Let Them Eat Cake

by Mark R. Vogel

            Marie Antoinette, the doomed queen of King Louis XVI, was viciously maligned throughout her reign.  The victim of countless rumors, charges of adultery, and other unfounded allegations, her Austrian heritage thwarted her ingratiation with the French people.  She never uttered the infamous phrase “Let them eat cake,” in response to protests that the poor were starving, but it didn’t matter.  She was convicted of treason and like her husband, was executed via the guillotine.  For the revolutionaries, it was the icing on the cake.

             There are many types of cakes and a variety of methods for creating them.  Cakes can generally be divided into two categories: foam cakes and shortened or butter cakes.  Foam cakes differ from shortened cakes on a number of dimensions.  Foam cakes have a higher ratio of eggs to flour and typically don’t rely on baking powder or baking soda for leavening.  Beating air into the eggs in a foam cake provides the lightness and volume; angel food cake being the quintessential example.  Some foam cakes contain no fat or rely on egg yolk as the only fat.  Conversely, shortened cakes contain fat, usually butter or shortening and regularly employ baking powder or soda.  

             There are a few approaches to making a shortened cake: the creaming method, the two-stage method, and the single-stage or one bowl method.  The difference between them is primarily the texture of the final product.  If you prefer a light and airy cake, the creaming method is the way to go.

             In the creaming method, sugar is beat into the butter.  This incorporates air bubbles in the butter (which will be inflated with carbon dioxide from the baking powder or soda), and thus facilitates the maximization of the cake’s volume.  However, there are a number of factors to consider.  The first is the temperature of the butter.  Too cold and it is difficult to work with, too warm and it will not cream effectively.  If it starts to melt, kiss those air bubbles goodbye.  Sixty-five degrees is the ideal temperature.  Chill the mixing bowl and sugar to prevent the butter from overheating during the mixing.  Second, the eggs should be at room temperature for optimal volume.  Third, be mindful of the mixing times below.  It takes time to thoroughly combine the ingredients and infuse the batter with air.  Impatience results in a heavier cake.  Finally, respect the alternating addition of the flour and the liquid into the batter and always start with the flour.  Coating some of the flour with the fat first will inhibit gluten formation and create a more tender cake.  Do NOT put all the flour or all the liquid in first.  Either will reap havoc with the proper assimilation of the ingredients and the development of an airy texture.


Butter, as needed for greasing the cake pans

Flour, as needed for dusting the cake pans

8 oz. (2 sticks) unsalted butter warmed to about 65 degrees.

2 ½ cups sugar, chilled in fridge, plus one tablespoon set aside

4 eggs plus 3 egg yolks at room temperature

2/3 cup vegetable or canola oil

3 cups cake flour

3 ¼ teaspoons baking powder

¾ teaspoon salt

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 tsp. coconut extract

1 cup whole milk


1 pint chilled heavy cream

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 ½ tsp. coconut extract

½ cup powdered sugar, sifted

Flaked coconut, as needed


For the cake:

             Preheat the oven to 350.  Grease (with butter or cooking spray) three 9-inch cake pans, dust with flour and shake off the excess.  Cream the 8 oz. of butter on medium speed with an electric mixer for three minutes.  Gradually add the 2 ½ cups of sugar and mix for four more minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.  Add the eggs and egg yolks one at a time, beating for 30 seconds between each one, and then one more minute after the addition of the last one.  As with the addition of the sugar, scrape down the bowl as needed to ensure complete incorporation of the ingredients.  Remove the bowl from the mixer and mix in the oil by hand.  (The oil will impart the cake with an exquisite moistness). 

             Combine the flour, baking powder and salt and sift onto parchment or wax paper. 

             Stir one teaspoon of vanilla extract and the one teaspoon of coconut extract into the milk.  With a rubber spatula fold, don’t stir, half of the flour mixture into the butter and sugar, then half the milk mixture, then the remaining flour mixture, and then the remaining milk mixture. 

             Divide the mixture evenly into the three 9-inch cake pans and bake until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean.  This will take about 30 minutes, give or take, depending on your oven, your cake pans, and a plethora of other scientific factors.  Cool the cakes on wire racks.

             Bring the one tablespoon sugar set aside and a half cup of water to a boil and simmer until sugar is completely dissolved.  Spoon the syrup over the three cake layers. 


For the frosting:


            Place the heavy cream and extracts in an electric mixer.  The cream and mixing bowl should be chilled.  When the cream starts to coagulate, gradually add the sugar and beat until medium peaks form. 


To assemble the cake:

             Spread some of the frosting over two of the cake layers and sprinkle with flaked coconut.  Stack these two layers and top with the uncoated, third layer.  Spread the remaining frosting over the top of the third layer and the sides of the cake and sprinkle with flaked coconut.  Cover the cake and chill in fridge.  


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