Italian Cream Cake with Salted Cream Cheese Frosting (High Altitude)
Every year since Jason and I married, I attempt to whip up a replica of our wedding cake – an Italian cream cake – in honor of the occasion. A dreamy confection made up of coconut and nut-flecked batter topped with a swirl of cream cheese frosting, the cake is the perfect edible anniversary gift. Just one problem, though.
Cake is my archenemy.
The Lex Luthor to my Superman, the Joker to my Batman. Well, more like the Catwoman to my Batman – you know, the villain you secretly want to get with and know there is some good buried deep, deep within?
That’s cake, at least at high altitude. I love baking, but cakes at altitude have always taunted me. I’ve made cake after cake, each one rising loftily only to later bear me the bitter disappointment of collapsing into oblivion. On more than one occasion, I’ve shaved the top layers down with a serrated knife to fake the appearance of an even tier, even stuffing the shaved crumbs underneath to prop up a deflated layer! Shame <rings bell>. Shame <rings bell>. Shame <rings bell>!
But no more.
I’ve been studying high altitude baking and fiddling around with adjustments on a lot of my recipes lately, and have found a few tricks that have worked to consistently improve the final product. Each recipe is different, but I’ve found the following adjustments have improved the texture of my cakes and quickbreads:
- Reduce sugar by 1 Tbsp
- Don’t cream butter and sugar to their maximum fluffiness – mix just until the grains of sugar dissipate and the mix looks smooth.
- Slightly reduce the leaveners (baking soda/powder), start reducing by ¼ tsp, but sometimes as much as ½ tsp.
- Use high protein flour, such as Hungarian high altitude flour or bread flour. These hover at around 12-16% protein and are great for gluten production. Add an extra tablespoon of flour to the mix.
- Add an extra egg white for moisture.
- Underwhip egg whites, if added separately – for instance, soft peaks instead of stiff peaks.
- Preheat the oven to 25 degrees hotter than required, then drop to correct temperature after putting the in your pan (this is a great tip for cookies that spread too much, too).
The main idea is that at altitude, your cake rises super fast, before it has time to solidify the structure to support the lift – hence the sad deflated domes. The fix is to reduce the things that aid rising (leaveners, fluffy batter) and do more things to solidify the structure quickly (high protein flours, adding flour, starting the oven at a higher temperature).
This is true for most cakes, muffins, cookies, etc. but be sure to mix and beat the batter as little as possible to keep from making the final product tough – this is especially true when subbing in high protein flours, which are game for gluten production (gluten = strength, but can also = tough if overdeveloped. This can be good in bread, but bad for tender baked goods like cakes.)
But the cake is only half the battle. The icing on the cake is usually just that to me – nice enough, but really more than I deem strictly necessary. Tooth-achingly sweet, I usually find myself taking a bite, then scraping the rest off to focus on the deliciousness within.
I think I’ve figured out the secret to frosting, though, and it’s where you’d least expect it – salt.
The trick to taming sugary frostings, salt tempers that sweetness and brings the other flavors into sharper focus – in this case, the tongue-tingling tang of cream cheese. To use this secret weapon, mix any frosting as directed, but at the end, add salt ¼ of a teaspoon at a time, tasting after mixing up each addition. The salt doesn’t make the frosting taste salty per se, just intensifies the flavors. I added about ½ -¾ teaspoons to mine and ended up licking the bowl.
Finally, on the day of our tenth anniversary, I was able to proudly display the perfect anniversary cake. Tender, evenly domed layers flavored with toasty bits of ground walnut and flaked coconut and topped with a thin, velvety blanket of salted cream cheese frosting, it was every bit as good as the day I got married.
It only took me a decade to get it right 🙂
- 1 stick butter, softened
- ½ cup shortening (I used butter flavored)
- Scant 2 cups granulated sugar
- 5 eggs yolks
- 6 egg whites
- 2 cups flour (Hungarian High Altitude, Bread Flour)
- 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 3 ½ ounces shredded coconut
- 1 cup finely chopped walnuts
- ¼ cup butter, softened
- 1-8 ounce package cream cheese
- 1 pound powdered sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1-2 tsp kosher salt, to taste
- Milk or cream to thin frosting to desired consistency
- 1/2 shredded coconut, toasted, if desired (for decoration)
- 1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts, if desired (for decoration)
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease and flour 3-9 inch cake pans and set aside (or fill 2 cake pans 3/4 full and make cupcakes/a small cake loaf with the remainder).
- In the bowl of a standing mixer with paddle attachment or large bowl with a hand held mixer, cream together the 1 stick of butter (the additional ¼ cup is for the frosting), shortening and granulated sugar just until sugar dissipates.
- Add egg yolks and mix well.
- Sift together the flour and baking soda. Add to the creamed mixture, alternating with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with dry ingredients.
- Add 1 teaspoon vanilla, coconut and nuts. Mix to combine.
- Beat the egg whites until they just barely form soft peaks. Fold into the batter.
- Pour batter into the prepared pie pans. Put pans in oven, reduce temperature to 350 degrees, then bake for 30 minutes (until the cake is golden on top and toothpick comes out clean). Allow to cool on racks for 20 minutes. Remove from pans and allow to cool fully before frosting.
- Using your whisk attachment, cream together 1/4 c. butter, cream cheese. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla and powdered sugar, mix until smooth. Pour in 1 tsp salt, mix, then taste. If the frosting tastes very sweet, gradually add more salt until 2 tsp (I tend to like a bit more salt in mine!)
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