Fancy Schmancy White Chocolate Champagne Layer Cake, At Last

Enough is enough already! My graduation cake has been dutifully transferred from fridge to freezer to preserve its integrity (really, it’s a sin that there’s any left over to go in the freezer at all, but such are the habits of my family when it comes to my baked goods – and I can only eat so much cake myself at any given time), and that means this post is long overdue. This cake…oohhh, this cake. My uncle ate 2 slices at my party. I sure as heck wanted to eat 2 slices at my party. I considered making a smaller cake for fear that we wouldn’t go through a full one, and that full-size cake was just shy of devoured in 20 very short minutes. Maybe less. This is just ultimate indulgence in cake form. It’s the reason why full-fat, full-sugar is sometimes necessary in life. This cake would not exist in a world of diet food, and as much as I love fresh vegetables and minimally sweetened oatmeal, that is just not a world in which I care to live.

This cake is a four-layer cake, divided between the glorious flavors of white chocolate butter cake and champagne sponge. Both are subtle and they blend together into one unbelievable cake so, so beautifully. The fresh strawberries on top and the deep chocolate ganache in between the layers give pops of vibrance to an otherwise pure white cake. The ganache is barely sweet, adding a depth to the cake and cutting the sweetness to be anything but cloying. The white chocolate layers are slightly denser than the fluffy champagne sponge layers, giving it a quiet complexity without calling too much attention to the different textures themselves. It reminds me of the white chocolate cake I made for my sister’s graduation party two years ago, which was received equally well. Both were labors of love – this is no cake walk, as you can tell by the 3 ½ page recipe below, but you also don’t need to be a seasoned baker to make it. Well, maybe you do – although people claimed it looked straight from a bakery, I (my own worst critic) saw the leaning-tower-of-pisa action resulting from a harried car ride to the party, and scrunched up my nose at the drippings from the strawberries, which macerated slightly under the champagne syrup glaze. So my decorating skills could use some work, my finesse could use some finesse-ing, but if the cake that I put on the table can elicit such complimentary responses, I know yours can, too. So maybe you need to be a seasoned baker, much moreso than I am, to perfect the presentation of this cake. But you certainly don’t need overwhelming experience to impress both the people you’re serving and your own taste buds. You just need fortitude, a positive attitude and, well, a veryfree schedule.

One Year Ago: Pasta with Meat Sauce

White Chocolate Champagne Layer Cake
This layer cake is sophisticated and indulgent, and is sure to steal the show wherever you take it. It’s sweet as dessert should be, but not so much as to be a turn off. It’s rich, so a smaller slice is certainly enough, but I double dare you not to go back for more anyway.

Yield: 1 8-inch layer cake, approximately 16 servings
Prep Time: Don’t think about it. Just don’t. This is a commitment. Don’t make this cake if you’re concerned about prep time. But if you really want to know, I’d say it’d take about…3-4 hours of prep time, start to finish. I didn’t time it. I did it over the course of 3 days: (1) Make the batter & bake the cakes (2) Make the filling and frosting (3) Assemble the cake. It’s worth it, I promise. It really is.
Cook Time: 1 hour, approximate

The Ingredients, White Chocolate Cake
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder
3 ounces white chocolate, chopped
¼ cup hot water
1 cup low-fat milk
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ cup butter, softened
¾ cup white sugar
2 eggs
1 tablespoon white chocolate liquor

The Ingredients, Champagne Sponge Cake
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sifted cake flour
½ tablespoon baking powder
4 eggs, separated
¾ cup sugar, divided
2 ½ tablespoons vegetable oil
¾ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons champagne

The Ingredients, Chocolate Ganache Filling
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream
2 tablespoons room-temperature butter, cut in half
2 tablespoons powdered sugar

The Ingredients, White Chocolate Buttercream
1 cup butter, softened
3 cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons white chocolate liquor

The Ingredients, Assembly
1 pint fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced thinly vertically
¼ cup champagne
1 ounce white chocolate, chopped

The Method
Prepare the white chocolate cake: preheat the oven to 350° Fahrenheit and grease two 8x1 ½ inch round pans, lining the bottoms with cut-out parchment rounds. Sift together  the all-purpose flour, baking soda, and baking powder. Meanwhile, melt the white chocolate using a double-boiler method along with the hot water, stirring until fully melted and smooth. Set aside to cool t room temperature. Mix together milk with lemon juice and set aside to sour slightly.

Cream butter with sugar until light and fluffy, at least 5 minutes. Add in the eggs, one at a time, allowing full incorporation between each addition. By hand, alternate stirring in the flour mixture and homemade buttermilk. When both are completely mixed in, stir in the melted and cooled white chocolate, followed by the white chocolate liquor. Divide the mixtures evenly between the two prepared pans and bake in the oven 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean from the center. Cool completely in pans.

Prepare the champagne sponge cake:  reduce the oven temperature to 325° Fahrenheit. Grease and line bottom with parchment either two 8x1 ½ inch pans or one 9x3 inch pan1 and set aside. Briefly whisk together the cake flour and baking powder in a small bowl and set aside.

Beat the egg whites until they become foamy, then add in 2 tablespoons of sugar and increase the speed to medium-high to form stiff peaks. Set aside the whipped whites in a separate bowl and rinse and dry out the mixing bowl. Switch to the paddle attachment and beat the yolks with the remaining sugar – 1 cup plus 6 tablespoons – oil and vanilla. By hand, alternately stir in the dry ingredients with the champagne until just incorporated. Fold ⅓ of the reserved egg whites into the batter until fully incorporated but not deflated, then continue with the remaining ⅔ of the egg whites. No whites should remain visible but batter should be noticeably fluffy and voluminous still. Pour the batter into the pan(s) and bake for 20-25 minutes.2Cool in pan 10 minutes, then invert to a wire rack to finish cooling.

Prepare the chocolate ganache: set a heat-proof bowl with the chocolate chunks near the stove as you bring the heavy cream to a boil. Pour half of the cream over the chocolate and leave alone for 30 seconds. Then, gently and slowly, working in concentric circles moving outwards, stir the chocolate and cream until mostly blended. Pour in the remaining cream and continue your circular stirring until it is smooth and shiny. Add in the butter and stir until just melted, then, finally, stir in the powdered sugar until just combined and no clumps remain. Cool the mixture to room temperature, then refrigerate until it reaches the desired spreadable consistency for the filling.

Prepare the white chocolate buttercream: beat the butter until light and fluffy before gradually mixing in the powdered sugar. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Once fully incorporated, stir in the liquor until well combined. Set aside (refrigerate if not using right away; allow to come to room temperature before attempting to spread).

Assemble the cake:
Place 1 white chocolate layer on your flat decorating surface and spread evenly with approximately ⅓ of the ganache, leaving just a fraction of an inch of un-filled cake around the perimeter of the cake. Place either ½ of the 9x3 inch champagne cake3 or 1 of the 2 8x1 ½ inch champagne cakes.4 Spread another ⅓ of the ganache over the second layer and top with the second white chocolate layer. Spread with the remaining ganache and, finally, top with the last champagne layer. Using an offset spatula, apply a thin crumb coating of the white chocolate buttercream over the tops and sides of the four layer cake. Place in the freezer for 10-15 minutes, until the buttercream has firmed up considerably. Ice the cake with the remainder of the icing, smoothing it out as you go and once more at the very end.

Set the cake aside in a cool place while you prepare the toppings. Place the champagne in a small saucepan over medium heat and simmer until it has reduced to a fairly thick syrup, watching closely since such a small amount of liquid will thicken and even evaporate in the blink of an eye. Remove the syrup from the heat and cool to room temperature. Arrange the strawberry slices on the top of the cake with the points pointing outwards, starting with a large single-layer ring around the perimeter and working your way in with increasingly smaller, slightly overlapping circles. Brush the strawberries lightly with the champagne syrup. Meanwhile, melt the white chocolate using the double-boiler method – very slowly and gently – then transfer the melted white chocolate to a plastic bag. Snip off a small corner and use it to drizzle the white chocolate decoratively over the strawberries. Chill the cake until ready to serve, though I would recommend these final assembly touches (re: the strawberries & white chocolate drizzle) until fairly close to serving time to prevent maceration, dripping, and otherwise unpleasant results.

1I only own 2 8x1 ½ inch pans, which were being used for the white chocolate cake, so I used to 9x3 inch pan. However, if you do this, you’ll need to halve the cake later on, which can be scary to some people (aka me).
2Alright, so confession time: I made extensive notes on these recipes, as I adapted them all to the point where baking times and some other components had to be adjusted. And then in the shuffle of strewn papers in the kitchen, my notes were thrown away. The original recipe for the champagne sponge calls for 13 minutes of baking, but that’s for cupcakes, so for cakes it will be longer. I believe this is how long they baked for, but please be vigilant. I will update this the next time I make this cake with more exact numbers. Sorry about that!
3If you need to halve the cake, here’s how I’ve learned to do it reasonably successfully: using a ruler, insert 4-6 toothpicks halfway up the cake in order to designate two equal layers. Using a large serrated knife, begin making your cut on one side, using the toothpicks as your guide. A rotating surface helps, as you start by going all the way around the cake shallowly, and gradually as you continue to rotate the cake, you move deeper and deeper into it until it’s fully cut in half. I, however, do not have a rotating surface, so I use my free hand to rotate as best I can – it’s not a perfect method, but once you fill the cake you can often correct any minor issues from slightly uneven cuts.
4Another disadvantage of choosing the 9x3 inch cake pan over the 2 8x 1 ½ inch pans: your champagne cake will be 1 inch larger. Not a big deal. Position the cake so that one side is flush with the bottom white chocolate layer. Using the same sharp, serrated knife you used to halve the cake, slowly cut around the overhanging edge until you’re left with some delicious cake scraps (mix it with leftover buttercream – almost makes the extra fuss of making this size cake worth it!) and an otherwise even set of cake layers. You will need to repeat this process with the final champagne layer.

So you see, that wasn’t so bad, right? I know, I know, it’s like a full-on novel going through the steps of this cake (and I probably should have thought to make some step-by-step pictures for this doozy), but this is not the kind of cake you make because you randomly get a case of the Baking Bug and want to make something on some uneventful, rainy Sunday afternoon. This is a special occasion cake, intended for those moments that don’t come by all that often.  After all, special occasions call for special food, and that’s exactly what you’re getting with this recipe. And the effort you put into it will show, pinkie swear.

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