buttermilk layer cake with chocolate frosting

Classic birthday cake

I’d love to have a yellow layer cake recipe in my list of go-to recipes — those recipes that I know work, taste great, and don’t demand great feats (or fancy ingredients) to make. I’ve made a couple of attempts at this classic (once as a small layer cake and cupcakes, and as mini vanilla cupcakes). And those were made with freshly milled soft white wheat flour.

For my husband’s birthday, I splurged on cake flour that I had leftover in the pantry rather than whole wheat. So I was able to follow a recipe for buttermilk cake as written. Well, almost. Instead of buttermilk, I used whey from my latest batch of yogurt. It was so hard to pick from the zillions of yellow cake recipes (so many declared “the best”!), but the recipe I settled on was the right blend of flour type, liquid ingredients, and eggs. It also appeared to have the crumb I was after: tender, and looser crumb rather than dense and spongy.

I investigated lots of different frostings for this yellow cake. I don’t love typical American buttercream because I can never get the powdered sugar completely smooth — it’s always a little gritty, and it’s a very sweet buttercream. French buttercream is super smooth, but I didn’t want something so buttery this time. I’m intrigued by Ermine icing (also called boiled milk frosting or flour buttercream). I’d love to try it at some point, but I got the sense it’s better paired with a more flavorful cake like chocolate or red velvet.

Since I’m going for classic birthday cake here, I finally settled on an American style buttercream, flavored with chocolate.

buttermilk layer cake with chocolate frosting


Buttermilk Layer Cake from nytimes.com (adapted from The Joy of Cooking), and Chocolate Frosting from urbanbakes.com (adapted from Betty Crocker Big Book of Cakes)

Process notes


  • lined the bottom of the pans with parchment after greasing, then greased the tops of the parchment rounds
  • used whey leftover from homemade Greek style yogurt instead of buttermilk
  • mixed in stand mixer using scraper blade
  • baked in middle of oven, side by side, for 30 total minutes, rotated pans after 20 minutes


  • converted measurement of 4 1/2 cups of powdered sugar to 563 gm
  • mixed in about 2 tbsp of additional milk after adding powdered sugar
  • mixed for a total of about 5 minutes
  • added a pinch of sea salt at end of mixing


Using parchment rounds was a good move. I didn’t have any sticking like with my last cake. I forgot to use my cake strips, but didn’t run into any problems with the tops — they were even enough that they didn’t require trimming.

My frosting was much denser than the frosting in the original recipe post, even though I added extra milk. I just didn’t want to keep adding so much that it became too runny, so I backed off adding more.

I’m torn on the chocolate frosting…the texture is gritty, which I don’t like. And it’s too sweet for me. The chocolate flavor is fantastic though! I’m looking forward to trying an Ermine frosting in the future to compare.

The cake is extremely light and airy, and is practically impossible to taste under the frosting. I’m not sure if it was the whey I used in place of buttermilk, or I mixed it wrong, or what, but it was just way too light and delicate in texture. It’s like eating fudge with some cake crumbs underneath. The pancakes with my whey/runny yogurt combo worked better as far as using yogurt whey goes. On the bright side, the flavor of the cake reminded me of the Easy Bake Oven cake from my childhood — which is a good thing, not a criticism :)

So here’s what I learned: this cake recipe, adapted the way I did, was not a good fit for me. Also, a 9-inch layer cake is MUCH too much cake for two people. It made 12 pieces, and 7 went into the freezer (individually wrapped for the occasional treat).

That being said, cake is always delightful to have around, and it’s never bad in my book. But when it gets made only occasionally, I like to strive for making it the best fit it can be for me.

vanilla and gingerbread buttercreams

Vanilla and Gingerbread Swiss Buttercreams

Today I pulled some of the Whole Wheat Vanilla Mini Cupcakes out of the freezer to top with buttercream. Since it’s that gingerbread-filled season between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I knew that some of them would be getting a gingerbread buttercream. After mixing up the recipe for buttercream, it felt a little criminal to do anything to change the smooth, vanilla perfection of the buttercream. But I was too curious to skip the spices.

This was my first time making the Classic Vanilla Buttercream Frosting from Cooks Illustrated. I guess it’s similar to a Swiss buttercream — it uses whole eggs (as opposed to just whites), granulated sugar, vanilla extract, and butter. And it is amazing. It’s unbelievable how smooth it gets, especially when compared to an American-style buttercream with confectioners’ sugar.

After mixing it up, I scooped out a bit (enough to frost 6 mini cupcakes) and added the following:

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Pinch ground cloves
  • approx. 1 tsp molasses

It was grainy at first, but after sitting on the frosted cupcakes for awhile it got a little less so. It’s not as smooth as the plain buttercream, but acceptable. Actually, more than acceptable…quite addictive. I’m trying to figure out what else I can spread this stuff on. Perhaps some sourdough pancakes!

Ginger spice apple cake

6-inch ginger spice apple cake

When I read Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cafe, the recipe for Apple Snacking Spice Cake jumped out at me as a must-make. I made an apple cake once before that was delicious, but didn’t include the ginger and cloves.

I cut the recipe in half in order to use my smaller 6-inch cake pan, which I bought so we wouldn’t have so much cake sitting around the house. It came together really well at this size. It’s not too rich or sweet, and is a really pleasant little cake, somewhat similar to an unfrosted carrot cake. It would also be good with some vanilla ice cream, or perhaps a caramel sauce.

This recipe calls for some cake flour, but in the future I may try it with all soft white wheat flour and avoid the processed white flour.

Ginger spice apple cake

6-inch Ginger Spice Apple Cake

  • Servings: 6
  • Difficulty: easy
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Makes one 6-inch round cake. Adapted from Flour by Joanne Chang.


  • 70 grams soft white wheat flour
  • 45 grams cake flour
  • 3/4 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/16 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 150 grams granulated sugar
  • 85 grams unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 egg
  • 2 medium peeled, cored and chopped Granny Smith apples
  • 40 grams raisins
  • 50 grams pecan halves, toasted and chopped
  • Confectioners’ sugar for dusting


  1. Preheat oven to 350° and put a rack in the middle. Prepare 6×3-inch cake pan by buttering and flouring the inside.
  2. Whisk together the flours, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment (or beater blade), beat the granulated sugar and butter into the flour for about a minute or until it’s well mixed. Scrape down the sides as necessary.
  3. Add the egg, and mix on low for 10-15 seconds or until well mixed. Then beat on medium-high until the batter is light and fluffy (about a minute).
  4. Fold in the apples, raisins, and pecans. Don’t worry if it doesn’t look like enough batter for the apples — once it bakes things balance out.
  5. Spread into cake pan and bake for 45 minutes or until it’s firm in the middle and a toothpick comes out clean. The top should be a medium to dark brown, and the center shouldn’t jiggle.
  6. Cool on a rack, in the pan, for about 15 minutes. As it cools, the cake will come away from the pan edges a bit and make it easy to overturn onto the rack. After removing it from the pan, turn it back over so it’s right-side up and dust with some confectioners’ sugar.
  7. Cover the cake well and store at room temp, eating within a few days, or wrap it well and freeze it for up to 2 weeks.