I flipped through an old vintage cookbook to find one of my favorite birthday cake recipes. A light and tender white cake filled with an easy almond-studded butterscotch caramel, topped with smooth mocha buttercream. A cake made for a “Distinguished Guest” as Martha Meade suggests is indeed also perfect for a Distinguished Birthday.
Forgotten in my shelves piles of cookbooks was a cookbook from 1934 titled 50 Cakes for 50 Occasions. How the cookbook made its way to hide in my collection of cookbooks I’m not sure, but I suspect I’ve been moving it from state to state, home to home for the past decade or so.
This past month, I’ve turned my New Orleans home on it’s very head, painting the inside and thus, take every book off its shelf and piling them all, rather unceremoniously, in the center of the house. Undoing that mess has been no small feat and required friends to talk me past the overwhelm.
Karlee was the first of those friends in my very messy home, taking a few deep breaths with me and starting to unpack. One of the first things she picked up was Martha Meade’s vintage cookbook. You know how other people’s stuff is much more interesting that your own? Yea. She asked where I had gotten this book and I looked at her as though it had just dropped from the heavens. She flipped through it, made a comment about how sweet it was and handed me another hefty stack of book to complete the kitchen cookbook shelf.
Days after Karlee left I went looking for that little cookbook myself, found it, and was newly delighted by its charm… the charm that had somehow been on my shelf all along. The patina of the pages, the handwritten notes on the back cover – it’s got feel. Each cake is made for an occasion like, for example, nights when you welcome a Distinguished Guest to your home. What would you possibly serve them aside from this two layer white cake, almond caramel, and mocha buttercream? Nothing less would do.
Which brings us here. The New Orleans house is mostly put back in order and, even though we need no excuse for cake, IT’S MY BIRTHDAY. Aside from all that, I consider myself The Distinguished Guest of my very own home so we made THE CAKE, babes.
And because eating birthday cake on other people’s birthdays is the true gift, may I humbly suggest you make this cake, too. Here’s how!
I made a few changes to Martha Meade’s original 1934 recipe. Just a few. The recipe as detailed below stays pretty true to the classic!
Here are the ingredients you’ll need to bring together one of the most distinguished birthday cake recipes we have here on Joy the Baker:
• cake flour, sifted
• egg whites from four large eggs, whipped to stiff peaks
• granulated sugar
• unsalted butter
• vanilla extract
• boiling water
• baking powder
• sea salt
• vanilla extract and a tiny splash of almond extract
• whole milk
• brown sugar
• roasted almonds, chopped
• powdered sugar
• cocoa powder
• strong coffee
The undeniable truth about white cake made from scratch is that the most tender crumb comes from first whipping egg whites to stiff peaks, then folding them into the cake batter. It’s an extra step, yes. Is there a way around it? No, I’m afraid not. Surrender to the extra bowl.
In a clean and dry bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, whip egg whites to stiff peaks. They should hold their shape and be almost crunchy cloudy (which is not a technical term but perhaps should be). Add the air incorporated into the egg whites will translate to the cake batter, lending structure and tenderness.
The egg whites aside, let’s talk about the dry ingredients, namely: cake flour.
Cake flour in important for this cake because of its lower protein content (about 10% as opposed to all-purpose flour’s 11+%). The lower protein will make for a more tender crumb. My favorite cake flour is from King Arthur Baking and worth keeping in the fridge for birthday cakes alone. My mom always had the classic red Swan’s Down Cake Flour tucked on the side on the fridge and it’s an old standby, to be sure.
And no, cake flour doesn’t really need to be stored in the fridge as though it will spoil. It’s just not a commonly used flour in my kitchen and I keep it fresh (and sneaky bug free) by storing it in either the fridge or freezer.
When it’s time to bake, be sure to sift cake flour as the fine grain makes it more prone to clumping.
With the egg whites whipped and the flour sifted (whew… I know), cream together the butter and sugar in a large bowl or in the bowl of a stand mixer on low speed using the paddle attachment. Add vanilla extract and that tiny splash of almond extract.
Slowly beat in the flour mixture along with the milk.
And lastly, for this classic vanilla cake batter, fold in the egg whites in three batches. The first batch will feel clunky and awkward because the texture of the two components are so different but by the third batch of egg whites, the batter will feel fluffy and aerated.
Divide the batter between two prepared 8-inch round baking pans (though 9-inch rounds will also do and make for slightly thinner cake layers). By “prepared” I mean, a greased, floured pan with the bottom lined with a parchment paper round for extra credit.
Bake the cakes in the upper third of the oven until puffed and bouncy, and a toothpick inserted into the center of each cake comes out clean.
I like to let my baked cake rounds cool slightly in the pan for 15-20 minutes before inverting onto a wire rack to cool completely. It’s easiest to remove the cakes from the pan if they’re still slightly warm.
For best frosting results, wrap the cake layers in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. They’ll be more sturdy for frosting.
Let’s talk about this caramel filling because the recipe as written in this old-school cookbook is… unique (if not a little unhinged).
Think: a homemade caramel sauce thickened like Thanksgiving gravy and laced with toasted almonds. Got it? A little strange but with a few tweaks, I decided to mostly trust in Martha Meade.
Start by mixing together melted butter and flour into a thickish paste.
In a small saucepan, melt together brown sugar and melt until the sugar dissolves and the mixture starts to bubble at the edges of the pan. Over low heat, stir in the butter and flour mixture and watch the whole caramel thicken. Stir in the vanilla extract and chopped almonds.
Consider this butterscotch caramel a weird and wonderful delight. Allow it to cool to room temperature before filling the cake.
Look at these glorious air pockets in this springy little cake layer! Too good. Let’s assemble this cake (assuming you whipped together the mocha buttercream frosting).
Trim the top of the cake to create a level surface. For extra credit, spoon some of the buttercream into a piping bag fitted with a large round tip to create a border that will house the caramel.
Spread on the nutty butterscotchy caramel and smooth to top.
Top with the additional cake layer and cover the entire surface of the cake with a thin layer of mocha buttercream. The flavor is out of this world – you’ll want to eat this frosting by the spatulaful.
Because it’s my birthday and I am the Distinguished Guest – sprinkles.
I like to give the frosted cake a chill in the refrigerator for a few hours before slicing. It’s like letting the freshly made bed settle before hoping in for the night. You can’t make the bed and immediately unmake it by getting inside! In the same way you can’t cut into a cake moments after it’s been frosted. I don’t know where these truth came from but they’re spot on.
Slice into generous wedges and take the fork to the tip. That’s the best bite.
Martha Meade charmed with this, one of my new favorite birthday cake recipes but oh oh oh do I have more. If you’re in need of birthday cake inspiration, consider:
My Best Chocolate Cake // Everybody’s Yellow Birthday Cake // Carrot Cake with cream cheese frosting // A sweet little Lemon Curd Crumb Cake // Funfetti Birthday Bundt Cake // Chocolate Chip Cookie Cake // 12 Frosted Cupcakes with just one stick of butter // My Favorite Easy Strawberry Sheet Cake
All my love to you, friends!
A cake from Martha Meade’s 1934 cookbook, 50 Cakes for 50 Occasions, updated just slightly to make a very fine birthday cake.
For the Cake:
- 4 large egg whites, beaten until stiff
- 2/3 cup (151 grams) unsalted butter, softened
- 1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons boiling water
- 2 1/4 cup (238 grams) cake flour, sifted
- 3 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla bean or vanilla bean paste
- The tiniest splash of almond extract
For the Butterscotch Filling:
- 1 cup (200 grams) lightly packed brown sugar
- 1 cup milk
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- 4 tablespoons (26 grams) cake flour
- Splash of vanilla extract
- Sprinkle of sea salt
- 1/2 cup chopped roasted and salted almonds
For the Mocha Frosting:
- 1/2 cup (113 grams) unsalted butter, softened
- 3 cups powdered sugar
- 5 tablespoons cocoa powder, sifted
- 5 tablespoons strong coffee, mostly cool
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Place a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour two 8-inch round baking pans and set aside.
- First whip the eggs to stiff peaks. In a clean and dry bowl of a stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment whip egg whites on medium speed until frothy, increasing the speed to medium-high until the egg whites form into still peaks. Scrape into a bowl and set aside.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, or in a large bowl with electric hand beaters cream butter and sugar until pale and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Add boiling water gradually and beat until well combined.
- In a medium bowl sift together flour, baking powder and salt.
- Add half of the dry ingredients to the creamed butter mixture on low speed. Beat in the milk followed by the remaining dry ingredients. Fold in the eggs whites in three parts, creating a light and airy batter.
- Divide between the prepared pans, spreading into an even layer. Bake for 28-35 minutes or until the cakes are golden brown and a cake tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean or with a few moist crumbs. Allow cakes to cool in the pan for 15 minutes before inverting onto a wire rack to cool completely. (Cake layers can be made days in advance, wrapped in plastic wrap and chilled in the refrigerator or freezer.)
- While the cake bakes, make the butterscotch filling. In a small saucepan over medium heat, whisk together brown sugar and milk. Allow to simmer and dissolve the sugar. In a small bowl whisk together melted butter and flour. Spoon the flour mixture into the simmering sugar mixture and whisk until smooth and thickened, about 2 minutes. Add a splash of vanilla and a sprinkle of salt. Remove from heat and add the chopped almonds. Spoon into a bow land cool to room temperature.
- To make the frosting in the bow of a stand mixer with a paddle attachment or in a bowl with electric hand beaters beat butter around the bowl until softened. Add powdered sugar and cocoa powder and beat on low. Drizzle in coffee until the frosting is smooth and spreadable but still holds its shape.
- To frost the cake, spoon about 1/3 cup of chocolate frosting into a piping bag fitted with a large round tip. Trim the cooled cake layer if needed. Place it on a cake plate or cardboard cake rounds. Use the piping bag to pipe a chocolate frosting border around the edge of the cake layer. This will be the barrier to hold the butterscotch filling neatly in place. Spoon in butterscotch filling and spread evenly. Top with second cake layer and frost the top and sides of the cake until smooth.
- Decorate with sprinkles and candles. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours before slicing.
Keywords: layer cake, birthday cake, white cake, caramel filling, chocolate frosting, mocha frosting,