ombré cake


it’s so hard for me to choose a favorite between chocolate and vanilla cake. with most sweets, i have a clear preference — vanilla ice cream, chocolate pudding, white chocolate chips, chocolate cheesecake — but not with cake. i think chocolate cake is easier to “get right,” because cocoa powder is deliciously complex while naturally balancing out the sweetness of buttercream. vanilla is harder to pull off; since it’s such a delicate flavor, it often gets overpowered by sugary frosting. but when it’s done well, it’s amazing. 

this cake has the best of both worlds. it starts with a fluffy layer of vanilla, then gets more and more dense and chocolate-y as it reaches the bottom. the chocolate and vanilla buttercreams both have a cream cheese base, which keeps them from becoming too sweet. and finally, it’s super satisfying (for the baker) and impressive (for guests) to slice into this cake and reveal its beautiful inside.

note: i made this cake in my usual style, building it up inside a metal cake ring. because most people don’t have cake rings, i’ve included instructions for baking each layer inside a 6-inch round cake pan. however, if you’d like to do it using my cake ring method, simply bake each color of batter in a quarter-sheet pan, punch out circles of cake, and assemble as usual.

vanilla cake (layers 1, 2, and 3)

  • 3/4 cup butter, at room temperature
  • 1 3/4 cups sugar
  • 5 egg whites
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 3/4 cups flour
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
  • ¼ cup + 1 tbsp cocoa powder

chocolate cake (layers 4 and 5)

  • 3 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped
  • 3/4 cup hot coffee
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk
  • 1 1/4 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup + 2 tbsp dark chocolate cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 3/4 tsp kosher salt

vanilla buttercream

  • 8 oz cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 3/4 tsp kosher salt
  • 6 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 tbsp heavy cream

chocolate buttercream

  • 4 oz cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 tbsp dark chocolate cocoa powder
  • 1 tbsp heavy cream

for the vanilla cake, preheat the oven to 350º. grease three 6-inch round pans and line with parchment paper. beat the butter and sugar together in a stand mixer until light and fluffy. beat in the egg whites and vanilla. sift the dry ingredients together in a bowl, then add to the butter mixture in three batches, alternating with the milk. divide the batter equally into three different mixing bowls (i measured them by weight). add 1 tbsp cocoa powder to one bowl,  and 3 tbsp cocoa powder to another, and leave the third plain. mix each until the cocoa powder is well incorporated. pour into the pans and bake for 10-15 minutes, until springy. let cool in the pan.

for the chocolate cake, preheat the oven to 300º. grease two 6-inch round pans and line with parchment paper. pour the hot coffee over the chocolate in a heatproof bowl and let sit for a few minutes, until the chocolate has melted, then stir until smooth. beat the eggs in a stand mixer until thick and lemon colored. add in the chocolate mixture, oil, buttermilk, and vanilla. mix in the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. divide the batter in half between two mixing bowls. add 3/4 cup dark chocolate cocoa powder to one of them and 1/4 cup + 2 tbsp to the other. mix until well incorporated. pour the batter into the prepared pans (you’ll have some leftover; try and fill the pans to the same height that you did with the vanilla) and bake for about 20 minutes. let cool in the pan.

for the vanilla buttercream, beat the cream cheese, butter, vanilla, and salt in a stand mixer until lightened. gradually add in the powdered sugar, then beat for about five minutes, until white and fluffy. add the heavy cream and beat for another minute.

repeat this process for the chocolate buttercream, adding in cocoa powder with the powdered sugar.

to assemble, level each of the cake layers using a serrated knife. place the darkest chocolate layer on a 6-inch round cake board. frost with vanilla buttercream. repeat with the other layers, building them up from dark to light. crumb coat the cake and chill it in the fridge for 20 minutes, then frost with a final coat. put the chocolate buttercream in a piping bag fitted with the closed star tip and pipe a border around the top and bottom edges of the cake. decorate with tiny gold stars, if desired.

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