Cranberry Spice Layer Cake has all the flavors of the holiday wrapped up into one cream cheese-frosted confection.
I’m hosting Thanksgiving this year, which puts me right in my element. I just love planning a big holiday feast for my family and friends. This is the first time I’ve hosted in years, as it’s usually held at my parent’s home. But since my dad had a stroke last July, my folks already have plenty on their plates. (He’s in rehab, on the mend, and we couldn’t be more thankful!)
So, with the 2022 Turkey Day baton passed to me, I’m planning the menu well in advance. This cake is the most recent from the test kitchen, and it’s a winner! Truly. Every bite is filled with flavors of fall and winter holidays. I believe this cake recipe could be your go-to for both Thanksgiving and Christmas Day dinners – perhaps beyond!
The cake batter.
Forget any preconceived notions about what a spice cake should be (such as dark, molasses-rich, and hotly spiced). This batter is light – both in color and flavor. Buttermilk gives this fluffy batter tang while suspending ground cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg throughout.
The cranberry filling.
Start with 2 cups of cranberries – fresh or frozen (I used the latter) and stir them up with sugar, orange zest, orange juice, and a cornstarch slurry. Cook the mixture until the cranberries start to pop and a thick, shiny, slightly translucent filling is formed. Remove from the heat, and to the cooked mixture add more chopped cranberries. This addition gives the filling a touch more tart flavor. Finish it by stirring 2 tablespoons of butter into the hot mixture.
The butter adds richness and silky texture – don’t skip this step!
Transfer the filling to a bowl and let it cool, then place plastic wrap on the surface of the cranberry filling, wrap, and refrigerate until well chilled.
Build the cake.
Begin with a spice cake layer, then pipe a ring of cream cheese frosting around the outer edge. (This is the same frosting from my family’s favorite Italian Cream Cake). Place half of the filling inside the ring and spread evenly.
Apply more cream cheese frosting the cake’s exterior and spread evenly. Chill the cake well – the frosting should be firm for the next steps.
A little sparkle, and some piping too!
Ok – so, this can be an optional step, but it’s so pretty – especially for Christmas. Coarse crystal sugar gives the cake’s exterior a glittering, almost snowy appearance. Spray the set frosting with a little sugar syrup and then pat on the sugar with your hands. Be sure to watch the video at the end of this post to see how it’s done. You can also roll the cake in the sugar, which can be seen in action in the video here in my Peach Ring Cake post.
Pipe some simple scroll work on top using the remaining frosting and a small closed star piping tip (such as Wilton #32). It doesn’t have to be elaborate. Just do a few cursive-inspired swirls.
I opted for simple, natural-looking decors. Fresh cranberries, candied orange peel, and fresh rosemary sprigs all are easy to place around the top edge of the cake without a lot of fuss. And it gives the cake loads of holiday appeal!
The cranberry filling gives balance to the sweet cream cheese frosting. And there’s just enough warm spices in the cake batter to make this confection feel nice and cozy.
I’m just so excited to share this Cranberry Spice Layer Cake with all of you – I only wish I could hand out slices personally!
Cranberry Layer Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
- 2 1/2 cups fresh or frozen whole cranberries divided
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon orange zest from 1 orange
- 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice from 1 orange
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 2 tablespoon cold water
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 4 large eggs at room temperature
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon fine grain sea salt or table salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 1/2 cups buttermilk at room temperature
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Cream cheese frosting
- 16 oz. cream cheese at room temperature
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
- 8 cups confectioners’ sugar 2 lbs.
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons clear corn syrup
- 2-3 tablespoons water
- 1 cup coarse crystal sugar
- 1/2 cup whole fresh cranberries
- 12 pieces candied orange peel about 1/4 cup
- 2 large stems fresh rosemary
Chop 1/2 cup of the whole cranberries and set aside.
Place the remaining 2 cups of cranberries, the sugar, orange zest, and orange zest in a medium saucepan. In a separate small bowl stir together the cornstarch and water. Add the cornstarch mixture to the pan and stir.
Cook over medium heat until the cranberries begin to pop and the mixture bubbles (about 5-6 minutes). When the mixture is thick, shiny, and translucent, add the 1/2 cup chopped cranberries and the butter to the pan. Stir until the butter is melted. Let cool about 30 minutes, then transfer to a bowl. Cover the filing with plastic wrap touching the surface (see video) and refrigerate until set, 4 hours or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 350F. Coat three 8-inch round cake pans with flour-based baking spray (or grease and flour pans).
In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter until creamy. Slowly add in the 2 cups of sugar while the mixer runs. When the mixture is light and fluffy, add the eggs 1 at a time.
In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. Add this mixture to the creamed mixture alternately with the buttermilk, beating on low speed. Begin and end with flour. Finally, mix in the vanilla extract.
Divide the batter evenly between the three cake pans and bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick tester inserted near the center comes out clean. Turn the cakes out onto wire racks and cool completely before frosting.
Cream cheese frosting
Cream together the cream cheese and butter in the bowl of an electric mixer. Add the powdered sugar in two additions. Beat until smooth. Add vanilla extract. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and beat again until combined.
Remove about 1/2 cup of the frosting to a piping bag fitted with a small star tip. Fill a second piping bag with frosting, fitted with a 1/2-inch round piping tip (or just snip a 1/2 inch hole in the bag with scissors). Cover any remaining frosting in the bowl with a damp towel to keep it from drying out while you work.
Place a cake layer on a serving plate or cake stand. Pipe a ring of frosting around the top edge of the cake. Fill the circle with half of the cranberry filing. Stack another cake layer on top and repeat the process, using the second half of the cranberry filling. Top with the third cake layer. Apply a thin crumb coat of frosting to the outside of the cake. Refrigerate until set, about 15 minutes. Cover the cake with the remaining frosting. Smooth top and sides using a cake smoother or bench scraper. Chill until set, about 1 hour.
Add the corn syrup and water to a small kitchen-dedicated spray bottle, screw on the top and shake to mix. Spray set frosting surface all over with the sugar syrup. Let stand 2 minutes to get sticky. Gently pat the coarse sugar onto the cake on all sides and the top. Lightly brush away excess sugar from the top of the cake.
Using the reserved piping bag fitted with the star tip, pipe a looping scroll of frosting on the top edge of the cake. (I can best describe as free-hand cursive-inspired loops, see video.) Sprinkle the scroll work with leftover coarse sugar.
Arrange fresh cranberries, orange peel, and little tufts of fresh rosemary around the scroll work on top of the cake.
Store the cake in the refrigerator. Bring the cake to room temperature before serving.
- The cake layers can be made in advance and frozen. Wrap the layers well in plastic wrap and place them in freezer bags with the air removed.
- If you don’t have a spray bottle handy to apply the sugar syrup, mix the syrup and water in a bowl and apply it to the set frosting with a pastry brush.
- The candied orange peel I purchased came in chunky strips, so I cut them down with a paring knife to finer ribbons. I recommend doing this if your candied peel is also quite thick.