Celebration cakes: Ina Garten’s chocolate cake with Swiss buttercream icing

Ina Garten's chocolate cake

In the month before I started this blog, just over a year ago, I went on a major celebration cake making bender, starting with a friend’s wedding cake, then my niece’s 21st birthday cake, followed by a huge triple-layer welcome home cake for another friend and ending with my son’s ninth birthday cake. During  this cake making frenzy, I learned a lot about layer cakes and Swiss butter cream. Firstly, if you make any kind of layer cake, people think you are pretty amazing but if you make a triple layer cake, they think you are some kind of genius. Then, perhaps even more importantly: Swiss butter cream can cover up a multitude of cake flaws. Even if you do a fairly basic icing job, the gloriously satiny sheen of the Swiss butter cream will give you an instant cake making celebrity status amongst your friends. This holds true even if your piping skills are limited to varying size dots or blobs (as mine are) – remember you can always resort to sprinkles for that extra color and movement.


The first recommendation I would give to anyone considering doing a big cake making project like a wedding cake, is to check out Deb Perelman’s series of posts on her wedding cake project. Deb goes into exhaustive detail with a tonne of useful hints, but when I finally got round to making my friends wedding cake, I had to abandon most of her advice and just wing it. The quest for cake perfection, obsessing over crumb consistency and whether or not to use baking strips was giving me nightmares. The reality is if you are making a friend’s wedding cake with love and care, it will be awesome. Even if the icing is a bit more rustic than you planned for, your friends will totally love you for it and all their guests will love you too – in fact, you will feel totally love bombed by the end of the day. So if you a feeling a bit stressed about making a major celebration cake, I say relax. I had so many near disasters with all my celebration cakes – for instance: under cooking the cakes and having to shove them back in the oven (even after I had trimmed the top of one , I just covered the top with foil baked it a little longer and then moistened it again with a light sugar and vanilla syrup) The moral to this story is, if you’re stressing about making your celebration cake, you need a near foolproof recipe, that you can bring back from the brink of death and this chocolate cake is one of those cakes.

Ina Garten's chocolate cake with Swiss buttercream

I found this recipe on an internet search at the absolute last minute before my friend’s wedding, and I didn’t even have time to make a trial cake… so, I was a bit nervous about how it would turn out – but it is an Ina Garten recipe and I have never made an Ina Garten cake that hasn’t been brilliant. The main reason I chose it was because it uses both buttermilk and sour cream, along with cocoa powder, so I knew it would have a nice heft without being too heavy, which is what you need with a major celebration cake which you’re going to encase in Swiss butter cream.

Ina Garten's chocolate cake with Swiss buttercream

When I made this cake again this year for my son’s birthday, I’d forgotten how good it was. The actual cakes turned out perfectly – I cooked them in a low oven and didn’t even bother trimming the top of the cakes before I sandwiched the two layers together. In keeping with my tradition of near disasters when making celebration cakes, the Swiss butter cream (which is the easiest Swiss butter cream recipe I’ve come across) nearly failed. The day was so hot when I added my softened butter to the egg whites and it became a soupy mess that refused to come together, no matter how long I doggedly beat it for. I was going to throw the whole lot out and start again but I shoved it in the fridge and Googled ‘help my Swiss butter cream is too runny’ and came across this detailed page over at Sweetpolita on how to save runny Swiss butter cream. Which is, basically, put it in the fridge for 15 minutes (my soupy mess needed 30 minutes) and then beat again. If it turns into a scrambled egg looking mess, add some more butter and keep beating. Thank god for Google™!

Even though it was a hot day on the day I made this cake, and completely suboptimal for the making and eating of Swiss butter cream, by evening when we cut the cake, the cool change had come through, and, with it, the promise of rain, proving yet again there is a cake god out there looking after us all.

Ina Garten's chocolate cake with Swiss buttercream

I got this recipe from some random website, the original recipe was for a two 20cm (8in) layer cakes, so I adjusted the recipe in a fairly haphazard way to make two 23cm (9in) layer cakes. Despite my mangling, this recipe still works brilliantly.

Ina Garten’s chocolate cake

  • 2⅓ cups all purpose flour
  • 1⅓ cup cocoa powder
  • 2 teaspoons bicarb soda (baking soda)
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 230grams (2 sticks) unsalted butter (at room temperature)
  • 1 cup of granulated sugar
  • 1 cup of brown sugar
  • 3 extra large eggs
  • 2½ teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1⅓ cups of buttermilk
  • ¾ cup of sour cream
  • ¼ cup of very strong coffee or 2 teaspoons of espresso powder dissolved in a quarter cup of milk
  1. Preheat oven to 175°C (350°F) or 150°C fan forced. Grease and line the bottoms of two 23cm (9in) cake tins.
  2. Sift together flour, cocoa, bicarb soda and salt.
  3. In a large bowl, mix cream butter and sugar until pale and creamy (about 5 minutes). Add the eggs one at time, then add vanilla and mix well.
  4. Combine buttermilk, sour cream and coffee. Fold through flour and buttermilk mixture alternatively in thirds, beginning with buttermilk mix and ending with flour. Mix until well combined but be careful not to over mix.
  5. Divide the batter between the pans and smooth down tops. Bake in the middle of the oven for 25–30 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.
  6. Cool for ten minutes in cake tins before turning out on racks to cool completely, before icing.

Wrapped in several layers of Glad Wrap™, these cakes freeze really well.

Swiss butter cream

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Makes enough to fill and ice a 9-inch layer cake

  • 1 cup of sugar
  • 4 large egg whites
  • 375 grams of butter (3 sticks and 2 tablespoons) cut into cubes and softened
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
  1. Place egg whites and sugar in large bowl over a saucepan of gently simmering water (careful not to have the water touching the bottom or you will cook your egg whites). Gently whisk the egg whites occasionally until sugar dissolves. When you rub the mixture between your fingers, you shouldn’t be able to feel the sugar granules.
  2. Transfer egg whites to a large bowl of an electric mixer (wipe the bottom of the bowl before you do this, so no condensation gets into the mixing bowl. This will stop your egg whites beating up fully.
  3. Beat egg whites until white and fluffy and nearly doubled in size, then add the vanilla and mix in.
  4. Add butter a cube at a time and keep beating until all the butter is incorporated and the butter cream is light and silky. This can take a while (up to 15 minutes) so it’s important to be patient but if it all seems to go pear shaped, use Google™. There will be someone out there who can save your butter cream.
  5. Important icing tips: Before icing, level off the top of your cakes with a bread knife, then sandwich the cut tops off and sandwich together with butter cream or filling of your choice (I used chocolate ganache for my friends’ wedding cake but some kind of raspberry filling would be wonderful too). It’s not essential, but if you have a cake board, place your cake on it and then onto a cake plate. If you don’t want crumb flecks all through your beautiful Swiss butter cream, it is essential you do a crumb layer. After you have sandwiched together your layers, you do a thin layer of icing all over the cake and put it in the refrigerator for half an hour, so it firms and keeps all the crumbs in place. Then you do a second thicker layer of icing, pipe artistic blobs around the bottom of the cake for that professional finish and whatever other decorative touches you can be bothered doing. Sprinkles are good!
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