A checkerboard cake by itself is delightful enough, but pair it with vintage buttercream and you definitely kick it up several notches.
I call it vintage buttercream as its origins date back to World War II. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, the country dedicated all its energy to the war effort with factories overnight converting to military production. Automobile factories, for example, switched to manufacturing tanks, aircraft and other military weapons. This not only affected industrial supplies, such as rubber and metal, but even food items such as butter and sugar were rationed. Thanks to their resourcefulness, homemakers came up with a wonderfully creamy yet light and not overly sweet buttercream by cooking flour with milk to stretch their week’s ration of butter and sugar.
Here’s an outline to the incredibly easy and simple steps to making vintage buttercream:
- Start out by cooking flour, milk and a pinch of salt in a sauce pot mixing continuously to make a thick, smooth paste.
- Transfer the paste to a bowl and cover with plastic wrap pressing down directly on the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Let it cool completely.
- When the paste has cooled, cream butter with granulated sugar until light and fluffy. Then add the paste a spoonful at a time. Finally, blend in vanilla extract.
It’s that simple. You get this incredibly creamy and delicious buttercream that could very well be mistaken for whipped cream. Having less sugar, it is considerably less sweet and lighter than traditional buttercream so it doesn’t weigh down on a cake.
When I tried the recipe the first time, I thought the buttercream was terrific as it was. But I thought I would make two changes.
A couple of my modifications to vintage buttercream:
- Roux. I inserted one quick step at the start and melted some butter to cook the flour in, making pretty much a roux. Then once the roux started to bubble, I whisked in the milk and salt; just like making béchamel sauce only the consistency you’re after is a smooth paste instead of a sauce.
- Granulated vs. Powdered Sugar. Although the buttercream was creamy, firm enough to pipe and soft enough to spread on a cake, the appearance, because of the granulated sugar, was not quite as polished as when powdered sugar is used. So the second change was replacing the granulated sugar with an equal volume measurement of powdered sugar. I suppose granulated sugar could be cooked together with the flour and milk at the start, but being hygroscopic coupled by the need to be whipped really well, the visual when used to cover a cake wasn’t quite so polished.
Then I left the cake out at room temperature for two days just covered with a cake dome and was pleased it remained pretty much unchanged in appearance, and was still moist as can be if not more so. Indoors for me is climate-controlled at a constant temperature of 72°F, so that might be something to keep in mind if it’s warm and humid where you live.
Children tend to prefer frostings on the sweet side, and since this vintage buttercream is on the low side of sweet, which is a good thing, you might want to account for the little ones and adjust (or not) the sugar as needed.
Another thing to note is vintage buttercream, unlike traditional buttercream, does not crust. If the cake is accidentally brushed against, the frosting will easily smudge just like whipped cream does.
The cake on the left, which is just a test cake, was made with vintage buttercream with granulated sugar. The cake on the right was made with powdered sugar. Both versions are equally creamy and delicious, just like whipped cream. Both also pipe and hold their shape well so if you’re just going to frost cupcakes, either one would work. But when used for spreading on a cake, if you take a closer look at the test cake, the finish is not as polished as the one on the right made with powdered sugar. So therein lies the only difference. The recipe box below contains both granulated and powdered sugar measurements so you can use either one if you happen to be out of the other.
Now on to the checkerboard cake.
Instead of just two colors, I divided the batter in three to make a pattern. I also baked the cake in four layers instead of three, but three layers would work just as well.
You can make a checkerboard cake out of any yellow or white cake recipe. Just divide the batter into however many colors you want.
Spread just a thin layer of buttercream to fill the layers so as not to detract from the checkerboard pattern.
Piping the batter through a pastry bag will make filling the pans so much easier. I used three pastry rings measuring 2, 4 and 6 inches inside an 8-inch cake pan to make the pattern. You can also use just two rings or cookie cutters; just make sure they are evenly spaced within the pan.
Checkerboard cake with vintage buttercream or cooked flour buttercream is a pretty lush treat. If you don’t want to fuss with a checkerboard but still want to bake a cake, moist and delicious yellow sheet cake is a great option paired with vintage buttercream or quick chocolate frosting. Alternatively, you can always just make a layer cake without the checkerboard pattern. Either way, it’s always fun.
- ¼ cup heavy cream (72 g)
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice (18 g)
- 1 cup whole milk (237 g)
- 1 ¼ cups / 2 ½ sticks unsalted butter (255 g)
- 6 large egg whites
- 3 cups cake flour (390 g)
- 4 teaspoons baking powder (20 g)
- ½ teaspoon salt (4 g)
- 2 cups granulated sugar (408 g)
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract (10 g)
- 2 – 3 drops each of pink and yellow gel food coloring (or any color/s you prefer, you can also just use one color to make a combination of white and whichever color you choose))
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter (84 g)
- ¾ cup all-purpose flour (105 g)
- 1 ½ cups whole milk (354 g)
- ¼ teaspoon salt (2 g)
- 1 cup unsalted butter at room temperature (226 g)
- 2 cups powdered sugar (354 g) or, if you prefer, 2 cups granulated sugar (408 g)
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract (10 g)
- 4 eight-inch round cake pans (or use 3 pans, if you prefer)
- 3 cookie cutters or pastry rings: 2 inches, 4 inches and 6 inches (you can also use just 2 rings but make sure they are evenly spaced in the pan)
- Pre-heat oven to 350°F. Spray four (or three, if you prefer) 8-inch round cake pans with non-stick baking spray.
- Whisk together the heavy cream and lemon juice. Wait a few minutes for the mixture to thicken and whisk again. Add the whole milk to the heavy cream mixture and mix well. Set aside to come to room temperature.
- Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
- Cream the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy.
- Add the egg whites one at a time, blending well.
- On low speed, alternately add the dry ingredients with the milk mixture. Start by adding ⅓ of the sifted dry ingredients, let it mix, then add ½ of the milk mixture. Blend in one half of the remaining dry ingredients together with the second half of the milk mixture. Add the rest of the dry ingredients and beat until smooth and well incorporated. Scrape the bowl in between additions to make sure everything is well mixed.
- Give the batter a few quick strokes by hand with a rubber or silicone spatula.
- Divide the batter in three parts. Mix in a few drops of pink gel food coloring to one part. Mix a few drops of yellow food coloring to the second part, and leave the third part uncolored. (If you are making only two colors, divide the batter in half and tint one half whatever color you choose and leave the other half plain).
- Transfer the colored batters into icing bags. Arrange the cookie cutters or pastry rings in the first baking pan with the 2-inch ring in the center of the pan, followed by the 4-inch ring and then the 6-inch ring. Pipe the batters alternately within each of the rings. Remove the rings, rinse off, wipe dry thoroughly and transfer the rings to the next pan. Repeat piping the cake batters making sure to alternate colors.
- Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the center springs back to the touch, about 20 – 25 minutes. Remove the cakes from the oven and let cool for about 10 – 15 minutes before turning out. If you are freezing the cakes until you are ready to assemble, wrap the layers individually in plastic wrap and store in airtight containers.
- In a sauce pot on medium heat, melt 6 tablespoons butter. As it starts to bubble, add the flour and salt all at once whisking continuously and let it cook until bubbly, around 1 – 2 minutes.
- Whisk in the milk and salt. For as long as you continue to whisk, there will be no lumps. As the mixture thickens, switch to a wooden spatula. Keep stirring until the mixture leaves the sides and you can see the bottom of the pot as you stir, about 3 - 5 minutes. The mixture will turn to a smooth, very thick paste. Remove from heat and give it a few more strokes to cool down the paste. Transfer the paste to a bowl to let it cool completely. Cover it with plastic wrap, pressing down on the surface to prevent a skin from forming.
- When the paste has cooled to room temperature, in the bowl of a stand mixer using the flat beater, start beating one cup butter until smooth. Add the powdered sugar (or granulated sugar) and beat until well blended. If using granulated sugar, mix it very well until fluffy. On medium low speed, add the paste one heaping spoonful at a time. Add the vanilla extract and mix until well blended.
- Place one cake layer on a serving plate and spread only a thin layer of buttercream so as not to detract from the checkerboard pattern. Repeat until all the layers are stacked.
- Reserve some buttercream if you are piping a border and transfer it to a piping bag fitted with any size star tip. Spread the rest of the buttercream on top and around the cake then pipe a border.
- Keep the cake covered at room temperature for up to two days.
Checkerboard Cake with Vintage Buttercream