I know I spent most of January complaining about what an awful month it is. And I still feel that way. But, there is one bright spot in that gray and dreary page of the calendar and that is my birthday! As most long time readers know, I always enjoy baking my own birthday cake. Last year I didn’t have time and then never got around to it. This year I almost passed it up again for no particularly compelling reason, but Caroline absolutely insisted we bake a cake together! I can never resist an opportunity to spend time in the kitchen with her, so we went straight to work.

Most years it takes me ages to narrow down the perfect combination of cake, filling and frosting, but once the idea of this cake entered my mind, I was all set. The little girl who is always trying to steal sips of my iced coffee was pretty excited about it too.

Though this may look fancy and complicated, I did my best to simplify things. The cake layers are caramel with a touch of espresso. I made a single batch of vanilla buttercream but divided it into three portions – part flavored with espresso, part with caramel and some left plain. This helped incorporate all of the flavors I wanted and also helped make the ombre effect I was hoping for in the frosting.

The finished product was even better than I had imagined and a perfect celebratory treat to welcome the next year. I am excited to see what it has in store!

  • Yield 1 8-inch layer cake


For the cake: 

  • ½ cup (4 oz.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1¼ cups granulated sugar
  • ½ cup packed light brown sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 tbsp. espresso powder dissolved in 1 tbsp. hot water
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tbsp. white vinegar

For the filling/frosting: 

  • 1½ cups plus 2 tbsp. (3 sticks plus 2 tbsp.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 3 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
  • 2 tbsp. heavy cream
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 tbsp. espresso powder dissolved in 1 tbsp. hot water

To finish: 


  • 01

    To make the cake, preheat the oven to 350˚ F. Grease and flour the edges of two 8-inch cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter and sugars. Beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add in the eggs one at a time, blending well after each addition. With the mixer on low speed, add the flour in three additions alternating with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients.  Mix in each addition only just until incorporated. Blend in the espresso mixture.

  • 02

    In a small bowl, dissolve the baking soda in the vinegar, then add to the bowl with the batter and mix just until incorporated. Divide the batter between the prepared pans. Bake the cakes just until set and golden brown on top, rotating halfway through the baking time, about 32-35 minutes total. Remove to a wire rack and let cool at least 20-30 minutes before removing from the pans and cooling completely.

  • 03

    To make the filling and frosting, place the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment.  Whip on medium-high speed until smooth, about 1 minute.  Add the confectioners’ sugar to the bowl and mix on medium-low speed just until incorporated.  Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean pod (if using) into the bowl and add in the salt.  Continue to beat on medium-high speed until smooth, about 1-2 minutes.  Mix in the heavy cream and vanilla on low speed just until incorporated.  Increase the mixer speed and whip on high speed until light and fluffy, scraping down the bowl as needed, about 4-5 minutes.

  • 04

    Divide the frosting into three separate portions (approximately 2/5, 2/5, and 1/5 if you want to be really crazy about it.) Leave one of the larger portions plain vanilla. To the second large portion, add the espresso mixture and stir in until well blended with a spatula. To the smaller portion, add 1-2 tablespoons of the caramel sauce and stir until well blended.

  • 05

    To assemble the cake, level both cake rounds with a sharp serrated knife. Place one of the rounds on an 8-inch cake board. Spread a few tablespoons of the caramel sauce over the bottom layer, then top with a layer of the coffee buttercream for the filling. Place the remaining cake layer on top of the filling. Use a small amount of the vanilla buttercream to make a crumb coat, then chill the cake for at least 30 minutes.

  • 06

    Using a spatula (or pastry bags fitted with large plain tips), make a ring of the coffee buttercream around the bottom third of the circumference of the cake. Make a ring of the caramel buttercream around the middle third of the cake, and a ring of the vanilla buttercream around the top third. Cover the top of the cake in vanilla frosting as well. Use an offset spatula to smooth the frosting over the top and around the sides of the cake, ideally with a rotating cake stand. Once frosted, chill for 30 minutes. Before serving, drizzle with a generous layer of caramel sauce.

  • 07


    • The recipe for the caramel sauce will make more than you need for this cake, but when has extra caramel ever been a bad thing? Never, that’s when.
    • This cake stand has completely upped my cake frosting game, along with this super helpful series from Zoe Bakes.