Did you know that cakes float? Well, not all cakes I suppose, but I can say with absolute certainty that bad grocery store varieties, with their colorful roses and sickly sweet fluffed frosting, most definitely float on water.
This pivotal culinary revelation (I mean, really, where would I be as a cook if I didn’t know that some cakes are floaters??) came about on my mom’s birthday in 2008, when she and my stepdad came to visit me in middle-of-nowhere South Carolina, where I was a student at the time, so that we could all celebrate her birthday together.
Now, I’m not sure where my mom developed this fun little idiosyncrasy, but one thing you need to know about her in order to get the full effect of the story is this: She is totally and completely obsessed with the idea of having the perfect birthday cake. She doesn’t need fancy dinners or parties on her big day. And she would happily forgo all gift-giving if given the chance. But forget to get her a White Almond Sour Cream Cake (also known as a Traditional New Orleans Wedding Cake) and you’ve officially spoiled the whole damn day.
It’s non-negotiable. It’s not just the icing on the birthday cake, it’s quite literally the whole darn cake.
Now I don’t necessarily understand this part of her. And, to tell you the truth, I don’t need to. That’s just who she is and part of what makes her my mom.
The most comical part about it, though, is that my stepdad (love you, L!) just can’t seem to get her cake criteria right. Like ever. No matter how much direction I offer. Here’s what it includes:
- Cake flavor—Traditional New Orleans Wedding Cake (aka, Classic White Almond Sour Cream.)
- Cake shape—Double or triple layer, circle preferred.
- Cake baker—There are a couple of approved bakeries in New Orleans where she lives, but if that’s impossible (as it was when we were in South Carolina), then the minimum requirement is that it comes from a professional bakery. Absolutely no grocery store cakes allowed.
Well on the afternoon of my mom’s birthday back in 2008, I decided that this would be the year she got her perfect cake. No screwing up. So I coached my husband and stepdad on exactly what they needed to do to get the perfect cake, which they were to bring back (as a surprise) with lunch later that afternoon. They nodded after my probably somewhat-intense lecture, saying, “Of course, it’s not that difficult, Brooke. We got this.”
But don’t you know, despite the very serious cake requirements I’d laid out for them, they strutted towards us an hour or two later carrying a black plastic bottomed tray with a clear plastic top and I knew instantly…we were screwed. A plain white, generic grocery store cake with bright blue fluffy floral decorations. Shit’s about to hit the fan.
But my mom didn’t say a word. Instead, she sweetly feigned excitement and casually sliced into the cake using the plastic picnic knives that came with it and scooped out four slices, which she plopped onto four paper plates. I remember the quiet silence that surrounded us as we sat on the dock of my husband’s house at the time, each of us dubiously carving out the first bite with our forks. No one saying a word about the cake. The royal blue icing on the top smeared into the rest of the white cake. And the frosting made a kind of fluffy, sugary crunch sound as it rubbed up against our white plastic utensils.
And then, almost in unison, we all busted out in uncontrollable laughter. It was literally the worst cake any of us had ever eaten. As in, I wouldn’t eat this cake even if it were the only thing of sustenance left on this planet. It was that bad.
We decided that fish are probably less picky and ended up innocently tossing the whole thing into the middle of Lake Hartwell, thinking it would sink to the bottom where fishies could indulge in a fun little sugar high. But it didn’t. It floated. Like a boat, drifting further and further away from our dock into the setting sun until it was completely out of sight, lost forever on the horizon. Without even a single nibble from our water-bound friends with fins.
Now every time my mom’s birthday rolls around, we’re reminded of the year of the floating cake and we still laugh at it. We joke that she’ll never have the birthday cake of her dreams even though I know every year she holds out hope that my stepdad will get it just right. (Incidentally, he did get it right this year. Yay, L!)
So I decided for today, my mom’s birthday (Hi, Mom! Happy Birthday!), seven full years after the Floating Cake Incident, that I’d make sure that somewhere out there in the world, people who love her are eating this retro-style, classic New Orleans Wedding Cake in celebration of her birth. So even though we’re in Portland and she’s in New Orleans, that’s exactly what we did with this cake here.
The base of the cake is white and it’s made fluffy and crumbly through the use of whipped egg whites, while sour cream lends a bit of moist softness to the crumble. The almond flavoring in both the cake and the frosting comes from almond extract. A little goes a long way with that stuff, though, so be extra careful when you’re pouring!
We’re still having an uncharacteristically warm winter here in Portland and the early-spring flowers have already begun to bloom, so I used some wild flowers as inspiration for the styling of the cake. Of course, if you don’t have access to fresh flowers, you could always just buy some royal blue icing to pipe roses onto it. Just make sure your frosted roses are the kind that don’t make the cake float. Because, as it turns out, no body, including fish, likes floating cakes.
- 5 egg whites
- 1 cup of sour cream, divided into two parts of 1:3
- 1½ teaspoons of vanilla extract
- 1½ teaspoons of almond extract
- ¼ cup of cornstarch
- 2 cups of cake flour
- ¾ cup of all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons of baking powder
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1¾ cups of granulated sugar
- 1 cup of unsalted butter, room temperature plus more for greasing pans
- 1 ½ cups of unsalted butter, room temperature
- 5-6 cups of powdered sugar
- ½ teaspoon of salt
- ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract
- 1-2 teaspoons of almond extract, to taste
- 4-5 tablespoons of half and half or whipping cream, until it reaches desired consistency
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease the bottom of 2 9-inch round baking pans with butter. Depending on what kind of bakeware you use, you may want to use buttered parchment paper to line the pans so the cakes release easily from them. If you're using professional-grade non-stick cake pans, plain butter will work fine--no need for parchment paper.
- Either using a stand mixer or a medium bowl with a handheld mixer, whisk the egg whites until foamy, about 1 minute. Add ¼ cup of the sour cream, 1.5 teaspoons of vanilla extract, and 1.5 teaspoon of almond extract, whisking to incorporate. Pour into a separate bowl and set aside.
- In the large bowl of a standing mixer (or a large bowl if you're using a handheld mixer), add the cornstarch, cake flour, all-purpose flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar and mix on low for 30 seconds. Add the butter and the remaining ¾ cups of sour cream, continuing to mix on low until combined. Once well combined, increase to medium speed and beat for 2 minutes, or until mixture is slightly aerated, making sure to scrape down the sides as you go.
- Return the mixer to low speed and incorporate ⅓ of the egg white mixture, then the second third, and then the final third, continuing to beat after each addition until combined and making sure to scrape the sides of the bowl as you go.
- Divide the batter between two pans, smoothing out the top. Bake for 35-40 minutes or until the cakes are slightly golden on the top and spring back easily to the touch. Remove them from the oven and let cool on a wire rack for 20-30 minutes.
- Flip the cakes out onto a clean work surface or, if you're preparing to use the day before, wrap them in saran wrap and refrigerate until ready to frost.
- While the cakes are cooling, prepare the frosting.
- Beat the butter on low speed using a standing mixer or with a handheld mixer in a large bowl until smooth, about 30 seconds. Add the powdered sugar, salt, vanilla extract, and almond extract and return the mixer to low speed until combined. Finally, add the half and half/cream and increase the speed on the mixer to medium and beat 3 additional minutes, or until frosting is light and fluffy.
- Once the cake has cooled, place the first cake layer on a cake stand or sheet. If you notice either of your cakes have jagged edges or are puffed up in the middle, use a serrated knife to even them out. Take just under ⅓ of the frosting and spread it evenly on top of the first layer. Stack the second layer on top of it and do the same for the top of the cake. Take the final ⅓ of the frosting and spread it evenly on the sides of the cake.
- In the cake you see photographed here, I sourced flowers from my backyard and neighborhood. Common flowers for decorating include roses and dandelions. You can use whatever flowers you like, but if they are inedible (or you have questions about their edibility), you should make sure to remove them from the cake before serving.
- Once cake is frosted and decorated, serve immediately.