A Gluten Free White Cake with Italian Meringue Buttercream Frosting – how mistakes can lead to wonderful things….

by Irvin on August 16, 2010 · 14 comments

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Lauren of Celiac Teen over on Twitter had asked her friends about their biggest kitchen disaster. I’ve been lucky that I had very few huge mistakes (but loads of minor to medium ones), but I’m sure there are many more huge mistakes to come. The one that immediately came to mind was a cake I made right before I moved to San Francisco. Though the recipe for the Gluten Free White cake with Italian Meringue Buttercream Frosting at the end of this post isn’t exactly what I made back then, it existence wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t learned a little bit about baking and frosting from my mistakes.

Just FYI, not a mistake.

It was the fall of 1997. I had broken up with my boyfriend (my first boyfriend, the first boy I had ever kissed, yes that one) three months earlier and I had moved into my parent’s basement to reassess what I wanted to do with my life.

Strangely, nearly 13 years later, I still don’t know what I want to do with my life. But at least I no longer live in my parent’s basement. I tell myself that is an improvement.

My birthday was coming up, and though a large number of my friends had moved away from St. Louis (and I was plotting my escape as well) I still had a few friends who lived there. Friends from childhood and friends who I’ve know for a very long time. Most of whom I’m still in touch with to this day (thank you Facebook)

Various friends and a few significant others that they are no longer with.

So I invited a few of them over for a little birthday celebration. And with that birthday celebration I decided to bake myself a cake. My friend Stephanie thought it was wrong that I was baking my own birthday cake, but I disagreed. This cake, I was baking, wasn’t going to be just ANY cake. It was going to be a spectacular cake. An AMAZING cake. A cake for EVERYONE to remember. One to celebrate not only who I was, but who I was going to become…

I’ve always had ambition when it comes to baking. More importantly (I thought) I had spunk. I was determined to make a cake to celebrate my singlehood, my newfound independence, and the fact that I had a plan – to save up money and move out that sparkly big city of San Francisco which I had visited a few months earlier.

Me on Ocean Beach in San Francisco circa 1997

So I baked a four layer cake. Two layers of white cake. Two layers of chocolate devil food cake. Chocolate AND vanilla buttercream. A cake to tower over all over other cakes.

Boy I didn’t know what I was doing. I’ve made baking mistakes before. My friend Jill came over in grade school and I convinced her that we could bake chocolate chip cookies (I had made them dozens of times before). We used only egg yolks (which my mom inexplicably had in the fridge) instead of whole eggs and each cookie came out gooey, disgusting and unsalvageable. To this day, I’m sure Jill thinks I can’t bake. I have distinct memories of throwing a dinner party (one of the very few dinner parties I’ve ever had with my ex-boyfriend – yes the same ex that I mentioned before) and mistakenly added three tablespoons of cinnamon to a carrot cake instead of three teaspoons. The cake was utterly inedible. And that’s sad because my carrot cake is fairly legendary (well, legendary amongst a small but elite circle who have had the pleasure of tasting it).

But this cake was kind of a disaster; it was the sort of cake that you would find in a Dr. Seuss book (and that’s not really a compliment).

It's the sheer ridiculousness of the cake that caused me to smile.

The cake layers hadn’t cooled enough by the time I started frost it. So they started to slide all over the place. I wasn’t really well versed on making frosting and I hadn’t made enough of the chocolate buttercream, and too much of the vanilla so I improvised and frosted the top with the vanilla. And the cake, well the cake was pretty spectacular looking. Spectacularly lopsided and ridiculous.
But I made it, and my friends ate it and politely told me that they loved it. In fact, I kinda think they DID love it. It was absurd in the sort of way that I am, slightly off kilter, and not perfect. And, in fact, though the cake was a fail, I kind of loved it. Because I was in a place in my life where I needed to try new things. Try ambitious things. And the only way you learn is by failing. I still believe that.

It’s funny how you can go into the kitchen hundreds or thousands of times and make a great meal, wonderful dessert or simple but satisfying snack. But it’s always the failures you remember most. My mom, who doesn’t really like to cook, is most known in our family for her infamous attempt at making clam chowder. We don’t talk about the hundreds of times that she makes sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves, or the steamed pork buns that she made from scratch (yes, those pork buns you get at dim sum, I grew up with them at home on a regular basis), or my favorite soup, the one that I’ve NEVER found in any other restaurant because it’s a traditional Taiwanese soup and even when I eat at Taiwanese restaurants they don’t have it (it’s seasoned with black vinegar, dark and light soy sauce, and has fat chunks of tender bamboo tips, and sliced pork coated in a ground fish paste). My mom has tried to teach me how to make it numerous times, but I’ve never really learned it. Perhaps next time I go back home, I’ll make her show me one more time.

My older brother, my mom and me. Note how I was clearly always a fashion plate.

But it’s the mistakes that we talk about. The clam chowder. The one that too salty, too thin, too clammy briny (I think she put the entire can in without draining the clams). And that’s a shame. Because it’s the wonderful homemade food I grew up that made me who I am now. It’s the craft and the time spent in the kitchen and the dinners we had together as a family that help form my identity. And that’s what we don’t talk about.

In my head that Dr. Seussian birthday cake is my clam chowder. Not because my friends talk about it (I’m sure they don’t even remember it the way I do). It’s because I know that despite the ugly, lopsided cake that it was, I tried, and it wasn’t THAT bad. And I’ll try again. And again. And eventually I’ll figure it all out. And I’ll learn a heck of a lot in the meanwhile. It’s the flaws that make us interesting, human, have character, gives us depth. And one look at that cake…well I dare ANYONE to tell it’s not one darn interesting looking cake, one that is fully of character!

The Golden Gate Bridge. I walked across it when I visited back in 1997. Haven't walked across it since then.

I did eventually save up enough money to move out to San Francisco. I met a wonderful man, and we live in a teeny tiny apartment in one of the best neighborhoods in San Francisco and have a close circle of friends that mean the world to me. Every time I look at him, and think about my life, I think to myself “How they hell did I get so lucky?”

Just FYI, this is back when I was skinny.

A year after I moved to San Francisco I threw another party, where I made paella (vegetarian and seafood), gazpacho, a green salad with homemade balsamic vinagrette and baked polenta. I also baked a bunch of cookies, brownies and a couple of cake. I wasn’t as ambitious with the cakes, instead keeping them to two layers each. And I cooled it all the way. It was a hit at the party, where people were afraid to even cut into it. And it was at that party I realized that I was always going to throw dessert parties and skip the hot savory food, because I could prepare the food beforehand and actually enjoy the party, not stand over the stove in the kitchen the entire time trying to make food for the guests.

Me cooking away with my friend Peter at our party.

The very first dessert spread I had at my very first party I hosted in San Francisco.

I’m getting ready to figure out the logistics of another dessert party, scheduled sometime in September. This will be my twelfth year in San Francisco throwing dessert parties. AJ and I don’t know the details yet. But if you’re in the San Francisco Bay area, let me know. Maybe I’ll send you an invite. Hopefully there won’t be any more kitchen disasters before the party (though, in truth, there’s usually at least one). But if there are, I’ll view it as a learning experience. And I’m sure it’ll make great blogger fodder for a later date.

That's the GF white cake with italian meringue buttercream on the bottom left corner.


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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Lauren August 16, 2010 at 8:37 pm

I can't explain how much I love this post! The memories, the fails, and everything else (my mom's infamous dish is baking soda biscuits rather than baking powder. No one talks about the other times of perfectly done meat and effortlessly made dishes). This cake looks spectacular – one day I would love to come to a dessert party and I would be there early with Kim to get a slice :). Thank you so much for joining in!


Julie @ Willow Bird Baking August 17, 2010 at 5:27 pm

Such a sweet post!


Amanda on Maui August 18, 2010 at 12:26 am

Is all of the icing used? It looks like so much!


Mr. Jackhonky August 18, 2010 at 6:24 am

@Lauren. Thanks so much for the inspiration for the post! If your ever in the SF Bay Area, let me know, you are welcome to the party! I usually bake about five or six gluten free things…with secret codes in the labels for my friend Kim so she knows which ones she can eat. It's fun!

@Julie. Thank you! I'm assuming you intentionally used the word "sweet" as a pun.

@Amanda. There's usually some frosting leftover. However when I'm feeling fancy, I use some of it as a crumb coat for the cake to make it look all pretty. But I'm usually not that fancy.

The leftovers (usually it's about a cup leftover) is great to bring with you if you travel with the cake. It's always good to have a little extra leftover for that emergency patch kit if something goes awry. I could go on and on about various things that have happened to my cakes when I travel with them to friends houses…


petoke August 18, 2010 at 6:42 am

This takes me back, man. It was so exciting to visit you up in SF when you had just moved there. I remember being super impressed by your cake on its fancy glass cake stand.


Mr. Jackhonky August 18, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Ahhh… The fancy cake stand. Sadly that was my roommate not mine. I have a few other cake stands, but nothing as fancy as that one…


Rita August 19, 2010 at 10:32 pm

Me likey this post. Those photos from our early San Francisco years . . . they're like old friends. We loved them at the time, but I didn't know how babyfaced we looked! Or, you, anyway. I didn't know that until this blog. (I always looked the way I look now.)



Melmcward October 23, 2011 at 7:03 am

Can you use this recipe for cupcakes or bunt cakes?


Irvin October 23, 2011 at 10:11 pm

Sadly, I have never converted the recipe for cupcakes or bundt cake. But I imagine that it would convert pretty well at least to cupcakes. Try baking them in muffins tins, fitted with cupcake paper liners, and check with a toothpick after 20 minutes to 25 minutes. Again, I’ve never made them, so they make take longer, but in theory it should be fine.

Bundt cakes might be harder, because of the way the pan is shaped. But if you do try it, I would bake it for approximately the same amount of time 35 to 40 minutes and then check every 5 to 10 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean from the center. Good luck and let me know what happens if you do!


michele September 9, 2012 at 8:48 am

Maestro Irvin,

Thank you for your wonderful, witty, funny, emotional and wacky blog!… I get such a kick out of reading it and last but definitely not least thank you for your gluten free recipes which I track eagerly. My only request would be if you could find a healthy substitute for white sugar which gives me horrible migraines.

Keep up the good work!


Tim November 27, 2012 at 11:35 am

Hi Irvin,

I was recently asked if I would bake a gluten-free birthday cake for a teenage girl, a relative of a relative who has celiac. The only flavor preference stated was “vanilla.” So I googled and found your site and made this cake as a test (the birthday is in December) since I had never made a gluten-free cake before. It turned out fantastic! Everybody raved about it. The girl’s older sister said it tasted like “real” cake unlike many of the GF things she had tasted. So, thanks very much for this!

One thing I did wonder: Do you think the frosting would still be OK if I cut the butter from five sticks to four? It was really buttery and rich, which is not a bad thing, but I wouldn’t have minded it tasting just a tad sweeter. I thought maybe the butter was covering up some of the sweet taste.

I’m really enjoying all the other stuff on the site too. I laughed at that story about all the flours you have and how AJ made you put them in boxes so they didn’t fall over!

Thanks again!


Jen March 27, 2014 at 10:18 am

I just wanted to stop by and thank you for your delicious cake recipe. I have tried many different white/yellow cakes and this is the best yet. My mom always makes me a white cake for my birthday and now that I have two celiacs in our house who also love white cake I have been searching for the perfect recipe. I wanted to try to make your recipe into a white cake so I replace the 4 whole eggs with 6 egg whites and had wonderful results. Thanks again for the great recipe!



Irvin March 28, 2014 at 3:20 pm

Hi Jen! I’m so glad you liked the recipe it and it worked out for you! Using the egg whites instead of the whole eggs sounds like a great way to convert it to a white cake. Thanks for stopping by!


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