easy going cake that can be easily adapted to whatever you like and whatever you have on hand.
I generally have some frozen berries in my freezer and lemons in my fruit drawer, so the lemon and berry flavors were an easy decision. But, fresh berries work just as well as frozen. Or, leave the berries out completely.
Don’t love lemon? Or don’t happen to have any on hand at the moment? No problem. Just leave the zest out of the cake batter and swap out the teaspoon of lemon extract for another teaspoon of vanilla. Add some almond extract if you’d rather. Or replace the lemon zest with with orange or lime zest.
In the icing, replace the lemon juice with lime juice or milk. It’s snack cake. Do as you like.
How to make a light and fluffy cake
This recipe calls for separating the eggs (here’s how to separate eggs), so that you can beat the egg whites separately and fold them in to the batter right before baking. Why? Because this simple technique is one of the best ways to bake a cake that’s super soft and fluffy.
When you beat egg whites, you are actually creating a situation in which pockets of air are trapped within the strands of protein in the whites. The more you beat, the more bubbles of air you create, increasing the volume of the egg whites and changing their consistency.
There are three stages to beating egg whites: soft peak, medium peak, and stiff peak. This simply means that, if you lift the beater from the egg whites, they will either:
- form a soft peak that collapses over onto itself
- form a medium peak (sometimes called a firm peak) that mostly holds its shape, except for the tip, which will fold over onto itself
- form a stiff peak, that will hold it’s shape from the base to the tip
When you fold beaten egg whites into cake batter, you are essentially incorporating all those pockets of air into the batter, creating a texture that is light and fluffy. However…. this gets tricky if the cake batter is thick because as you fold in the egg whites, you’re also smushing out a lot of the air you just beat into them.
Sugar does more for cakes than just make them sweet
Beating a bit of sugar into the egg whites stabilizes their structure so all that air is more likely to stay trapped inside. Another huge bonus to beating in some sugar is that it will guard agains over beating. Egg whites can go from “medium peak” to over beaten, dry, and lumpy in a flash. A bit of sugar keeps this from happening.
WHEN you add the sugar does matter.
#1. Beat the egg whites until they are frothy, with large air bubbles throughout
#2. While you continue to beat, slowly sprinkle in the sugar
#3. Keep beating until the egg whites are glossy and at the firm peak stage – they’ll hold their shape, but the tip falls over onto itself when you lift the beater.
One final thing I want to say about beating egg whites…. One year for Christmas, my daughter got me this combination Immersion Hand Blender, Mixer, and Food Processor and it’s fabulous. It is absolutely perfect for quickly beating a few egg whites and allows me to leave the cake batter in the bowl of my stand mixer, while beating up the egg whites in a separate bowl.
How do you keep the berries from sinking to the bottom of the cake?
Anyone who’s ever baked muffins or cake with fresh berries has probably had the experience of all the fruit sinking to the bottom while it bakes. Different recipes suggest different tips and trick for preventing this from happening. Some work and some don’t.
In this cake, the thing that works the best is to toss the fruit with a couple tablespoons of cornstarch. The cornstarch seems to give the berries something to adhere to, sticking them to the batter so they are less likely to sink while the cake bakes.
Mind you – some of the berries will sink to the bottom no matter what you do. This is fine. Don’t stress about it. You’ll have some berries on the bottom of each slice, but you should also have some in the middle and even at the top.
Why does this cake include both butter and vegetable shortening?
If you’d like to use all butter or all vegetable shortening, go for it. Your snack cake will be delicious either way. The main difference between the two (when it comes to baking) is that butter contains some water and vegetable shortening does not.
Because vegetable shortening is 100% fat, it adds more tenderness to cakes than butter does. Cakes made with shortening tend to be softer and lighter tasting than those made with butter. BUT (and this is a BIG but) – shortening has zero flavor.
Butter brings the flavor. Using half shortening and half butter creates a cake that takes advantage of the best parts of each – a fluffy, light crumb from the shortening and rich, buttery flavor from the butter. Win. Win.
This cake is delicious with or without the tart lemon icing
I love me a slice of cake with tart lemon icing. But, this cake is also delicious, and sometimes more convenient, without it. If, for example, you wanted to pack squares of cake into lunch boxes, I’d leave them un-iced.
Plain squares of cake are also more convenient on-the-go. And, I do love situations in which one has the option of heading out the door all in a rush to someplace or another with a piece of cake on a napkin to eat on the way. Who doesn’t?
For the cake:
- 2 1/2 cups (300g) all-purpose flour
- 3 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 1 1/4 tsp table salt (Or 2 tsp kosher salt)
- 12 ounces berries fresh or frozen (*See note)
- 2 tbsp cornstarch
- 1 2/3 cups (335g) granulated sugar, divided
- 1/3 cup (64g) vegetable shortening
- 1/3 cup (5 1/3 tbsp; 75g ) salted butter, at room temperature
- 2 tbsp lemon zest (From 1-2 lemons, depending on their size. Juice the lemons for the icing.)
- 3 cups (375) powdered sugar (confectioners sugar)
- 1 tsp lemon extract
- 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 1/8 tsp table salt (1/4 tsp kosher salt)
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 3 large egg whites, at room temperature (How to quickly bring eggs to room temperature)
- 1 1/4 cup (295ml) whole or 2% milk (how to quickly bring milk to room temperature)
For the lemon icing:
- 6 tbsp (85g) salted butter, at room temperature
- 6-7 tbsp (88-103ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 1 tsp lemon extract
Make the cake:
- Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F (176 degrees C). Use either vegetable shortening or butter to grease and flour a 9x13-inch rectangle baking dish. (How to grease and flour pans.)
- Add the flour, baking powder, and salt to a bowl and stir with a wire whisk to combine.
- Add the berries to a separate bowl and toss with the cornstarch. Set aside.
- Beat 1 1/3 cup of the granulated sugar, the shortening, and butter with an electric mixer on medium high speed until very light and fluffy, about 6 minutes. Stop the mixer every once in a while to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.
- Separate the two whole eggs (here's how to separate eggs), adding the egg yolks to the butter and shortening mixture and the whites to a separate bowl.
- Beat the egg yolks into the butter shortening mixture until well blended, about 1 minute. Add the zest, lemon extract, and vanilla extract and beat for another 30 seconds to mix.
- Add the flour mixture and milk to the batter in alternating additions, beginning and ending with the flour (1/3 of the flour, 1/2 of the milk, 1/3 of the flour, 1/2 of the milk, 1/3 of the flour). After each addition, beat the batter on low speed just until barely incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl before each new addition.
- Add the 3 remaining egg whites to the other 2 egg whites and beat with an electric mixer until doubled in volume and frothy. With the mixer running, slowly sprinkle in the remaining 1/3 cup of sugar. Beat until medium peaks form; if you lift the beater from the egg whites, the peak that forms will hold its shape, but fold over on itself slightly. (See images and video above for more information.)
- Gently stir the berries into the batter, mixing just long enough to distribute them. Fold the beaten egg whites into the batter as gently as you can, mixing just until distributed throughout the batter. Do not over mix. You should still be able to see a few streaks of egg white in the batter.
- Scoop the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing it into an even layer. Bake for 60-65 minutes, until the sides of the cake are pulling away from the side of the pan, the cake does not jiggle at all if you move the pan, and a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out without any evidence of raw batter. (*See note below for what to do if the top of the cake is getting too brown.)
- Remove the cake to a wire rack and allow to cool completely in the pan before icing.
Make the lemon icing:
- Add all the icing ingredients to a large mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer until completely smooth, about 3-4 minutes. Adjust the amount of lemon juice and powdered sugar as necessary to achieve a spreadable consistency. Icing should be the consistency of yogurt.
- Spread the icing over the cake and allow it to set before cutting into squares, about 2 hours at room temperature or 1 hour in the refrigerator.
- Top with sprinkles if desired, cut into squares and serve. Cake will keep covered at room temperature for up to 2 days.
What kind of berries should you use in this snack cake?
I really love using raspberries in this cake but blueberries and blackberries will also work well. You can also use a combination of berries. If you use strawberries, cut them into pieces that are about the size of a blueberry or raspberry.
What to do if the top of your cake is getting too brown:
Because it takes about an hour to bake this cake, the top can get overly brown before the center is baked through. It's ok if the top of the cake is golden brown, but if the top of your cake starts to look too dark, simply cover it loosely with a sheet of aluminum foil.
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Pastel sprinkles | Cake sprinkles
McCormick Pure Lemon Extract, 2 fl oz
Rodelle Gourmet Pure Vanilla Extract, 8 Oz
LE REGALO Rectangular Stoneware Baking Dish
Le Creuset Silicone Craft Series Utensil Set with Stoneware Crock, 5 pc.
Immersion Blender 4-in-1, Stainless Steel Whisk and Food Chopper
KitchenAid 6-Quart Pro Bowl-Lift Stand Mixer
Nutrition Information:Yield: 12 Serving Size: 1 square
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 510Total Fat: 18gSaturated Fat: 10gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 7gCholesterol: 65mgSodium: 535mgCarbohydrates: 82gFiber: 2gSugar: 58gProtein: 6g
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