This delectable coffee flavored three-layer cake goes by many names. Originally, it’s on my grandmother’s recipe card as Waldorf Cake, with credit given to a fellow Shreveport Highland Baptist churchgoer by the name of Iris Snodgrass. However, I’ve never once heard it called that while growing up. And after some research, it looks like the name Waldorf is more associated with red velvety flavors than coffee. It’s been affectionately shortened by relatives to simply “Three Layer Cake.” Perhaps, since it’s just about the only layered anything that comes out of my mom’s kitchen (I’ve written previously about how I got the cooking gene from my dad).
Nonetheless, props are due to the ladies of the Petrey family tree. This cake is a solid ten, which is why we still request it on the regular. This is *the* cake of choice for most of the family’s special occasions. When we say those three magic words, it’s like ringing a bell. We bring Tupperware to the party to take slices home for later. I’ve even been known to travel cross-country with an ice chest for a chance to take some home a thousand miles away. No shame here!
Coffee + cake
Not a traditional single layer American coffee cake, nor a traditional two-layer British coffee cake, this beauty is its own alluring ode to caffeine.
You could still consider it a sort of coffee cake since it’s both flavored with and intended to be eaten with a cup of coffee. This is exactly how I remember my grandparents. They’d take a moment at the dining table after Monday family dinners, enjoying the last treat of the night with their black coffee. As an adult, I was always impressed how they were able to drink coffee in the late evening without issue. In retrospect, maybe it was decaf.
To impart the coffee flavor into this cake, simply make an extra cup of your favorite morning brew and let it cool. Do not use coffee grounds, as my sister Laura once did. While making this cake for a work function, she misinterpreted the original written recipe’s call for “instant coffee.” Unfortunately, she ended up with bitter, gritty batter. Hopefully, we’ve cleared up the written instructions here enough where she gets it right next time. Liquid coffee only, Laura!
Cake Considerations #1: Creaming
One of the first steps in many baking recipes is creaming, or combining, the butter and sugar. Creaming is a fantastically scientific way to get the best possible cake texture, not too dense, not too greasy. Light and fluffy cakes need carefully crafted air bubbles, trapped and leavened in the butter’s structure. Butter straight from the fridge will be too hard to aerate at all. And, butter straight from the microwave will not be able to hold any structure. As such, creaming requires room temperature butter and the right amount of mixing. Thirty to sixty minutes outside of the refrigerator and 3 to 4 minutes on moderate stand mixer speed should do the trick.
Cake Considerations #2: Cake Pans
Also, take a minute to think about what type of cake pans you have. First and foremost- do you have three? While you may not be able to fit all three pans in the oven to cook at the same time, it’s much easier to equally divide batter when you have all three pans in front of you.
What about the color of your pan? There is a significant difference between light and dark colored pans in terms of cooking time and temperature. Cakes tend to bake more uniformly in light-colored pans. Dark pans absorb more heat, faster. You run the risk of the sides and bottom cooking much more quickly than the interior of the cake when using dark pans. Not only does this leave a squishy center, but the middle of the cake can also dome up once it does cook through. For a layer cake, evenly baked is the name of the game.
If all you have is dark pans, don’t fret. Simply lower the temperature by about 25 degrees Fahrenheit and set your timer about 10 minutes early. Carefully watch for doneness, and use the toothpick test at regular intervals. A toothpick, inserted into the center of the cake, will come out clean if the cake is cooked through. If it doesn’t, cook it a little longer.
Greasing the cake pans is a must for getting them out in one piece. Parchment paper cut into rounds (or pre-cut cake pan rounds!) also offer extra protection. As with any cake, wait until the layers are completely cooled before attempting to remove them from the cake pans, trimming the tops, and icing them. Warm cakes tend to fall apart and will melt your icing, so leave the high temps to the oven.
Big thanks to Mrs. Snodgrass, wherever you are. Like a good cup of coffee, your three-layer cake is still going strong!
Three Layer Cake
The coffee flavored cake with no name is our family's generational go-to for birthdays and celebrations.
For the cake
- 2 1/2 cups sugar
- 1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter room temperature
- 5 eggs yolks
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 3 cups flour
- 5 teaspoons cocoa powder
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 5 Tablespoons prepared black coffee
- 5 egg whites beaten stiff
For the icing
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) salted butter melted
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 teaspoons cocoa powder
- 3 Tablespoons prepared black coffee
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 16 ounce box powdered sugar
For the cake
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Using a stand mixer on medium speed, cream the sugar and butter together for several minutes until light and fluffy, about 3-4 minutes.
Crack the eggs and separate the whites from the yolks. Save the whites for later. Add the egg yolks one at a time until well combined, but be careful not to overmix.
In a separate large bowl, sift and combine all dry cake ingredients.
Alternate mixing half of the buttermilk and half of the dry ingredients, mixing together as you go. Occasionally scrape the sides of the mixing bowl to make sure all ingredients are incorporated. Add the vanilla extract and coffee and mix.
In a separate bowl, using a hand mixer on high speed, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form, about 5-7 minutes. Gently fold the egg whites into the cake batter using a spatula until well mixed.
Lightly grease three round 9" light colored cake pans and add parchment paper if desired with an extra bit of grease on top. Divide the batter evenly into each pan. Bake in the oven for 30-40 minutes or until firm and toothpick comes out clean from the center when inserted.
For the icing
Combine all ingredients except the powdered sugar and mix using a stand mixer or hand mixer. Slowly add the powdered sugar until firm but light and fluffy. If the icing gets too thick, then add a little more coffee. If the icing is too thin, add a little more powdered sugar.
Creaming the butter and sugar properly is key to cake texture. King Arthur Flour has a fabulous post about getting this method right.
Cold, fresh eggs will be easier to beat stiff. A clean, cold bowl also helps. Any egg yolk present will prevent stiff peaks from forming.