Neapolitan Layer Cake

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As I was planning for my daughter’s 5th birthday party, I was eagerly awaiting the release of Donna Hay magazine’s annual kids’ issue.  Judging by the cover of the magazine, I would surely find something beautiful inside to make for my daughter’s birthday.  On the morning of the magazine’s release, I bought my copy and started flipping through the pages.  There were so many neat things, including the cover recipe for chocolate cups.  But I found what I wanted on page 115.  It was called a rainbow layer cake, but it looked more like neapolitan cake, with chocolate, pink and white layers, rather than a rainbow.  There was what looked to be a fluffy, white frosting in between the layers and all over the cake.  Dotting the frosting in 3 rings around the cake were pink and white mini marshmallows that had been cut in half.  It looked really beautiful and it looked exactly like something my daughter would love.  There’s a picture of the cake in the magazine at the bottom of this post.

I was a little skeptical about the cake to begin with.  One reason is because I have never had a good result from any recipe I’ve tried from Donna Hay.  I think the reason for this is that Donna Hay is a food stylist, not a chef!  Another reason I was skeptical about this cake is because the entire thing contains 750 grams, or 1.7 pounds, of butter.  That is a lot of butter.  Unfortunately, I still wanted to make it and my reasoning was that it was just a birthday cake, we don’t eat that much butter all the time!

I was also skeptical because the way this cake is made involves a method I have never used before.  Donna Hay calls it “melt and mix”.  250 grams of butter is melted, then the entire list of ingredients is dumped together into the mixing bowl at once and then mixed.  This is not the normal way to make cake.  This method is used in most of the birthday cake/cupcake recipes in Donna Hay’s kids’ magazine.  I want to say right now that I will never make a cake this way again!  There are definitely other things I want to try in the magazine, but I will be using my own favorite cake recipes instead of Donna Hay’s.

The rest of the butter, 500 grams, is then used to make the frosting.  This method of making the frosting is pretty average, except that it involves an extremely long beating time.  First, the butter is beat for 6-8 minutes, or until pale and creamy.  The icing/confectioners’ sugar is then added, along with some vanilla and milk, and then the frosting is beat for 10-15 minutes, or until light and fluffy.  My frosting started out fine, and tasted fine.

But….. I’m going to mostly blame the problem of the frosting on how cold it is in Sydney.  Since a lot of houses do not have central air conditioning/heating in Sydney, it is often quite cold in the house.  Most mornings in our house start out at about 14C, or 57F.  As you could imagine, it is difficult to get softened butter when making cake, cookies or frosting!  Anyhow, because at this temperature butter likes to stay quite solid, my finished frosting refused to stay light and fluffy.  The frosting started to turn yellowish (perhaps because there was 500 grams of butter in it!) and became quite difficult to spread as it hardened up due to the cold ambient temperature.  The frosting was also very, very greasy (again, because of the butter) and left a thick layer of greasiness on whatever touched it, including our fingers.

The photo below shows the yellowness of the frosting, yet it should have been bright white.

What I first noticed about the cake itself is that the layers didn’t rise very much in the oven.  So my cake wasn’t very high and I couldn’t get 3 rings of marshmallows around the cake (although I could have, but by the time I had gotten around to putting the marshmallows on the frosting I was too disappointed to continue!).  As I cut into the cake, I noticed how dense it was and how it didn’t even produce crumbs.  The cocoa powder and pink food coloring I had stirred into portions of the batter had obviously not gotten thoroughly mixed because there were still small lumps of white batter baked into the pink and chocolate parts of the cake (as seen in the photo below).  The taste was not bad, although I would still consider it below mediocre.  The kids didn’t eat even half of their slice of cake.

Luckily the cake didn’t ruin the party – I also had a cupcake decorating station, ham and butter heart-shaped sandwiches, carrot matchsticks and cucumber wedges.  The girls played with My Little Pony, watched a My Little Pony movie and played outside.  My daughter got some neat presents that she was so happy with, she even took some to sleep with her in bed that night!

I love the look of the cake in the Donna Hay magazine, and while I won’t ever be using any “melt and mix” cake recipe or vanilla frosting from that magazine, I would love to try to replicate the cake with my own recipes.  I’d like to try a much lighter cake recipe firstly, but the biggest change would be the frosting.  I’d prefer to use an egg white-based frosting with no butter to get a lovely, soft marshmallowy flavor and texture.  I think my changes could produce a much better result.

You could just say that this whole cake problem was my fault – I must have done something wrong.  But I truly don’t think so.  I’m no stranger to making cakes, as you can see just by looking through my recipes, and most of my cakes and cupcakes always turn out just fine.  What I’d like to know though is if anyone else tries this particular recipe (posted below), or any of the “melt and mix” cake recipes in Donna Hay’s kids’ magazine, please let me know how it works for you.

Basic Melt And Mix Rainbow Cake
Adapted from Donna Hay magazine’s kids’ issue 2010
Makes one 20cm (8-inch) 3-layer cake, serves 8-10

2 1/2 cups (375g) plain (all-purpose) flour, sifted
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder, sifted
1 3/4 cups (275g) caster (superfine) sugar
250g unsalted butter, melted
4 eggs
1 1/2 cups (375ml) milk
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
1/4 teaspoon pink food coloring
2 tablespoons cocoa, sifted

Preheat oven to 160C (325F).  Place flour, baking powder, sugar, butter, eggs, milk and vanilla in a large bowl and mix until well combined.  Divide the mixture into 3 equal portions.  Set aside 1 portion.  Place the second portion in a bowl with the pink food coloring and stir to combine.  In another bowl, mix to combine the third portion with the cocoa.  Pour into 3 lightly greased and lined 20cm round cake tins and bake for 40-50 minutes or until cooked when tested with a skewer.  Cool in tins for 5 minutes before turning onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Basic Vanilla Butter Icing
Adapted from Donna Hay magazine’s kids’ issue 2010
Makes enough for one 20cm (8-inch) 3-layer cake

500g unsalted butter, softened
4 cups (640g) icing (confectioner’s) sugar
4 tablespoons milk
2 teaspoons vanilla essence

Place the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat for 6-8 minutes or until pale and creamy.  Add the icing sugar, vanilla and milk and beat for a further 10-15 minutes or until light and fluffy.


mini marshmallows, halved, to decorate

Starting with the chocolate layer, spread a quarter of the vanilla icing over the cake using a palette knife.  Top with the pink layer of cake, ice with another quarter of the icing and finish with the vanilla layer, using the remaining icing to ice the whole cake.

Decorate the sides of the cake with the marshmallows.  This is how it should look:

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  1. says

    I have used melted butter before but never with all the ingredients at once like that. It seems like the recipe was made to appeal to a mass market of people who just want to make an easy/fast cake instead of a delicious cake.

    I’m glad that it didn’t ruin the party!

  2. says

    Oh I think your cake looks fantastic! I know about the frosting situation. Our house is super cold in the winter and super hot in the summer. We have no central heating or AC either and I’ve turned out some doozy frosting jobs. However, yours is beautiful!

  3. Kell says

    Of course we can’t rule out the possibility that the white balance has been altered to make the icing look all nice and snowy….

  4. says

    That’s a very beautiful rainbow cake! Would make an awesome birthday cake, especially for kids. Thanks very much for sharing.

  5. Ann says

    Donna Hay recipes do not appeal to me at all. I would not waste ingredients on making anything of hers. Her photography is to die for though.
    However, I think you did a lovely job and I bet your daughter just loved it.
    I make a melt and mix chocolate cake which is pretty good. It’s an old Cadbury cocoa recipe.

  6. says

    I’ve read that other people have good experience with Donna Hay recipes, but maybe this one was simply a dud. And even the crumb in their photo looks pretty tight. As for the frosting, I’m a bit perplexed because it looks like a fairly standard recipe for buttercream to me. Was your butter very yellow? Regardless, your cake still looks great! Sounds like you worked hard and threw a delightful party for your girl. I’m sure she had a great bday :).

  7. says

    Awww=( I’m so sorry this recipe did not work out for you! It really does look nice though. It might be worth while to see if you could recreate the cake somehow using your own methods. Sorry it had to be so frustrating!

  8. says

    I’m sorry the recipe was so disappointing for you. It definitely has curb appeal though ~ it’s beautiful! If you give it another try using your own cake and frosting recipes, I hope you’ll post so we can hear your comparisons.

  9. Mel R says

    I’ve not tried out this cake yet. Although reading this I would probably opt for basic vanilla type cakes to make and then dye it the colours I want (apart from the chocolate).

    Icings are a big fail of mine so I never get that right anyway!

  10. AshleaG says

    Ah yes. The old ‘Beautiful looking Donna Hay cake that turns into a complete disaster’ trick. I think you hit the nail on the head by saying that she is a food stylist. Although in Donna’s defence, every savoury Donna Hay recipe I have made has worked perfectly and been delicious. But baking is tricky and takes more skill than just ‘melt this huge amount of butter and chuck everything else in with it’. My attempted Donna Hay cake was very similar to this one except it also had about 12 eggs in it. So even though I was super careful about gently folding everything together, it turned out more like a dense, heavy, eggy buttery mess than a pretty white three layered ‘rainbow’ cake with frothy white icing. It was a disappointing (and expensive) experience. :(
    Nice to know someone else feels my pain though.

  11. says

    Everything Xiaolu at 6Bittersweet said – ie. the original cake’s crumb looks pretty heavy to me as well, so I doubt you messed it up. Just a weird recipe – maybe designed to get non-bakers, or people used to box mixes, into doing it from scratch…?
    But the frosting sounds like a fairly standard buttercream to me, too… Mind you, I’ve never seen an all-butter buttercream that white before…hmm…
    Anyway, you know what? With DIY cupcakes on offer, your cake could have been the best one in the world, and I bet the kids would still have gone for the cuppies! :)

  12. Tammy Simpson says

    Hi have just read your post…
    I make buttercream icing all the time (check Tams Cakes -facebook fan page) and i have never ever put milk OR vanilla in it… the Vanilla would send it yellow and not let it keep the whiteness… and the recipe doesnt seem to have enough icing sugar to butter ratio? But thats just my assumption by looking at the recipe list and your remarks on butter greasiness..
    I would def write to the magazine and ask Donna Hay… just doesnt sound right… and if you do get a reply from them please post it up… Just a thought would love to know as their cake looks perfect… and judjing by your page your a cake expert…

  13. Laura says

    I’m so glad it wasn’t just me! I tried the plain vanilla cake from the exact same issue and I had all the same problems. Heavy, stodgy and greasy. I was going to trim the top off to taste it and then ice the rest. I didn’t even bother to ice it and my son – the cake lover – let it fall out of his mouth. Beautiful to look at, but that’s about it. I thought maybe if I cream the butter and sugar next time instead of melting it all, but then I figured bugger it, I have plenty of other nice cake recipes. The brownies from that issue were nice though – instead of icing them I put in white and dark choc bits – brownies should require no icing! But once again, it was a little bit too buttery (50grams less would have been good).

  14. elizabeth says

    you could just buy white, chocolate, and strawberry cake mix from the grocery store and make it that way. This is what I dod for my BF’s Birthday and it turned out beautiful and delicious! I decorated it with white frosting and sprinkles. I am going to be making it very often. Its so yummy. Oh and I also served it with neopolitan ice cream. Yumm!

  15. astracho says

    Well I have just made 3 cakes in 28cm pans to cater for 35 children and funnily enough mine feel very heavy and dense….. not feeling very confident about beating the icing….. my party is on sunday and am considering icing today (saturday) and leaving overnight outside of fridge?

  16. Corinne says

    I have made several Donny Hay cake recipes for my childrens birthday cake, and they always turn out heavy and dense. Just this morning I thought I would make the easy mix cupcakes for his party this afternoon and they have turned out heavy and dense as well. I will not make another Donny Hay cake, I glad I’m not the only one, I did think what am I doing wrong!


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