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Family Heirloom Italian Cream Cake

August 20, 2010


Tuesday was my boss’s birthday.  And I am impossibly thankful for the boss I have.  I’m thankful he hired me, thankful for the confidence he places in me, and thankful for the positive work environment he is committed to maintaining.

So when I was asked to make the cake for his surprise party I was DELIGHTED!  We invited our entire office to the shin-dig so I knew one cake wouldn’t be enough.  I also knew that while my boss loves Italian Cream cake… lots of people are anti-nuts.  So in a few days I’ll also be showing you the dark chocolate ganache cake I made in addition to this one.

But today it’s all about Italian Cream Cake!  Chock-full of pecans and coconut and smothered in home-made cream cheese icing… it’s too good not to try.

The recipe comes from my mother-in-law who does NOT mess around when it comes to cakes.  They are precisely prepared and always perfect.  Her Italian Cream Cake is a prize-winner.

Here’s the ingredient list she sent me.


I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to using oleo.  I don’t do it.  It certainly never existed in the old country… and as far as I’m concerned, we’d all be better off if it had never been invented.  So you’ll notice that among the ingredients pictured below, butter has replaced oleo.


Grab a large hand-full of pecans and chop them up roughly til you have about a cup.  Then set em’ aside for lata!


Now get out about 17 mixing bowls in various sizes because this recipe calls for a never-ending supply of separate bowls.  But it IS worth it, I promise.

Separate your five eggs, making sure to put the whites into a larger bowl, since beating them will increase their volume.




(I compost my eggshells so that’s why they’re getting their own bowl here.)

And wait!  Stop!  Before going any further!  You MUST do this step.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it a million times more.



Pretty cakes start HERE.  And personally, I would never leave the wax paper step out because it makes my life a heck of a lot easier when I’m removing my cakes later on.

Thanks for understanding.

Now, mix your dry ingredients together in yet another separate bowl.


Grab a little Crisco (I prefer butter flavored) and use it to grease your cake pans and the wax paper inside.  Butter can burn… Crisco won’t.


Grab a little dish and mix a few tablespoons of flour and sugar together.  Sprinkle the lovely mixture into each cake pan and tap it around to coat the bottom and sides of each.


Alright, once you’re sure you’ve taken care of any and all preliminary steps… you can get going on those eggwhites.  Again, you need a separate bowl.  The presence of any particle of any other ingredient will cause you serious problems when trying to beat eggwhites.

The recipe says these don’t need to be quite to the “stiff” or “dry” point, so this is just about right!


Now, if you have a stand-mixer, now would be a great time to use it!  If you don’t have one, that’s so fine!  You can rinse and re-use the hand mixer you used for the eggwhites… just be sure you do the eggwhites first.

Now toss the appropriate amounts of butter and Crisco into (you guessed it) the separate bowl of your choice (I chose my stand-mixer.)


Cream these together…


and scrape down the sides with a spatula midway through.


Add the sugar and cream it together with this mixture.

I LOVE getting pictures as the ingredients are going in 🙂


Perfect.  Now it’s time for the eggyolks.

Add them one at a time, blending each one well and utilizing your spatula when necessary.


Next comes vanilla…


Finally, we’re getting closer.

Start blending in the buttermilk and the dry mixture.

Add them gradually and alternate between dry and wet additions so that the batter never gets too dry or too moist.

Oh, and don’t be alarmed by how sour the buttermilk smells.  The cake will still be sweet.


At this point you can toss in a few hand-fulls of coconut and the cup of pecans you chopped earlier.  Blend them in rather gently to avoid pulverizing them.


And finally, finally, we’ve reached the last few steps before baking.  I definitely saved the “decorating” of this cake for another day because the preparation was painstaking.

At this point, add in the eggwhites and gently fold them in with a rubber spatula.  Take care not to totally deflate them or overmix them.  They add fluff when treated with care.


Distribute the batter evenly into three 8-inch cake pans.  Three layers makes for a taller, prettier cake, and also allows you to use more icing… which is a very good thing.

I like to pick up each pan and let them drop onto the counter from just a few inches up to get rid of any big air bubbles in the batter.


These bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes.  I always set my oven 5 degrees cooler because I’m paranoid that it’s hotter than it actually says.  I also have warped oven racks so I rotate these after the first 15 minutes.  TRY not to open the oven to check on them before that first fifteen minutes is up.  Use your oven light or just practice patience.

Oh, and I nearly gave myself a heart attack when the time came to pull these babies out.


Because I accidentally dropped one of them on its side as I was trying to pull it out.


The huge crater in this cake is obvious… but certainly not a show-stopper.  Shockingly I was able to control my typical urge to overreact, and instead I just put this layer on the bottom.  All was fine.


I also ended up with one cake that was slightly under-cooked because it had spent all 25 minutes on the rack below the other two.

Note to self: Rotate AND switch levels.  This cake is high maintenance.

So how did I handle that little problem?

I sprinkled a little coconut onto the gooey spot before freezing (so that the plastic wouldn’t peel any cake away the next day.)  And it worked like a charm.


Good night little birthday cakes…

You’d better be worth the dirty dishes that now await me.


Alright, when you feel emotionally ready to enter your kitchen again, do so and let’s start on the icing.

Here’s what you need (at ROOM temperature!):


Again, I have no intention of ever using oleo.  You feel free.

Beat together the cream cheese and butter (or oleo.)


Then (somehow) determine what 1 lb. of powdered sugar might look like.

This was pure speculation on my part.  Part of the joy of deciphering a family recipe that calls for things like cans of coconut and boxes of powdered sugar.


And start adding it in with the cream cheese/butter.

By the way, I majorly hate making icing because it shoots powdered sugar everywhere and I always feel like I’m torturing my mixer.  You’ll notice I avoid it when possible.


Lastly, blend in a little vanilla and you’ll end up with this.


This icing is creamy and delicious… but VERY sweet.  I honestly wish I could’ve left out some of that powdered sugar but I knew it’d be a bad idea for a cake I would later need to transport in a jiggly car on a 110 degree day.  It would have slid right off!

By all means… use less if the cake only has to sit in your air-conditioned home til it’s eaten.


Now, stacking cake layers is an art.

Mine are never even!  So I have to stack them and pay attention to their high sides and low sides, as I’ve done below.

Can you believe how freakishly lop-sided this is?  I blame my oven.

But as you continue to stack (spreading a nice layer of icing between each cake) the problem should resolve itself.

I never cut off parts of my cake just because they’re uneven.  I only ever cut slivers of cake off when they’re overcooked and too hard.


See what a pretty cake you get when you use three pans?  So elegant!

Now, cover every remaining inch with gobs of gorgeous icing.

Like so…


The next part is messy, but fun.

Chop up a few more hand-fulls of pecans.

This time I pulled out my little chopper because it was inching closer and closer to midnight.


And chop those bad boys into smithereens.  (Well, coarse smithereens.)



Now begin pressing chopped pecans into the sides of the cake gently.

Warning: About 40% of the pecans will escape through the crevices of your hand each time you attempt this, so putting a plate underneath your hand as you work your way around the cake will allow you to re-use the fallen wayward nuts.


The finished product should resemble this decadent little beauty!


I was delighted with the result!

I do need to add, though, that my mother-in-law (the cake magician) has made this cake a number of times and there is something about her version.  I can’t put my finger on it, but I couldn’t quite capture it.  I think I’m going to sit like hawk-eye and watch her the next time she makes it and try to steal her mojo.

Still, all the office party-goers were extremely impressed and those who can stomach coconut were just overflowing with compliments.  And I personally ate at least four pieces.

Now take a look in the fridge below and see if you can find the next recipe I’ll be posting.


Ok, I’ll tell you!

Its a dark chocolate ganache cake (also done for my boss’s birthday.)  And it was my attempt to create a well-decorated, yet simultaneously “manly” birthday cake.

Here’s the secret: square cake pans are where it’s at!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Angela M permalink
    April 16, 2011 7:47 am

    I love your dialog! It is refreshingly funny and sweet at the same time! I’ve been baking and cooking for what feels like forever, I’m 41, and your site is now earmarked as a favorite and I’m sharing it with friends! Thank you~~



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