Elegant Summer: Carmel Cottage Cake

Vanilla Cream Cake overview

Carmel Cottage Cake: Vintage Vanilla Cream Cake with French Meringue Buttercream Filling and Frosting.  This is a simple, flavorful cake with an amazing and somewhat complex frosting. This cake was created at my family’s summer cottage in Carmel-By-The-Sea, California, where my 19-year-old son, Michelangelo, now resides while attending college in Monterey.

Carmel Cottage garden

With this cake, we celebrated Michelangelo’s promotion to Assistant Prep Cook at one of my favorite restaurants in town. So he studied summer school homework and sharpened and polished his knives for work while I busied myself in the tiny-tiny kitchen.

Carmel Beach photo by Leslie Macchiarella

Based on a number of turn-of-the-Century recipes for Cream Cake (even though there was no cream in many of the original recipes – just milk) or Sweet Milk Cake (“sweet milk” was the term used for whole milk), I decided to create this cake based mostly on the ingredients on hand at the cottage. We were lucky to have: milk, eggs, butter, flour, salt, baking powder, sugar and vanilla extract.  So, that is exactly what we used for both the cake and the frosting.  We left the cream of tartar out of the frosting recipe (which would add nice, firm peaks) only because we were holed up for the night and didn’t want to run to the market.

Michelangelo celebrating

Michelangelo celebrating his promotion.

We didn’t have an electric mixer at the cottage — even though this is a recipe that requires a good deal of beating. But since Michelangelo works where the chefs are pleased to whip egg whites by hand to frothy perfection in their copper bowls, he convinced me to use a whisk to beat every fluff into this recipe. I’ll admit that we traded whisking tasks off and on, but it was fun to see the eggs stiffen under good ole’ arm power.

I had been thrift shopping at the St. Vincent de Paul’s in Seaside and the SPCA Thrift Shop in Carmel Valley that morning and brought back some great vintage cookbooks and a nice old candy thermometer. (I think a candy thermometer is needed for this recipe to ensure a proper temperature for this type of frosting.) It feels almost like a science experiment when you are boiling candy syrup on the stove with a thermometer but the results can be magnificent and well worth the attention to temperature detail.

Types of cake baking thermometers Bake This Cake

The hot syrup for this frosting requires slow drizzling in two separate batches (one for the egg yolks and one for the whites) while simultaneously whisking. This is easy enough with a small saucepan of syrup– and will be ever-so-much easier with an electric mixer. haha!

It was late evening when this recipe became a reality and vanilla aromas filling the cottage from the baked cake became too much to bear. So, in our eagerness to sample our cake before bed, we decided not to refrigerate the frosting (at least a half hour chill is best).  We just drizzled the room temperature frosting over a barely room temperature cake. When you make this cake, you will want to use a mixer to beat nice stiff peaks and refrigerate the frosting so that it will show hills and valleys.  Michelangelo firmly believes the frosting for this cake turned out just as he envisioned it — a sort of oozing goodness spreading over the cake.  In order to give it a home-baked look, I left the top cake, with its slightly mounded top (though I sliced the bottom layer mound to remove the hump), but I think you may want to slice off any center hump from both cake layers if you want more of an elegant look to your cake.

Front Cottage in Carmel

So this is why we have decided to call this cake the Carmel Cottage Cake: All the events of the recipe — inspired by the cottage setting, goods on hand, late night baking, hungry for a bite, hand mixing without a mixer — added to its unique country cottage appearance and taste.

I think your family and friends will enjoy the hand-made vanilla taste of this cake.  Although you may substitute any frosting, if you can set aside some time for this frosting science experiment, I think you will be quite pleased with the results. Serve this cake for tea time, summer celebrations, barbecues, lemonade gatherings and the like — where the gift of time well spent in the kitchen will bring joy to your guests. If you can, bake this cake as close to serving time as possible to ensure the freshest, lightest slice and the most delicate of frostings.

Carmel Cottage Cake with Quarter Cut Away Bake This Cake

Carmel Cottage Cake Ingredients:

  • 1 Tablespoon unsalted butter to coat the baking pans
  • 1 Tablespoon flour to dust the baking pans
  • 1-1/2 cups sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1-3/4 cups all-purpose white flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cups milk (2% milk is fine)
  • 1 teaspoon fine quality vanilla extract
  • 6 Tablespoon unsalted butter, room temperature

 Tools you will need for the cake preparation:

  • 2 round cake pans (9″)
  • small bowl
  • large bowl
  • whisk
  • mixer (unless you’re brave enough to whisk by hand)
  • small saucepan

Vanilla Cream Cake 3

Directions for preparing Carmel Cottage Cake:

Prepare the ovens and pans for the cake by:
Preheating the oven to 350,
Setting racks at center position, and
Buttering and flouring two 9″ cake pans.
Tip: For best flavor, do not use cooking spray for this cake.

In a small bowl, cream together with beater on high about 3 minutes:
1-1/2 cup sugar
3 large eggs

In a large bowl, whisk to incorporate:
1-3/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 t baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

In a small pot, bring to scalding over medium heat (just prior to boiling):
3/4 cup milk

Meanwhile (while the milk is heating), beat on low and add the creamed sugar/egg mixture to the flour mixture.
Tip: At this stage the batter is quite thick.

Remove saucepan from the heat before the milk boils and slowly pour the scalded milk into the dough, beating on low to fully incorporate.

Beat on medium for 1 minute to add:
1 teaspoon fine quality vanilla extract
6 Tablespoon room temperature unsalted butter

Divide the batter evenly and pour into the prepared cake pans.

Bake at 350 for approximately 25 mins or until light golden and tester comes out clean.

Vanilla Cream Cake

French Meringue Buttercream Frosting:

This frosting is very unique. It’s not technically a French Meringue but that is the closest description to a similar frosting that I could find so we’ll go with it. haha!

French Meringue Buttercream Ingredients:

  • 1/3 cup sugar + 2/3 c sugar (separate mixings)
  • 1/3 cup water + 1/2 c water (separate mixings)
  • 3 large eggs, separated
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar (optional but recommended for nice stiff peaks)
  • 6 Tablespoon unsalted butter, room temperature

Tools you will need for the frosting preparation:

  • small saucepan with lid
  • whisk
  • candy thermometer
  • 2 large bowls
  • mixer
  • spatula

1. First step is to work with the egg yolks:

In a small saucepan, boil on medium heat without stirring until mixture reaches 240 degrees (about 5-7 minutes):
1/3 c sugar
1/3 c water
Tip: Cover with lid to try to rid the pot of any sugar crystals that might form.

In the meantime, (while the sugar/water boils), in a large bowl, beat on high 2 to 5 minutes until thick:
3 large egg yolks.

Remove boiled sugar syrup from stove and slowly pour this molten lava into the creamed egg yolks.
Tip: Take special care not to touch a drop of sugar syrup to your fingers…it’s hot-hot-hot.
Tip: Try not to drizzle syrup on side of bowl or directly onto mixer blades to prevent sugar crystals.

Beat egg yolks with the hot syrup 2 to 4 minutes to smooth consistency.

When yolks are cooled to room temperature by beating, then beat in:
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter
Tip: If you do not wait until yolks are cooled to room temperature, the hot mixture will melt the butter and liquefy.

Refrigerate the yolk mixture while you prepare the egg whites.

2. Second step is to work with the egg whites:

In small saucepan, boil on medium heat without stirring until mixture reaches 240 degrees (about 5-7 minutes):
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup water

In the meantime, (while the sugar/water boils), in a large bowl, beat on high until fluffy but not stiff:
3 egg whites
1/4 t salt
1/4 t cream of tartar (optional  but recommended for stiff peaks to form nicely)

When boiling sugar syrup reaches 240 degrees, beat on low as you slowly pour syrup into fluffy egg whites.

Once all syrup has been used, beat on high until stiff peaks form and meringue is glossy and the meringue comes to room temperature.
Tip: Remember not to touch the hot sugar syrup.
Tip: Drizzle syrup to avoid sides of bowl and mixer parts.

3. Final step, blending everything together:

Remove the egg yolks from the refrigerator and, using a spatula, gently fold whipped yolks into egg white meringue.

Refrigerate 30 mins before frosting.
Tip: Boiling water should dissolve any hardened sugar for easier clean-up.

Note: Photographs show frosting that was hand whipped and used at room temperature without prior refrigeration.

Swiss Buttercream Frosting

Frosting drizzled at room temperature over cake layers.

Bite of Vanilla Cream Cake on a fork

A bite-sized piece of this moist cake on a fork.


Leslie Macchiarella photo by Julie Macchiarella

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