Spring Showstoppers – Layer Cakes

By Chef Judi Gallagher –

Whether it’s the spring breeze blowing through my windows, packing away sweaters to make room for cotton and linen skirts, or colorful flowers blooming in my garden, something about spring makes me want to bake something indulgent, specifically towering layer cakes. Beautiful tall cakes with pretty frostings in spring colors. Set one on a cake stand and wait for the raves.

For me, the essential spring cake quartet is carrot, lemon, hummingbird and coconut. Sometime this month, I’ll bake all four of them. Then I will feel like Spring has sprung. The wonderful thing about enjoying the the rich cakes of spring is that you’ll have plenty of opportunity to work off the calories in the garden which any day now will need weeding, feeding, planting and mulching.

When it’s made correctly a carrot cake is deliciously moist and spicy, especially when topped with a pecan-studded cream cheese frosting, like the one I’ve included below. This version, adapted from a recipe by Emeril Lagasse, eliminates raisins in favor of  a generous helping of cinnamon and even more toasted pecans. And it’s just as good a celebration cake as it is a Tuesday night finish to a family dinner.

Then there’s lemon cake. Lemon is such a sunny flavor, one that says “warm weather is here!” My go-to lemon cake is a version of the one included in this month’s Saveur magazine: fluffy lemon cake smothered in lemon syrup and frosted with lemon buttercream. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

Leave it to the cooks at Southern Living magazine and their team of Southern Comfort Food collectors to come up with the perfect hummingbird cake recipe. A staple on any Southern dessert table, the batter includes mashed bananas and crushed pineapple, which creates a cake that’s incredibly moist and flavorful. And rich. It’s traditionally topped with a vanilla-scented cream cheese frosting and garnished with chopped pecans. It’s a real treat, y’all, as Paula would say.

And finally, we’ve got coconut cake. I find that people either love coconut or they hate it; I’m firmly entrenched in the “love” camp. I love coconut ice cream, coconut macaroons and I especially love coconut cake. This incredible six-layer confection from Martha Stewart features fluffy white cake, a coconut cream filling and a seven-minute white frosting that’s then topped with coconut flakes to create something a cake that looks almost like a snow sculpture but that tastes angelic.

How about you —  what’s your favorite spring cake to make? Will you be trying any of the recipes included here?

Carrot Cake
(Adapted from Emeril Lagasse)

Carrot Cake

2 cups granulated sugar

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

4 large eggs

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

3 cups grated carrots

1 cup chopped toasted pecans


Pecan Cream Cheese Icing:

8 ounces cream cheese

1 stick unsalted butter

1 (1-pound) box confectioners’ sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup chopped toasted pecans


Cake. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter 3 (9-inch) cake pans with 1 tablespoon of the butter and set aside. In a large bowl, cream the butter with an electric mixer. Add the sugar, and beat. In a medium bowl or on a piece of parchment, combine the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt, and mix well. Add the dry ingredients, alternating with the eggs, beating well after the addition of each. Add the vanilla extract and mix. Add the carrots and beat on medium speed until well incorporated, about 2 minutes. Fold in the nuts. Divide between the 3 cake pans and bake until set and a cake tester inserted into the middle comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and let rest in the cake pans for 10 minutes. Invert onto wire racks, remove from the pans, and let cool.

Frosting. In a large bowl, cream together the cream cheese and butter until light and fluffy. Add the sugar gradually, beating constantly. Add the vanilla and pecans.

When the cake is cool, place 1 cake layer on a cake plate or stand. Spread the top with cream cheese frosting and top with a second and third cake layer, spreading the icing between each layer. Spread the icing around the sides of the cake and let harden slightly before serving. To serve, cut into wedges.


Lemon Layer Cake
(Adapted from Saveur magazine, March 2012)

Cake and Syrup

Lemon Layer Cake

16 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, plus more for pans

2 1/2 cups cake flour, plus more for pans, sifted

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 3/4 cups sugar

1 teaspoon lemon zest

4 eggs

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice



1 1/2 cups sugar

1/4 cup cornstarch

1/4 cup lemon zest

1 teaspoon kosher salt

10 egg yolks

1 cup fresh lemon juice

1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, softened

1 teaspoon vanilla extract


Make the cake: Heat oven to 350-degrees. Butter and flour two 9-inch cake pans, and set aside. Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl; set aside. Whisk together milk and vanilla in a bowl; set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, cream butter, 1 1/2 cups sugar, and zest on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. On low speed, alternately add dry ingredients in 3 batches and wet ingredients in 2 batches. Increase speed to high and beat until batter is smooth, about 5 seconds. Divide batter between prepared pans, and smooth top with a rubber spatula; drop pans lightly on a counter to expel any large air bubbles. Bake cakes until a toothpick inserted in middle comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Let cakes cool for 20 minutes in pans; invert onto wire racks, and let cool. Using a serrated knife, halve each cake horizontally to produce four layers; set aside. Bring remaining sugar and juice to a boil in a small saucepan over high heat. Remove from heat, and set syrup aside.

Make the frosting: Whisk together sugar, cornstarch, zest, and salt in a 4-quart saucepan. Add yolks, and whisk until smooth; stir in juice. Stirring often, bring to a boil over medium heat; cook, stirring constantly, until very thick, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat, let cool, and transfer to a bowl; chill the lemon curd. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, beat butter and 1/4 of the curd on medium-high speed until fluffy and smooth, about 1 minute. Add half the remaining curd, beating until smooth, and then add remaining curd and vanilla. Increase speed to high; beat frosting until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes.

To assemble, place one cake layer on a cake stand, drizzle with 2 tablespoons syrup, and spread with 3/4 cup frosting; top with another cake, drizzle with 2 tablespoons syrup, and spread with 3/4 cup frosting. Place another cake over the frosting, drizzle with 2 tbsp. syrup, and spread with 3/4 cup frosting; top with remaining cake, and drizzle with remaining syrup. Cover top and sides with remaining frosting; chill cake to firm frosting. Serve at room temperature.


Hummingbird Cake

(Adapted from Southern Living Cookbook)

Hummingbird Cake

Nonstick vegetable spray

All-purpose flour, for pans

3 cups self-rising flour

2 cups granulated sugar

3/4 cup vegetable oil

1/2 cup finely chopped pecans

2 very ripe large bananas, mashed

1 (8-ounce) can crushed pineapple, with juice

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

4 large eggs, beaten



1 pound (1 box) confectioners’ sugar

8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 tablespoon milk, or more if needed

1/2 cup finely chopped pecans


Preheat oven to 325-degrees. Spray and flour three 8-by-2-inch round cake pans, tapping out excess flour; set aside.


Prepare the cake: in a large bowl, stir to combine self-rising flour, sugar, oil, pecans, bananas, pineapple, vanilla, cinnamon, and eggs. Divide batter evenly between prepared pans, smoothing with an offset spatula. Bake, rotating pans halfway through, until the tops spring back when gently pressed with your fingertips, 26 to 28 minutes. Transfer pans to a wire rack to cool 10 minutes. Invert cakes onto wire rack. Re-invert cakes and let them cool completely, top sides up. Prepare the frosting; in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine sugar, cream cheese, butter, vanilla, and 1 tablespoon milk on medium speed until frosting is smooth. If needed, add more milk, 1 teaspoon at a time, to achieve the proper spreading consistency. Using a serrated knife, trim tops of cakes to make level. Place four strips of parchment paper around perimeter of a serving plate or lazy Susan. Place the first layer on the cake plate. Spread the top of the first layer with 1/4 of the frosting. Place the second layer on top and repeat process with another 1/4 of the frosting. Place the remaining layer on top of the second layer bottom side up. Spread entire cake with remaining frosting. Sprinkle with pecans. Remove parchment paper strips; refrigerate until ready to serve.


Coconut Layer Cake
Adapted from Martha Stewart Living)

Coconut Layer Cake

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pans

2 cups sifted cake flour, not self-rising, plus more for pans

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup superfine sugar

4 large egg yolks, lightly beaten

2/3 cup sour cream

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Coconut cream filling, recipe follows

Seven-minute frosting, recipe follows

11 ounces (about 3 3/4 cups) sweetened angel-flake coconut


Heat oven to 350-degrees. Arrange two racks in the center of the oven. Line the bottom of three 6-by-2-inch buttered round cake pans with parchment paper. Dust the bottom and the sides of the cake pans with flour, and tap out any excess. Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt, and set the bowl aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter on medium-low speed until fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes. Gradually add sugar, and keep beating until the mixture is fluffy and light in color, about 3 minutes. Gradually drizzle in egg yolks, beating on medium-low speed between each addition until the batter is no longer slick. Beat until the mixture is fluffy again, about another 3 minutes. Alternate adding flour mixture and sour cream to the batter, a little of each at a time, starting and ending with the flour mixture. Beat in vanilla. Divide the batter between the prepared cake pans. Bake until a cake tester inserted into the center of each cake comes out clean, 30 to 40 minutes, rotating the pans in the oven, if needed, for even browning. Transfer cake pans to wire racks for about 15 minutes. Remove cakes from pans, let cool completely on racks, tops up.

To assemble, remove parchment paper from the bottoms of cakes. Split each layer in half horizontally with a serrated knife. Set aside the prettiest dome; it will be used for the final layer. Place another domed layer, dome side down, on the serving platter. Sprinkle 2 to 3 tablespoons of flaked coconut over the cake. Spread a generous 1/2 cup coconut-cream filling over coconut flakes. Repeat sprinkling and spreading process on the remaining layers until all but the reserved domed layer are used. Top cake with the reserved domed layer. Transfer cake to the refrigerator to firm for 1 hour. Remove from the refrigerator, and frost the outside of cake with seven-minute frosting. Sprinkle remaining coconut flakes all over cake while frosting is soft; do not refrigerate.


Coconut Cream Filling

6 large egg yolks

3/4 cup sugar

6 tablespoons cornstarch

1/8 teaspoon salt

3 cups milk

4 ounces (1 1/2 cups) sweetened angel-flake coconut

1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Unsalted butter, for wrap


Place egg yolks in a large bowl; whisk to combine; set bowl aside.

Combine sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a saucepan. Gradually whisk in milk. Cook, stirring, over medium heat until mixture thickens and comes to a boil, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from heat. Whisk 1/2 cup hot milk mixture into the reserved egg yolks to temper. Slowly pour warm yolks into the saucepan, stirring constantly. Cook slowly, stirring, over medium-low heat, until mixture begins to bubble, 5 to 6 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in coconut and vanilla. Transfer filling to a medium mixing bowl. Lightly butter a piece of plastic wrap, and lay it directly on top of filling to prevent a skin from forming. Chill until firm, at least 1 hour.


Seven-Minute Frosting

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon light corn syrup

3 large egg whites, room temperature


In a small, heavy saucepan, combine 3/4 cup sugar, corn syrup, and 2 tablespoons water. Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until sugar has dissolved. Rub a bit between your fingers to make sure there is no graininess. Raise heat to bring to a boil. Do not stir anymore. Boil, washing down sides of pan with a pastry brush dipped in cold water from time to time to prevent the sugar from crystallizing, until a candy thermometer registers 230 degrees about 5 minutes. (Depending on the humidity, this can take anywhere from 4 to 10 minutes.)

Meanwhile, in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk egg whites on medium speed until soft peaks form, about 2 minutes. Gradually add remaining 2 tablespoons sugar. Remove the syrup from the heat when the temperature reaches 230-degrees (it will keep rising as pan is removed from heat). Pour the syrup in a steady stream down the side of the bowl (to avoid splattering) containing the egg-white mixture, with the mixer on medium-low speed. Beat frosting on medium speed until cool, 5 to 10 minutes. The frosting should be thick and shiny. Use immediately.

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