To date, my biggest hit on this site has been my hidden rainbow cake. Apparently, my readers appreciate cute childhood symbols just as much as I do! But, would it surprise you if I told you that cake wasn’t the first ‘hidden…’ cake I came up with? In fact, the idea for it came from a cake I had made last year, before this buttermilk blog was a thing.
I have always had a deep appreciation for cherry blossom trees, before I had actually seen them. I owned cherry blossom shaped jewelry and decorative pieces as I loved the symbolism they represented (the evolution of the tree, and how fleeting time can be). When my husband and I moved to DC and I got to see them in person, I was in total awe of the trees and have been every year since. By now you’d think that because I get to see hundreds of trees every April my enthusiasm would have died down, but it only seems to grow!
People go crazy for DC blossoms - even us locals. The city is bathed in pink, and rare is the onlooker who can resist taking photos or going for a walk around the tidal basin. We know there are millions of tourists and yet we’ll still pack up a picnic and brave the traffic to enjoy the onset of spring. Cafes, bars and restaurants often have cb themed drinks, sweets and other edibles (though most of them have nothing to do with sakura, and are just made of regular cherries lol - but I do love the festive spirit!).
Last year, I decided to hop on the bandwagon as I had gotten the idea to make a cake that looked like a cherry blossom tree from the inside. I think it stemmed from making too many funfetti cakes during that time and focusing so much on how the sprinkles distributed within the batter. At first go, I made a white cake with sakura extract, dragged around some chocolate batter to look like the branches and filled it with pink sprinkles to emulate scattered flowers and petals. I was amazed it worked out and I had this adorable cake! I didn’t know how to decorate it on the outside (because this is me, always thinking about the cake itself and not the outer design lol) but luckily I saw Hummingbird High’s cb cake and it looked simple enough for a novice decorator. Mine wasn’t as pretty as hers on the outside, as I expected, but I figured the inside made up for that. In some slices it even looked like a proper tree! Check out last year’s:
This year, I knew without hesitation I would make it again. And I would write it all down so you could make it too. In my quest to make it perfect, I did a loaf pan version, a layer cake, and a sheet cake. Obviously I am not obsessed, no not at all. Psh.
The very special part of this cake, the inside, is as easy as, well cake! You make a white cake batter, add pink sprinkles, make a teeny bit of chocolate batter and squiggle it around the pan, top it with more pink speckled batter and squiggle some more. Bake and then decorate as you please! For the layer cake, I leaned into my typical ‘not bothered for perfect decorating’ attitude and did a simple buttercream swirl, some painted petals and, while it’s not going to win any awards, I love the rustic look I got. For the sheet cake, I did something very similar, but made a water colored background (to emulate the tidal basin against which many of our trees grow) and drew a tree with simple petals on it (see end of post for photo). I think the idea of the tree is exquisite enough that you don’t have to fuss over making any part of your design perfect as it will still turn out beautiful.
cherry blossom cake
There are two different batters to be made here. I specifically did not increase my white batter and turn some of that into chocolate (as you would a marbled cake) as I wanted a thicker chocolate batter that would be separate from the white and hold shape in the baking process.
I use sakura essence in the cake and in the buttercream, you might find it in local Japanese stores or you can order it on amazon. It is flowery and lovely and pairs beautifully with pure vanilla.
This makes more chocolate batter than you’ll realistically need to make the ‘branches’ but I found I couldn’t cut it beyond one egg yolk. You’ll have a bit leftover depending on how many squiggles you do.
The recipe below makes two 6” round cake layers. If you want to do the sheet pan version, increase the white batter by half (so total of 1 1/2 cups ap flour, 1 1/2 cups cake flour, etc.) and decrease the baking time; check for doneness at 25 minutes for sheet pan.
I don’t give exact measurements for how much batter to add before you do the squiggles because I haven’t found it necessary, and because it will depend on how many branch-like lines you want in the cake. What you’ll try to do is layer the squiggly chocolate batter between white cake batter. Want just a few like in my cake from last year? Layer chocolate squiggles between 2-3 layers of white batter. Want a lot like in my layer cake above? Add only a few spoonfuls, smooth down, add squiggles, add more batter…etc. keep going until you are out of white cake batter.
To decorate big petals like I did on the layer cake, use the back of an offset spatula to gently swipe buttercream onto the cake. To do the smaller ones like on my sheet pan version use a petal piping tip and draw an upside down tear drop.
A number of people have asked me for substitutes for the coconut oil. If your objection is based on taste, I can assure you that it doesn’t come through (I myself hate the raw taste). What the coconut oil does is provide a moisture replacement to the lost egg yolks, and then some. It’s honestly fantastic in a white cake and gives it this wonderfully light and tender finish, don’t have a suggested replacement for it. If you can’t use it for food sensitivity reasons I’d suggest finding another white cake batter - but I obviously can’t guarantee results.
Check out my instagram highlights here for some other versions of this cake.
chocolate tree branch batter:
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup sugar
1 egg yolk
⅓ cup all purpose flour
1 ½ tablespoons dutch process cocoa
¼ teaspoon baking soda
½ cup buttermilk
1/2 tsp vanilla
beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. add the egg yolk, baking soda and vanilla and beat for a few more minutes. Sift in the flour and cocoa, add the buttermilk and stir until just combined. Set aside. When it is time to build the cake, put some of this batter in a small piping bag.
white cake batter:
3/4 cup butter, unsalted and at room temperature
1 1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ teaspoon sakura essence
1/4 cup coconut oil
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3 egg whites
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup cake flour
2/3 cup low-fat buttermilk, at room temperature
1/2 cup pink sprinkles
Preheat oven to 325. Butter and flour two 6” cake pans.
beat butter, sugar and coconut oil together until light and fluffy - about 5 minutes. Add egg whites one at a time, beating for a good 2 minutes after each addition. Scrape down bowl. Add the salt, vanilla, sakura extract, and baking powder and beat well. Scrape down bowl. Sift in flours, fold a bit with a spatula so it doesn’t make a mess when you turn the mixer back on, and with mixer on low, slowly pour in buttermilk. Mix until just combined. Fold in pink sprinkles and ensure all batter is homogeneous by scraping the bottom.
To build the cake:
Add some of batter to the bottom of each pan (see note above for how much) and smooth it down. Grab your piping bag with the chocolate batter and snip off a small hole. You’ll squiggle (this is the best word I can think of to describe it, see pic to the right) it around the batter, shaking it as you go and overlapping (don’t make straight lines) so that it kind of looks like branches that are intertwined. Add more white batter, smooth the top down very gently without disturbing the squiggles and pipe more squiggly lines. Repeat until white batter is all used between two pans.
Bake for 35-40 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes in the pan and then invert onto a cooling rack.
Sakura Vanilla Buttercream
1 cup butter, unsalted and at room temperature
2 ½ cups organic powdered sugar
1 tablespoon heavy whipping cream or milk
¼ teaspoon sakura
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
beat butter until very light in color, about 7 minutes. Add the vanilla, sakura and salt and beat to combine. Sift in powdered sugar and beat until combined and fluffy. Add cream or milk and beat to combine.