Think of this cake as a gussied-up version of a Victoria sponge. The flavours are the same, as we've got the well-worn charm of strawberry jam, lemon and (butter)cream. Folding beaten egg whites into the batter, as done with chiffon cakes, results in an airy, delicate crumb. I've gone and mussed up that delicacy a little with ground hazelnuts, but I think the modest sacrifice in height is worth it — the cake has fluff but also has enough structure to stand up to the rich weight of the preserves, and it's still plenty tall. I also happen to think that the teensy flecks of gold and brown look pretty, so there's that, too.
The layers are adaptated from the Fluffy Yellow Layer Cake in The Cook's Illustrated Cookbook (America's Test Kitchen, 2011). The cake uses 6 yolks and 3 egg whites, so be sure to keep those extra 3 whites aside if making the Swiss Meringue Buttercream.
FOR THE CAKE
Softened butter and cake flour for pans
2 ounces hazelnuts, skin on, roasted and cooled
2 cups (8 ounces) cake flour, sifted
1 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 3/4 cup (12 1/4 ounces) granulated sugar, divided
10 tablespoons (5 ounces, 1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
3 tablespoons neutral-tasting oil (like grapeseed or safflower)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
6 egg yolks, at room temperature
3 egg whites, at room temperature
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2-3/4 cup strawberry preserves
1/4-1/2 teaspoon finely-grated lemon zest, depending on taste
1/2 recipe Swiss Buttercream, with 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt added at the start (and without coconut)
Preheat an oven to 350°F (175°C). Grease three 8x2-inch pans with softened butter. Line the bases with parchment paper, grease the parchment, then dust bottoms and sides with flour, tapping out excess. Set aside.
In a food processor fitted with the metal blade, grind the hazelnuts into a fine meal. Stop the machine, scrape down the sides and pulse again one or two times. You should have about 1/2 cup hazelnut meal.
In a large bowl, whisk together the ground hazelnuts, cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, kosher salt and 1 1/2 cups of granulated sugar. In another bowl, or a jug with a pouring spout, whisk together the melted butter, buttermilk, neutral oil, vanilla extract and egg yolks. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites at medium speed until foamy. Sprinkle in the cream of tartar. Increase the mixer speed to medium-high, and with the machine running, pour in the remaining 1/4 cup granulated sugar in a steady stream. Continue to beat until the egg whites are glossy and stiff peaks form, about 2 to 3 minutes. Using a rubber spatula, scrape the egg whites into a bowl and set aside.
Add flour mixture to the now-empty mixer bowl. With the machine running on low speed, slowly pour in the buttermilk mixture, stirring until just incorporated, around 20 seconds. Stop the machine, scrape down the sides of the bowl and whisk again until there's no visible flour, around 15 seconds more (note: due to the hazelnuts, this batter will not be completely smooth).
With a rubber spatula, stir 1/3 of the beaten egg whites into the batter to lighten. Add 1/2 of the remaining whites and fold gently until almost combined, a few white streaks can remain. Add the last of the whites and continue to fold until no streaks remain. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared cake pans. Tap the pans gently on the counter a few times to release any large air bubbles.
Bake layers in a preheated oven until the cake begins to pull away from the edge of the pan and a cake tester (toothpick) inserted in the centre comes out clean, around 20 minutes. Cool cakes in pans on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Loosen the edge of the cakes with an offset spatula or butter knife, then invert onto a wire rack lined with clean parchment and remove the baking parchment from the bottom of the layer. Invert the cake again onto a greased wire rack and cool completely before filling and frosting, at least 2 hours.
To assemble, mix the strawberry preserves with the lemon zest in a bowl. Stack and fill the cakes, dividing the jam between the cake layers and topping each with thin coat of buttercream. Use the remaining buttercream to cover and decorate the sides and top to your liking.
For a tutorial on filling and frosting a cake, see here.
Makes 1 8-inch, three-layer cake.
The ground hazelnuts can be substituted for an equal amount other ground nuts — almonds, walnuts or pistachio are winning bets. Or, if not your thing, omit nuts altogether and make up the difference with an equal amount (2 ounces, 1/2 cup) of sifted cake flour.
The cake layers can be made a day ahead and kept at room temperature overnight, wrapped well in clingfilm. As pictured, I used three 6-inch pans, baking the cakes for around 25 mintues.
I use a chunky, homemade strawberry preserve, one that's not particularly sweet as far as jams go. If yours is on the sweeter side, you might want to pull back to 1/2 cup total. Also, keep in mind that a thick layer of jam will cause the cake to slide when stacked, so err on the side of miserly.
This cake plays well with other frostings. A malted or coffee buttercream would be ones I'd suggest, or even a good old whipped ganache. The buttercream can be coloured or left plain — it is naturally white, as seen in between the layers, and I used a mix of paste food colours to tint the icing for the exterior.
I did a piece on decorating layer cakes for Saveur last year; if you're looking for more tips, it might be of interest.