Southern Sweetness: Baking the Iconic Italian Cream Cake

Italian Cream Cake

This Italian Cream Cake is an utterly delicious triple layer cake made with toasted pecans, coconut, amaretto and vanilla. Each layer is spread with a generous amount of vanilla and amaretto cream cheese frosting. This show-stopping cake is meant to feed a crowd so save this for a special occasion when you want to impress! I called her Amara.

An Italian Cream Cake is all sorts of delicious but it is also a bit of a conundrum. Despite it's name this cake does not hail from Italy and it does not contain cream. It actually comes from the South in America where items like pecans grow easily and cream cheese frosting graces the sides of many of its most popular cakes like red velvet cake.This Italian Cream Cake is also an enormous 3 layer cake. It is best served in thin slices so it can serve 12 people (or even more!)

Tips For Making Italian Cream Cake

Italian Cream Cake

1 - Always toast your pecans - toasting nuts brings out the flavour of them and this cake is so moreish with the flavour and aroma of toasted pecans.

2 - Lightly toast the coconut on the outside. In America they use sweetened coconut flakes while in Australia we use moist coconut flakes. I always toast coconut in a frying pan just so I can see and control how toasted it gets especially since it is featured on the outside.

3 - This recipes makes a lot of cream cheese frosting but if you don't want to make that much you can always just bake it as two instead of three cake layers (increase baking time for thicker cakes) and then frost in between the two layers and on top and then leave the sides un-iced. I happen to love cream cheese frosting so I will take any opportunity to have it ;)

4 - For cream cheese icing, I prefer to use block cream cheese rather than tub cream cheese as the tub version is softer and more spreadable. You want the frosting to be firm enough to hold up and not be too sloppy or soft.

5 - An Icing Scraper helps to keep the sides smooth. I like using tall icing scrapers like these because the shorter ones cannot do tall cakes like this.

6 - Cake turntables also help when trying to get smooth edges - spin the cake turntable while holding the cake scraper still.

Italian Cream Cake

I brought this cake to a friend's Easter Sunday brunch this past weekend. The 4 day Easter long weekend comes around just at the right time. Although it was earlier this year we really needed four days off and it was filled with a good amount of socialising (for me) and a good amount of solitude (for Mr NQN). On Good Friday we tested out our new pizza oven and Mr NQN became quickly obsessed with it. He was fascinated by the whole process and how quickly it cooked things. Then on Saturday we went to Monica and Marco's house for a late lunch. It was my first time seeing her after I got back from overseas and we had a lot to catch up on.

Then on Sunday we went to my friend Carla's place. She and her boyfriend Jay have a stunning apartment in Rushcutter's Bay. It's a real grown up apartment with artwork and bespoke covered chairs and views for days. I made a mental note that when she comes over to our house it has to look absolutely perfect so it may be a while til she comes over!

Italian Cream Cake

At Carla's request we brought Teddy and Milo over as they live right near over Rushcutter's Bay park which is dog friendly. Carla and Jay put out a delicious spread of smoked salmon, capers, quiches, croissants, passion fruit yogurt and a berry salad. Then we took the boys for a walk around the park and then Milo sat at the window watching all the comings and goings from the window seat. Teddy flopped down on his side and snoozed while we came back and ate this cake. Carla and Jay are American but they're not Southern so they hadn't heard of this cake but it's really like a cousin of the carrot cake or hummingbird cake. Just a warning: it does feed more than four people, it feeds around 12! So we barely made a dent in the cake but they had more friends to see and come over that weekend so it was perfect for them! And on Easter Monday it was back to trying to perfect pizza in our pizza oven. That too might be a while!

So tell me Dear Reader, what did you get up to this past Easter weekend? Have you ever heard of Italian cream cake?

Italian Cream Cake

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An Original Recipe by Lorraine Elliott

Preparation time: 40 minutes plus 1 hour cooling time

Cooking time: 60 minutes

Serves: 12

  • 1 cup/125g/4ozs pecans, toasted and roughly chopped
  • 200g/7ozs moist coconut flakes or sweetened coconut flakes
  • 300g/10.6oz cake flour
  • 1 teaspoon bicarb
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine salt
  • 250g/8.8ozs butter, softened
  • 330g/11.7ozs caster or superfine sugar
  • 1/2 cup/125g/4ozs brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
  • A few drops amaretto or almond flavouring
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup/250ml/8.8flozs buttermilk

For Frosting

  • 500/1.1lbs cream cheese (not low fat), softened
  • 250g/8.8ozs butter, softened
  • 1kg/2.2lbs icing or powdered sugar, sifted
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste
  • A few drops amaretto or almond flavouring
  • Fat pinch of salt
  • 3/4 cup/90g/3ozs pecans, toasted and roughly chopped
  • 6 whole pecans, toasted
  • 100g/3.5ozs moist coconut flakes or sweetened coconut flakes

Step 1 - To toast pecans for the cake and decoration, spread them in a single layer on a baking tray and bake in a 160C/320F fan forced oven for 8-9 minutes. To toast the coconut, do it in two batches in a dry frying pan turning the coconut so that it browns evenly. Watch it closely as it toasts very quickly and it takes less than 5 minutes. Cool both completely.

Italian Cream Cake
Pale and fluffy

Step 2 - Preheat oven to 160C/320F fan forced and line 3x 20cm/8inch tins on the base and sides with parchment. Whisk the cake flour, bicarb, baking powder and salt together in a bowl or jug. Place the butter and two sugars in the bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Beat the butter and sugars together for 4-5 minutes or until very pale and fluffy. Add the vanilla and almond flavouring and then add each egg one at a time. I actually whisk the egg in a little bowl before adding it to the mixture as I find that it combines better into the batter.

Italian Cream Cake
Adding toasted pecans and coconut

Step 3 - Spoon in the flour mixture into the butter mixture 3 lots on the lowest speed alternating with the buttermilk. Stop when the mixture is just combined (do not overmix). Then by hand using a spatula, stir in the coconut and pecans until combined. Divide the batter evenly among the three tins smoothing over the top. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Cool completely. I like to pop these cake layers into the freezer too just for 30 minutes or so to firm up (it makes decorating easier).

Italian Cream Cake
Ready to bake

Step 4 - While the cakes are baking, make the frosting as I like to refrigerate it to keep it firm even for 20 minutes or so (especially important if it is a hot day). Using a paddle attachment beat the cream cheese and butter on high together until very smooth. On low speed add the icing sugar, vanilla, almond flavouring and salt. Once the sugar is incorporated, increase speed to medium high speed and beat until very smooth. Pop the bowl of frosting in the fridge until needed.

Italian Cream Cake
Pecans and frosting

Step 5 - To assemble, take a cake board and dab a little frosting in the centre of the board and place the first layer on top of the dab (the icing is to stop it sliding). Place on a cake turntable and place strips of parchment under the cake so that the cake board sides remains clean. Reserve 1 cup of frosting for the rosettes on top. Spread some frosting on the first layer and then a small handful of toasted pecans on top. Add another layer and repeat with the icing and pecans. Then add frosting to the sides of the cake. Use an icing scraper to get it smooth- this takes time adding frosting and scraping at least half a dozen times. Then add frosting on top smoothing it over with the icing scraper. Tilting the cake slightly, press the toasted coconut into the sides.

Italian Cream Cake
Smoothing sides

Italian Cream Cake
Adding toasted coconut to sides

Step 6 - Pipe 6 rosettes on top using a fluted piping tip and place the whole pecans on top of the rosettes. Add the remaining chopped pecans on top. Store this cake in the fridge. Serve as thin slices.

Italian Cream Cake
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