Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Italian Cream Cake

I hit the cake jackpot this weekend. Actually, the true jackpot was a few years ago, I suppose, when The Carnivore's lovely Aunt Jen brought an Italian Cream Cake to a family function and changed the way I looked at cakes forever.

See, I'm not really a cake person. I mean, there have been a few memorable cakes, most notably my wedding cake (which I could hardly taste on our wedding day because my stomach was doing backflips, but which I did enjoy one year later, defrosted and slightly stale, on our first anniversary); but for the most part, if it's time for dessert, I'd rather have a tiramisu or a cannoli or, God help us all, a true pain au chocolat. The Carnivore goes for German Chocolate Cakes, which I like, but as a general rule, if there's a cake sitting around here, it will get stale before we finish it.

My first taste of an Italian Cream Cake was a life-changer though, and Aunt Jen sends us home with the better part of one of these cakes every couple of years. She rocks, that Aunt Jen.

For some reason though, mostly due to my inexperience with, and ambivalence towards, cakes, I elevated those Italian Cream Cakes to some bizarre status by which it never even occurred to me to actually bake one myself. I would just wait patiently for Christmas to roll around, and then, if Aunt Jen showed up with cookies or pie, I would sigh pitifully and just let my hedonistic craving simmer for another year.

Often, there is no method to my madness.

Last September, for Little Miss Piggy's first birthday, I lucked into a Strawberry Cream Cake recipe that we fell head-over-heels for; in fact, I made another one the very next month for another birthday. Come to think of it, maybe I do love cakes - that is a really spectacular recipe.

This year though, I wanted something different for Little Miss Piggy's second birthday. This was the last year, I figured, that I would be able to get away with a small luncheon rather than a messy shindig, and now that she is, ahem, getting a little more opinionated with each passing minute, this will most likely also be my last chance to choose the recipe myself.

So of course, since I am known for organization and planning, I stared balefully at my shelves full of cookbooks and started to panic a few days before the birthday. And then, after walking away numerous times and procrastinating for another day or two, as I was squinting again at the cookbooks, I started thinking lustfully about Italian Cream Cakes.

Still, it took a few minutes before it even occurred to me that I could bake one myself; then, and only then, did I finally started to get interested in the process. I wasn't sure where to even start looking for this kind of recipe though, and my first few book choices yielded nothing but frustration; then, in a moment of desperation, I pulled down my tattered old Southern Living annual index that covers something like 20 years worth of their cookbooks, and I stumbled right into a recipe that was listed in the 1996 cookbook which, because pigs were flying somewhere, was indeed one of the books I owned.

Let it be known that I am admitting publicly that I would be lost without my mother and her yard sale scavenging.

It was still with no small amount of trepidation that I set to work on this cake the afternoon before Little Miss Piggy's birthday. I have a history of cake-baking trauma, and since I was working on a tight schedule, with layer-cooling time to be built in, and places to be both that evening and the following morning before I needed to cook the other elements of her birthday lunch, to say I was pushing my luck was putting it mildly.

And I do realize how utterly absurd it is that I was even dealing with nerves over a two-year-old's birthday meal, but I have long since grown accustomed to my neuroses and rarely even question them anymore.

The thing is though, this recipe turned out to be foolproof (even for me), and so completely delicious that I swear my eyes rolled back in my head. There were three layers involved, which is far easier than it sounds, and the crumb was simultaneously rich and delicate at the same time, if you can imagine. Beaten egg whites were folded into the batter, which allowed for a certain amount of lightness of texture, and large and luscious amounts of coconut and buttermilk were mixed in as well, giving a moist decadence that paired gloriously with the toasted pecans in the frosting.

We had this cake polished off within 36 hours and I'm thinking seriously about making this The Holiday Recipe to accompany us to any and all potluck gatherings this winter. It is an uncommon enough recipe that it should be a welcome addition at most tables, but is rustic enough in presentation to cover a multitude of cake-decorating sins, which means even I should be able to pull this off.


ITALIAN CREAM CAKE (from Southern Living, serves 12 or so)
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup shortening
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 5 large eggs, separated
  • 1 Tbs vanilla extract
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 cup sweetened flaked coconut
  • Nutty Cream Cheese Frosting (recipe follows)
  1. Beat butter and shortening at medium speed with an electric mixer until fluffy; gradually add sugar, beating well. Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating until blended after each one. Add vanilla and beat until blended.
  2. In a separate medium bowl, combine flour & baking soda.
  3. Add flour mixture to butter mixture, in batches, alternately with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Beat at low speed until blended after each addition. Stir in coconut.
  4. In a clean bowl, beat egg whites until stiff peaks form (this takes a few minutes and provides endless entertainment to young children); fold whites into batter.
  5. Pour batter into three heavily greased and floured 9-inch round cake pans.
  6. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean. Cool in pans for 10 minutes, then run a knife around each pan to loosen the layers and remove from pans; cool completely on wire racks or on parchment paper laid on a counter.
  7. Spread Nutty Cream Cheese Frosting between layers and on top and sides of cake (refrigerating or briefly freezing cake layers will allow for easier frosting - so that layers do not tear so much, though perfection is not necessary).
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 8-oz package cream cheese, softened
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 Tbs vanilla extract
  • 16-oz package powdered sugar, sifted
  1. Bake pecans in a shallow pan at 350 degrees for 5 to 10 minutes, until toasted. Cool.
  2. Beat cream cheese, butter and vanilla at medium speed with an electric mixer until creamy. Add sugar in batches, beating at low speed until blended. Beat at high speed until blended; stir in pecans.


Mama JJ said...

Oh honey! You're speaking my language! This must get made pronto.

And now, because I know not all that much, what part of the ingredient list makes it an Italian Cream cake?

Anonymous said...

When I look at that picture of that cake, I think I hear angels sing. And they are singing my name. Can't wait to make it and eat it.

Susan in Texas

Sarah Beam said...

Pfffffttttt. Mama JJ, I know less than all that much, so you're probably asking the wrong person. Regardless, here goes: Italian Cream Cake is characterized by the buttermilk and coconut in the batter, and the cream cheese and pecans in the frosting. I do not know where it actually originated (and I find the 'Italian' distinction to be suspect), but from what I have read, it is popular amongst Southerners, Cajuns, and wedding festivities.

Shari said...

I try not to use shortening, do you think it would make a huge difference if I used butter instead? The shortening here is full of transfats.....

Sarah Beam said...

Shari, Jungle Shortening is a terrific organic shortening that is not hydrogenated, and which has no trans fats. I love the stuff and have used it in place of regular shortening with excellent results. I found it at Earth Fare (a local health food store) and I think Whole Foods carries it as well. If you cannot find it, then yes, I would try butter - but my cake knowledge is thin and so I'm not entirely sure the results will be exactly the same. Let me know if you try it with butter so I can post an update on your results.

Betsy said...

This looks so good! We had Italian Cream Cake as our wedding cake (from Cecilia), and like you, it's been elevated in my head to the place where mere mortals could not possibly bake it.

But, I think I could do this recipe! I may try it this week. Thank you!

Mama JJ said...

Sarah, I made this and LOVED it and wrote about it. Thanks!

Mama JJ said...

Thought you might like to know that my father made this for my mother's b-day. And another friend of mine made it for a different party. It's making the rounds!