Making Magic

A Dreamy Cake You Can Dress Up or Down for the Holidays

December 18, 2017

This season, we're Making Magic, bringing you a series of easy transformations to embellish already-wonderful things, from cookies to presents to trees. Today, we're baking cakes to feed—and impress!—a crowd: Slide back and forth on the image below to see the magic happen.

Sometimes I worry that cake feels left out around the holidays. It feels like it’s all cookies, hot chocolate, and warm, yeasty breads (not that that’s a bad thing). But cakes, especially layer cakes, are a perfect choice for any festive fete. They’re tall and dreamy, and great for feeding a crowd. But time is a factor—baking several cakes, waiting for them to cool, cutting them into layers, filling, frosting, and decorating takes a while. The whole thing seems a lot more involved than baking up a batch of your favorite sugar cookie.

But, as with all dessert dilemmas, there is a sweet solution. Enter: the naked cake. These cakes have been all the rage for good reason—they’re easy to make and don’t require full frosting or any complicated decorations. Plus, less frosting makes for less of a sugar bomb, something I’m often grateful for come holiday time, when it’s normal to eat sugar from breakfast through bedtime. My favorite combo is a simple cake, like my sour cream sponge cake (I multiplied the recipe x2 and baked it in two 9 inch cake pans), paired with an easy frosting, like American buttercream (I doubled this one, too). A few keys for the perfect “naked” cake:

Take care cutting your layers

Since they won’t be covered in frosting, you’ll achieve the best, cleanest look if your layers are nice and even. Remove any domed part off the top of your cake – you’ll want all your layers to be nice and flat. Then, cut each cake into two layers. I use a serrated knife to slowly “score” the cake in an even line all the way around, then I follow the score marks to make the final cut.

Keep your frosting even, too

I like to make sure I use the same amount of frosting on each layer, so those layers look as clean and even as the cake layers I spent time carefully cutting! My favorite tool for this is an ice cream/cookie scoop. I count the number of scoops I use on the first layer, then repeat it on the rest!

Frost all the way to the edges

The best naked cakes have visible frosting that’s almost flush with the layers of cake. To achieve this, frost all the way to the edge of the cake layer. When you place the next layer of cake on top, press down slightly—this stabilizes the layer and helps the frosting ooze out a bit more to the edge!

Shop the Story

If you want to mix in a little more magic to your holiday layer cake, that’s easy as well. Build a simple cake (like the aforementioned naked cake), and instead of finishing it with more frosting, enrobe it in fluffy meringue. For this recipe, I followed the amounts and instructions for my Italian Buttercream, but omitted the butter (and the steps where it’s added) to make just an Italian meringue. Then I frosted the cake with it—it’s glossy and perfectly white, and makes the most luxurious (but so easily achievable!) swoops all over the cake. For a little extra magic, I toast that beautiful meringue with a torch (hey, Julia Child said every woman should have one). It’s warm, wintry, and the lightly caramelized flavor can’t be beat. But above all else, it’s easy, and it doesn’t get much more magical than that.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

I always have three kinds of hot sauce in my purse. I have a soft spot for making people their favorite dessert, especially if it's wrapped in a pastry crust. My newest cookbook, Savory Baking, came out in Fall of 2022 - is full of recipes to translate a love of baking into recipes for breakfast, dinner, and everything in between!

1 Comment

christine M. December 22, 2017
Add a circle of marachino cherries on top layer with mint leaves for holidays or silver paper leaves for New Years! I use chocolaeet batters