Thrill a coffee lover with this Vietnamese coffee layer cake. Inspired by the flavors of a Vietnamese coffee – espresso and condensed milk.
I first made this cake over a year ago, as my own dessert for Mother’s Day. We’d just moved, still had boxes scattered around the house, and I hadn’t baked in weeks. My requests that Mother’s Day were simple – set up my garden, and bake something beautiful. And when I thought about flavors, my mind kept wandering to Vietnamese coffee… I wanted comfort food in cake form.
It’s funny to think about the flavors we seek in times of transition. Sometimes they are childhood flavors, but not always. I was an adult the first time I tried Vietnamese coffee, and it was love at first sip.
The Godfather and I were newlyweds, both working and going to grad school. We lived in a small town that had a really good Vietnamese restaurant. We went to try it once, and instantly fell in love with the food. But the Godfather was sold when he tried the Vietnamese coffee. The man loves his coffee, and adding just a bit of condensed milk was home for him. His mom loves condensed milk and used it in batidos (shakes) and desserts growing up, so the flavor was both new and yet, very familiar.
We ended up really enjoying our time in that little town. I think that may have been why this unique layer cake flavor seemed so perfect as a “first cake” in this current house. Last year we were starting over (again) in a new place. Familiar, but different. And this is the roundabout way kitchen things happen here sometimes…
Let’s talk cake!
The big challenge was translating the flavors of a Vietnamese coffee into a layer cake. It’s much easier to do in something like a tres leches cake, where you are soaking liquid into a cake. Getting the right balance is far more challenging when you’re also looking for a classic layer cake!
So I spent the weekend testing, and realized that the best balance came from a coffee flavored cake, brushed with a thin layer of coffee and a generous layer of condensed milk to soak the layers. Then you frost and fill with a frosting that combines both coffee and condensed milk for a silky, perfect pairing.
This cake is a coffee lover’s dream!
And with 4 lovely layers, each bite has a bit of all the flavors and a good cake to frosting ratio. Actually, this cake is best without a ton of frosting. This is why I kept decoration very simple, and recommend doing the same. Because of the extra liquid brushed on the layers, this would also make a nice “naked cake” and wouldn’t dry out quite as quickly. Just don’t soak the layers completely to maintain structure.
As you can see, this is a 4 layer cake. To achieve this look, I “torted” the cake. To torte a cake means that you cut each baked layer into smaller layers. For my 3 layer cakes, I typically bake separate layers, but for this, I simply bake the 2 layers, then cut in half once chilled.
In the instructions, you’ll see that I brush the tops of each layer with a bit of coffee and condensed milk before assembling. Don’t brush the bottoms of the baked cake layers as those will be the bottom and top of your assembled cake. You want to leave those dry to maintain the integrity of your cake board and make decorating easier. Trust me, just brushing the cut layers, you’ll get plenty of flavor. And the cake itself already has a good amount. We don’t play around with coffee here!
I hope you enjoy this recipe for a Vietnamese coffee layer cake!
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 2 sticks (16 tbsp) unsalted butter, softened
- 4 large eggs
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1 cup strong coffee
- 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1 tablespoon instant espresso powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 6 egg whites
- 40 tablespoons unsalted butter (5 standard sticks), softened
- 1 tablespoon instant espresso
- 2 tablespoons water
- 2 tablespoons condensed milk
- 1/2 cup strong coffee
- 1/2 cup condensed milk
- Preheat your oven to 350 F. Butter and flour 2 8" cake pans or place liners in 2 dozen cupcake wells. Set aside.
- Cream the sugar and butter together in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or with a hand mixer) until light and fluffy. Scrape the sides of the bowl.
- Add the eggs one at a time, scraping the bowl after each addition, then stir in the vanilla extract.
- In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
- Combine the buttermilk and coffee in a large measuring cup or medium bowl. Dissolve the espresso powder in the liquid
- Add about 2/3 c buttermilk mixture to the egg mixture, then stir in half the flour mixture, add another 2/3 cup buttermilk,, add the rest of the flour, then finish with the remaining buttermilk. The batter should be smooth, it is a little thick.
- Evenly distribute the batter between the pans.
- Bake 40-45 minutes for cake until a tester inserted in the center comes back clean.
- Remove from the oven. Allow the cakes to set for 10 minutes before turning cakes onto a cooling rack to cool completely, or wrapping in plastic wrap to refrigerate and chill before frosting.
Frosting and Filling the Cake
- Dissolve the espresso powder in the water and set aside.
- Place the sugar and egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer or a heatproof mixing bowl.
- Fit your stand mixer with the whisk attachment or have your hand mixer ready.
- Place some water in a saucepan, making sure that the water level isn't high enough to touch the bottom of your bowl. Bring the water to a simmer, then place the mixing bowl on top of the saucepan. Stir constantly until the sugar has completely dissolved, about 4-5 minutes.
- Once the sugar has dissolved, remove the top bowl from the heat immediately and start the mixer on low, working up to high speed. Keep going until the egg white/sugar mixture turns white. Be patient, this takes about 5 or so minutes.
- Add the butter 1 tbsp at a time, whisking continuously on high speed. If the mixture looks soupy, the egg whites were still too warm. Chill for 10-15 minutes and then whip again, or just let the mixer run another 5-10 minutes. If at some point the mixture starts to look curdled, don't worry about it, just keep mixing and it will become smooth in a minute or two.
- Add the dissolved espresso and condensed milk.
Assemble the Cake
- Take your chilled cake layers and level. Cut the leveled cake layers in half horizontally, so you have a total of four rounds of cake.
- Place your first cake layer - the bottom of one of your baked layers - on a cake round or cake plate. Brush the top with a layer of your strong coffee and a layer of condensed milk. Cover with frosting. Repeat with the remaining layers. Do not brush the very top of the cake.
- Cover the cake with the remaining frosting and enjoy!
- Leftover cake should be stored in the refrigerator in a cake box or cake dome, and allowed to sit at room temperature at least 20-30 minutes before serving so the frosting can soften.
- To get the two-toned look in the pictures, I added a little extra coffee to part of the frosting. The color you will see for your frosting when you make it is closer to the lighter tan.
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