Cake One: Rainbow Cake

It’s move-in weekend here in Aggieland. Thousands of college freshmen (and their parents) are descending upon the town in cars, minivans, and moving trucks in anticipation of the new school year. Though they are wide-eyed and filled with excitement about what this new chapter of their lives will bring, they are also in my way everywhere I try to go, effectively preventing me from doing anything outside of my apartment. No worries though, because I got up real early Saturday morning (before 8am AND my coffee) to go to the grocery store and get everything I need to bake a cake.

Generally, I am bored with regular vanilla cake. But seeing as how it’s a basic, and the only one I’ve ever really liked is Amy Sedaris’ recipe, it’s about time I found a back-up. Enter: Nick Malgieri’s Perfect Cakes. I have wanted to make something out of this book for a while, but new recipes just kept creeping their way to the top of my to-try list and this book kept getting saved for next time. Well guess what: next time is NOW.

Technically, this is “buttermilk cake” not “vanilla cake,” but let’s be real: there’s no chocolate, or fruit, or nuts, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s vanilla cake. Adding the lemon makes it a bit less boring, and adding the food coloring makes it crazy awesome. Seriously, some unsuspecting person might look at this cake at first and be all, “Aww, what a sad little cake, it’s so dreary and makes me want to cry sad tears.” But then you will cut into it and blow their mind. Their mood will be instantly lifted at the sight of the magical rainbow of deliciousness within, and they will forever think that you are one of the coolest people ever because you straight up made a rainbow out of cake. Bonus, the cake is good, even if it is vanilla.  

Rainbow Cake
Cake layers adapted from Nick Malgieri’s Perfect Cakes

For cake layers:

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
½ tsp salt
½ tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp lemon extract
4 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
zest of one lemon
red, yellow, blue, and green food coloring

For frosting:

1 stick unsalted butter
1 8oz package of cream cheese
1 tsp vanilla
pinch of salt
4 cups powdered sugar
black food color

1. Put on some tunes. My cake-baking jam was the new Jay-Z/Kanye album Watch The Throne; for the frosting and finishing stage, it was Ke$ha’s Cannibal.

2. Cut up the butter into tablespoons and toss them in your mixer bowl. Add the sugar, and then beat with the paddle attachment on low for a minute. Turn up the mixer to medium speed and let it go for a few more minutes until the butter and sugar gets all light and fluffy.

3. While the mixer is mixing, zest the lemon. Set aside. Then, combine the flour, salt, and soda in a separate bowl and whisk it together to get everything evenly distributed. Set aside.

4. Once you have the light and fluffy butter mixture, add the extracts and beat until just combined. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until just combined after each.

5. Alternately add the flour mixture and buttermilk to the butter mixture, beating until just combined after each addition. I usually do flour/buttermilk/flour/buttermilk/flour. Scrape the sides of the bowl with a spatula and give the batter a few extra seconds of mixing to make sure there are no gross lumps.

6. Preheat the oven to 350° and grease up 3 6-inch cake pans (or 2 9-inch pans, or some cupcake tins, whatever you want)… no sense starting the preheat earlier when it’s 105° outside. For the greasing up part, I have been using some Wilton cake release because I’m lazy, but you can also butter the pans, line the bottoms with parchment, and then butter the parchment.

7. Divide the batter evenly into 6 coffee mugs (or bowls if you prefer). Add food coloring to each to get the red, orange (red+yellow), yellow, green, blue, and purple (red+blue). Once those are mixed, add the batter to the pans. Since I used three pans, I layered red/orange, yellow/green, and blue/purple. This is a pretty sturdy batter, so it’s cool to smooth out the top after each color, just be careful to smooth and not mix. Once all the batter has been added and the tops have been smoothed down, stick them in the oven for 35-40 minutes (cooking time will vary depending on your pan size). Mine took the full 40.

8. Once the tops no longer look glossy, check the cake by inserting a toothpick – if it comes out clean, it’s done. Take the cakes out of the oven and let them cool on a rack for 5-10 minutes, then remove from the pans and let them cool completely on the rack.

9. Once the cakes have cooled, you’ll probably need to saw the tops off with a serrated knife so that the layers will lay flat on top of each other. If not, then sad news for you because then you don’t get to try any cake before it gets frosted. 

10. To make the frosting, take the butter and cream cheese out of the fridge and let sit for about 10 minutes. It should still be cool when it goes into the mixer. Cut up the butter into tablespoons, toss into the mixer, and beat with the paddle attachment for about a minute. Cut up the cream cheese into pieces, add to the butter, and continue beating for 3 or 4 minutes until it gets all nice and whipped together.

11. Gradually add the powdered sugar to the cream cheese mixture. I usually do ½ cup at a time and beat really well between each addition. Continue adding the sugar until the frosting gets to a thick and spreadable consistency. You don’t want the frosting to be so runny that it melts off the cake, so if you think you’ve added enough sugar, it’s cool to stick it back in the fridge for a few minutes.

12. Mix in the salt and vanilla. Gradually mix in black food coloring until the frosting resembles a rainy day cloud.


1. Stick a dollop of frosting in the middle of the cake plate so the cake doesn’t slide around. You do not need to be stingy with the frosting at any point in the assembly – it makes a lot, and I had some leftover.

2. Place the red part of the cake (or the purple if you want the rainbow to go the other way) on top of that dollop, then frost the top.

3. Place the yellow part of the cake on top of the first layer, then frost the top again.

4. Place the blue part of the cake on top of the second layer, and STOP. Don’t frost the very top of the cake until last so you’ll have a spot to hold the cake in place as you frost the sides.

5. Frost the sides by working from the bottom and going up. It doesn’t have to look perfect since it’s supposed to look like a rainy day cloud, and those are not perfect-looking. Once you’ve frosted the sides, frost the top. You can leave the cake as is at this point, or, if you’re awesome, you can put some edible glitter on it.

6. Revel in how talented you are that you have made a 3-layer cake (go you!), take a couple pictures, and then dig in. Cutting a slice out will reveal the rainbow inside!

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