Very Vanilla Cake

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My little brother hates chocolate.

Tears would ensue if you even attempted to offer him chocolate as a toddler. These days he isn’t quite as likely to throw a tantrum, but he still won’t be happy if a blob of brown ends up in his strawberry-vanilla portion of neapolitan icecream.

Personally, I – along with most people – can’t really imagine a world without chocolate. A day rarely goes past where I don’t nibble at a block in the pantry, or indulge in some icecream or brownies. Although my favourite way to indulge is Lindt couverture, I’m not particularly fussy – I love the sweetness of Easter eggs and white chocolate!

I love cooking with chocolate almost as much as I love eating it. But to keep it fair, I figure I should bake something without chocolate every now and then for the little one. Although this Very Vanilla Cake will no doubt be met with questions of “Is it white chocolate?” (try explaining to a six-year-old that white chocolate isn’t really chocolate), I’m sure it’ll be greatly appreciated by the biggest vanilla fan in the house, as well as the rest of the family!

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I searched long and hard for a suitable vanilla cake recipe. I didn’t want something too dry or heavy, or worst of all, lacking in vanilla flavour. I had originally bookmarked Sweetapolita’s recipe for a Very Fluffy Vanilla Cake, but after reading the comments of various failures I chickened out a little. I generally don’t like using American baking recipes as, even with conversions, they never seem to work perfectly for me. In any case, I ended up using the vanilla buttercream recipe from Sweetapolita (though without vanilla beans), but sandwiched with a Peggy Porschen vanilla bean Victoria sponge soaked with a vanilla sugar syrup. I figured that would be vanilla-y enough!

The result? A lovely, moist layered vanilla cake, and probably the creamiest frosting I’ve ever had.

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Very Vanilla Cake

Sponge adapted from Peggy Porschen’s Cake Chic, buttercream frosting adapted from Sweetapolita

Vanilla Victoria Sponge

Ingredients

  • 100mL water
  • 75g sugar
  • 1 tsp good-quality vanilla extract (alternatively, the seeds of  1/2 a vanilla pod)
  • 200g butter, softened
  • 200g caster sugar
  • Seeds of one vanilla bean (alternatively, 1tsp vanilla bean paste)
  • 4 eggs, at room temperature
  • 200g self raising flour, sifted

Method

  1. Firstly, combine the water, sugar and extract in a small saucepan and bring to the boil over a medium heat. Set aside.
  2. Grease and line the bottom and sides of two 8-inch sandwich tins, ensuring the baking paper rises 3cm above the edge of the tin. If you have them, place a Wilton flower nail in the centre of each pan (these help the cakes rise evenly rather than domed). Preheat the oven to 18o degrees celsius.
  3. Cream the butter, sugar and vanilla with an electic mixer fitted with a paddle attachment until pale and creamy, approximately 5-8 minutes.
  4. Beat the eggs lightly in a jug, and then add slowly to the butter mixture while beating on medium speed. If the mixture starts to curdle, stop adding the egg and see if continuing to beat will return the mixture back to normal (this usually occurs). If the mixture still looks curdled, add a tablespoon of flour and continue mixing.
  5. Once the egg mixture and butter mixture are combined, incorporate the flour at a low speed until just combined.
  6. Spread the cake batter evenly between the two tins, and flatten the surface using a palette knife. Bake for approximately 25 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean.
  7. Allow the sponges to rest for around 15 minutes, and then prick the surface with a toothpick. Soak the sponge with the vanilla syrup using a pastry brush (note: I used around a quarter of the syrup but would recommend using more if you will be storing the cake for more than one day).
  8. When the sponges are completely cool, invert to a wire rack.
  9. Make the Fluffy Vanilla Buttercream (recipe below).
  10. Smear a small amount of buttercream onto your serving plate or cake board, and then place one of the sponges, top side down, onto the plate. Spread around a cup of icing onto the bottom of the cake using a palette knife. If your cake has a lot of crumbs you may find it useful to do a crumb coat first.
  11. Place the other sponge on top of the first one, top side down. Centre the cake and then cover the top and sides with buttercream, using a palette knife to smooth.
  12. Use any remaining buttercream to decorate the cake with a piping bag if desired (I did small rosettes).

Fluffy Vanilla Buttercream

Ingredients

  • 375g butter, softened
  • 3 cups/475g icing sugar, sifted
  • 2.25 tblsp/45mL milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • Optional: seeds of one vanilla bean (I didn’t do this)

 Method

  1. Beat the butter using a paddle attachment on an electric mixer for 8 minutes on medium speed (‘4’ on a KitchenAid)
  2. Add remaining ingredients and combine on a low speed; increase to medium speed and beat for 6 minutes.
  3. This icing is best used immediately. It will go hard if kept in the fridge, however it should return to its original consistency if brought back to room temperature. You may need to beat the mixture again to make it smooth.

Notes

  • Try to avoid making this on a hot day (like I did). Heat and butter don’t really mix well! If you do make it on a warm day, either assemble the cake as close as possible to serving and leave it out of the fridge in the coolest part of the house, or if you make it in advance, the cake can be stored in the fridge but is best brought back to room temperature before serving. Ensure you syrup the cake well if you are doing this – the cake may dry out regardless, though it will still be yummy!
  • Also, on a hot day your icing may begin to soften as you are layering and icing the cake. If this happens you can put the cake and the icing in the fridge for short bursts to firm it up. You may need to beat the icing again when it comes out of the fridge for a smooth consistency. Either way, you will probably get better results on a cool day (or if you have really good air-conditioning), but it will still taste fine!
  • Using the flower nails helps to avoid the ‘domed’ look on a cake, which makes it hard to layer. If you don’t happen to have a flower nail at home (they’re around $4 in cake decorating shops), you may need to level off the sponges using a serrated knife.
  • Peggy recommends you use around half of this quantity of syrup for this size cake. I used a bit less and didn’t find the cake as moist as when I had previously used the same recipe. You can store the syrup in the fridge for up to one month, or you can make half of the quantity provided here.

Apple and Strawberry Vanilla Cake

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Donna Hay.

The love comes mainly from admiration – seriously, have you opened one of her cookbooks recently? The photos, the styling, the flavour combinations – if I’m ever feeling uninspired, it’s Donna to whom I turn.

However, despite the ‘fast, fresh, simple’ tagline, I can’t say I’ve ever found any of her recipes (particularly for baking) all that quick, or even simple. The flavours are simple, sure. But the recipes themselves can sometimes have too many or too few steps, and either require ridiculously expensive or difficult-to-find ingredients.

I remember my first cookbook was Donna Hay magazine’s annual kids issue – the first volume of it, in fact. I loved that thing. Even as a ten-year-old I would read it again and again, bake the same things again and again, and spend an unnecessary amount of time decorating cupcakes to perfection.

But what frustrated me, even back then, was the recipes and the ingredients. Often cakes would call for a mixture of plain flour, baking soda and baking powder – I’d say this is overkill for a magazine aimed at kids, when self-raising flour is readily available. Similarly, the recipes were often so simple as to not give enough direction. I could never recreate the pictures and it annoyed me, even though I now know that is quite a difficult thing to do, even for much more experienced cooks than me. Despite all this, and even after all these years, I still cook from Donna’s magazine, buy most of her new cookbooks, and flick through the pages when I’m bored.

So this brings me to what I baked today – an adaptation of Donna’s simple apple and blueberry cake from Fast, Fresh, Simple. It sounds easy, and the recipe makes it look easy, but to be honest I was disappointed with my results. Some of this probably comes from errors on my part – not softening the butter well enough, for example – and possibly oversights in the recipe itself. I’m always a bit doubtful of “chuck everything in the mixer” recipes, but they sometimes do work. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of those times.

I adapted the recipe slightly to suit the ingredients I had on hand, which wasn’t the issue. My first main problem was that my butter was not soft enough, so it didn’t blend into the cake batter properly, as there was no butter-sugar creaming step. This meant the cooked cake ended up tasting overly like butter, as the small chunks of butter melted into the cake – this sounds like it could be a good thing, but it wasn’t in this case. Imagine putting extra butter on top of a cooked cake – not nice.

My second issue was, as always, the cake looked absolutely nothing like the beautiful picture it was meant to. The cake rose around and above all of the fruit, so it didn’t look like a fruit cake at all. I don’t know what I could do to avoid this, apart from putting more fruit on top.

That said, I am more than willing to overlook an ugly cake if it tastes good. Unfortunately this one did just not stack up. Even with the supposedly easy one bowl, two step recipe, it still took a while to prepare with the chopping and cleaning, and all for not so good results, tastewise. That said, I might try this cake again, with super soft butter. I’ll post an update here when I do.

Apple and Strawberry Vanilla Cake, adapted from Donna Hay’s Fast, Fresh, Simple

Ingredients

  • 225g self-raising flour, sifted
  • 165g caster sugar
  • 125g unsalted butter, softened
  • 1.5 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  • 125mL milk
  • 1 small apple, thinly sliced
  • about 7 strawberries, sliced
  • 2 tsp caster sugar and 2 tsp brown sugar, mixed together

Method

  • Preheat oven to 160 degrees. Grease and line a 22cm springform pan with baking paper.
  • Place the flour, sugar, butter, vanilla, eggs and milk in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat until just combined.
  • Pour into prepared pan and arrange fruit on top. Sprinkle with sugar mixture.
  • Bake for 1 hour, checking after 45 minutes (the original recipe specified 45 minutes).
  • Allow the cake to cool slightly before removing it from the tin to cool on a wire rack. Serve with icecream and fresh fruit.