Perfect Vanilla Cake with Vanilla Italian Meringue Buttercream
If I had to use only one word to describe this vanilla cake it would be flavorful. Yes, it's also moist and rich, with a tender, fluffy crumb that's somewhere between a chiffon and butter cake. But, what really sets this cake apart is its flavor.
If you're looking for a go-to vanilla cake recipe for wedding cakes, birthday cakes, shower cakes, anniversary cakes, or just because cakes, that will have everyone who tastes it coming back for more, this is it.
This has been my go-to vanilla cake recipe for years and years because it's just so dang delicious. It's sturdy enough to hold up to whatever fillings and frostings you throw at it, the layers always rise beautifully, with a nice flat top that makes stacking and decorating a cinch, and - most importantly - in the hundreds of times I've served this cake, everyone always LOVES it. Always. Because, as I said, it's so dang delicious.
Here's what makes this cake so delicious: butter, buttermilk, egg yolks, plenty of vanilla extract and the tiniest hint of lemon and nutmeg.
What's the difference between white cake and vanilla cake?
Most white cake recipes are focused on creating a cake that is super white. These recipes call for using all egg whites, a colorless fat like vegetable shortening or oil, and very little (if any) vanilla extract. Egg yolks, butter, and vanilla might contribute a lot of flavor to cakes, but they also affect the color of the batter. So, if you want a super white cake, you really have to leave them out.
Personally, I could care less about how white my cake is. I just want it to taste good. And that's why this recipe is for a Vanilla Cake not a White Cake.
Is this vanilla cake still white? Yes. But, it's more of a warm white than a white-white. The recipe includes butter, a few whole eggs and a large amount of vanilla, because flavor, flavor, flavor.
It also contains a smidge of nutmeg and lemon extract, because they accentuate the vanilla and give the cake a warm, rich flavor. You can, of course, leave the lemon and nutmeg out. But, I beg you to bake this cake just once with both of those lovely ingredients left in the batter even if you aren't crazy about lemon or nutmeg, or both.
The recipe only calls for ¼ tsp of nutmeg and a ½ tsp of lemon extract. You could get away with adding as little as ⅛ tsp of nutmeg and ¼ tsp of lemon extract. Either way, the point of adding them is not to make this cake taste like a lemon or nutmeg cake. We are still baking a vanilla cake.
The lemon and nutmeg just make this cake taste like a better, more flavorful vanilla cake. They add a touch of brightness and warmth that will have people telling you it's the best vanilla cake they've ever had. Who doesn't want to bake something that is the best your guests ever had???
Here's the bottom line about the whole white cake vs vanilla cake issue: If you have someone who asks you to make a white cake, they are very rarely saying that the whiteness of the cake is the most important thing to them. Most of the time, they are asking for a really good vanilla cake. It's just that we use the terms "white cake" and "vanilla cake" interchangeably.
So, by all means clarify what they're really after. But, most people will prioritize kick-ass flavor in their cakes over the color any day.
The Magic of Buttermilk in Cakes
Buttermilk is truly a magical ingredient in baking. First of all, remember the whole flavor soapbox I just stepped off of? Well, I'm stepping back on, because one of the main reasons to use buttermilk in cake is because it adds flavor.
Many recipes that call for buttermilk, like Red Velvet Cake or super fluffy blueberry pancakes, also contain baking soda. Baking soda is a leavener that will help baked goods rise IF it's paired with an acid, like buttermilk.
Baking powder, on the other hand, is a leavener that includes baking soda PLUS acid. To activate it, all you need to do is add a liquid - acidic or not.
This vanilla cake recipe uses buttermilk AND baking powder. Sooo... what the heck? The buttermilk in this cake is not added to help the cake rise. The baking powder (and beaten egg whites) have that covered. What it does do is contribute flavor and a super tender texture to the baked cake.
Baking soda has a neutralizing effect on the acid in buttermilk, which means you loose some of the tangy flavor it would otherwise contribute. Sometimes, this is exactly what you want. And sometimes you want aaaallll that flavor to come shining through.
In this vanilla cake, the buttermilk adds a lovely complex flavor to the batter that I didn't want to mute AT ALL. By using all baking powder, the acid in the buttermilk is free to add a powerful flavor boost while creating a soft, tender crumb.
The secret to baking a cake with a super fluffy, soft, and tender crumb.
There are a lot of different methods for mixing cake batter, all of them serving a purpose. This recipe uses beaten egg whites, stabilized with a bit of sugar, to add air to the batter. That extra air helps leaven the cake and also gives it a super soft, fluffy texture.
When you whip egg whites, the proteins in the whites unfold and then reattach to each other in a way that traps moisture. This process not only helps keep this cake moist, it also keeps the proteins from contributing to the structure of the cake so that the texture is extra tender and soft.
Simply separate the eggs, placing the yolks in one bowl and the whites in another. Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until frothy. Slowly pour in ¼ cup of the sugar, beating as you pour. Continue to beat until the meringue is glossy and stiff peaks form when you lift the whisk from the beaten egg whites.
Pro tip! It's important to not allow the beaten egg whites to sit around for a long time before folding them into the batter or they will loose their volume. To ensure the time between beating and folding is as short as possible, get all the ingredients measured and prepped before you begin making the batter. Alternatively, you can use a hand mixer to whip the egg whites right before folding them into the batter.
Fold the beaten egg whites into the batter very gently so that you retain as much air as possible. Do not over mix! The goal here is to mix just until the beaten egg whites are mostly distributed throughout the batter. You should still be able to see a few streaks of egg white in the batter.
This recipe will give you three OR four vanilla cake layers or 24-36 cupcakes.
Generally, when I bake this vanilla cake, I opt for three thick layers. But, four thinner layers is also an excellent choice. However many layers you bake, try to bake them all at once. As I mentioned above, adding liquid to baking powder activates it's rising power. If batter is allowed to sit out for a while before baking, some of the gasses produced by baking powder to help your cakes rise, will escape from the batter and result in a cake that doesn't rise quite as high.
If you prefer cupcakes, you'll get somewhere between 24 and 36 from this recipe, depending on how full you fill your cupcake tin.
The endless number of frosting and filling options.
Most of the time, when I bake this cake, I stick to filling the layers and frosting the cake with Vanilla Italian Meringue Buttercream. It's one of those gorgeously classic combinations that's difficult to beat.
This cake also pairs well with pretty much any variety of flavored version of Italian Meringue Buttercream - fresh berry, lemon, chocolate, caramel, and coconut maple buttercream are just a few of my favorites. Sometimes I flavor only part of a batch of Italian Meringue Buttercream, filling the layers with the flavored version and keeping the outside frosted in vanilla buttercream. Other times, I frost and fill with whatever flavor strikes my fancy.
This cake is also delicious frosted with Classic American Buttercream and Quick Chocolate Buttercream, each of which only take about 5 minutes to make and are silky smooth and flavorful thanks to the additions of butter and heavy cream.
Pro tip! The only thing I'd be cautious of when deciding how to fill and frost this vanilla cake is adding fresh fruit. Fruit jam, preserves, or fruit flavored buttercream work really well. But, fresh fruit generally contains too much moisture. As the moisture leaks out of the fruit, it can soak into the cake layers making them kind of soggy and even causing the layers to slip, toppling your cake over.
If you want to serve this cake with fresh fruit, I'd suggesting adding it as an accompaniment when serving. A spoonful of fresh berries that have been tossed in a bit of sugar and lemon juice is divine served alongside a thick slice of vanilla cake.
More Popular layer cake recipes:
- Gluten Free Vanilla Layer Cake
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- Lemon Layer Cake with Blackberry Italian Meringue Buttercream
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- Classic Red Velvet Cake
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- Gluten Free Caramel Cake
This Vanilla Cake Recipe is a Building Block Recipe. Building Blocks are tried-and-true recipes that I find myself coming back to time and time again, sometimes to make them exactly as is, and sometimes as a starting point for something new. -> More Building Block Recipes.
This Vanilla Cake is a Building Block Recipe
Building block recipes are tried-and-true recipes that I consider foundational to great home baking. They are the kind of recipes I come back to over and over again, sometimes baking them as is, but often using them as a jumping off point to create something new. > Scroll through all Building Block recipes.
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- 4 whole eggs, separated, at room temperature (how to quickly bring eggs to room temperature)
- 3 egg whites, at room temperature
- 2 ¼ cups sugar, divided
- ¾ cup butter, at room temperature
- ¾ cup shortening
- 1 tbs pure vanilla extract
- ½ tsp lemon extract (optional)
- 3 cups cake flour (To make cake flour, replace 2 tbsp of flour with cornstarch per cup. So, for this recipe, add all the flour to a bowl, remove 6 tbsp and then add 6 tbsp of cornstarch. Whisk well to combine.)
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp salt
- ¼ tsp nutmeg (optional)
- 1 cup buttermilk, full fat, at room temperature (how to quickly bring buttermilk to room temperature)
- Heat oven to 325 F. Grease and flour three or four 8 or 9 inch round cake pans and line the bottoms with a round of parchment paper that is also slathered with a bit of butter or shortening. (Here's how to ensure your cakes don't stick to the pans.)
- Separate the 4 whole eggs, placing the 4 yolks in a small bowl and the whites in a separate medium size bowl. Add the 3 additional egg whites to the other 4 for a total of 7 egg whites. Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until frothy. (*See note.)
- Slowly pour in ¼ cup of the sugar, beating continuously as you pour. Continue to beat until the meringue is glossy and stiff peaks form when you lift the whisk from the beaten egg whites. Set aside.
- Fit the standing mixer with the paddle attachment and cream the butter, shortening and remaining 2 cups of sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Stop the mixer to scrape down the sides of the bowl a time or two. Beat in the vanilla and lemon extracts.
- Add 2 of the egg yolks and beat until incorporated, about 20 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the remaining 2 egg yolks, beat for about 20 seconds, until fully incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
- Add the flour, baking powder, salt and nutmeg to a large bowl and mix with a wire whisk just to combine.
- Beating on low speed, add the flour mixture, alternating with the buttermilk, in 3 additions, beginning and ending with the flour: ⅓ of the flour, ½ of the buttermilk, ⅓ of the flour, ½ of the buttermilk, ⅓ of the flour. With each addition, beat on low speed, just long enough to incorporate. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary.
- With a rubber spatula, gently fold the beaten egg whites into the batter just until distributed. You should still see some streaks of egg white throughout the batter. Do not over mix.
- Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans. If baking 3 layers, bake for 40-50 min. If baking four layers, bake for 30-35 minutes. When done, the cakes will be golden brown and pulling away from the sides of the pan. To check for doneness, stick a toothpick into the center of one of the layers. Remove the toothpick and look for signs of raw batter. If only cake crumbs stick to the toothpick, the cake is done. You can also scoop a tiny amount of cake from the center of one of the layers to check for doneness. (You’ll be covering the cake with frosting anyway.)
- Let the cakes cool on wire racks for 5 minutes in the pan, then gently turn them out of the pans onto the wire racks to cool completely. If you don’t plan on frosting the layers immediately, wrap each tightly with plastic wrap.
The layers can be stored at room temperature for 1 day, or frozen for up to 2 months.
It’s important to NOT allow the beaten egg whites to sit around for a long time before folding them into the batter or they will loose their volume. To ensure the time between beating and folding is as short as possible, get all the ingredients measured and prepped before you begin making the batter. Alternatively, you can use a hand mixer to whip the egg whites right before folding them into the batter.
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Nutrition Information:Yield: 16 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 398Total Fat: 20gSaturated Fat: 10gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 9gCholesterol: 76mgSodium: 320mgCarbohydrates: 49gFiber: 0gSugar: 29gProtein: 5g
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