RECIPES: A cake worth the buzz

Bee-themed toppings swarm this honeycomb pastry

Beehive Cake is frosted in a honey buttercream and decorated with marzipan bees. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)

With its classical skep shape and cute little stingless bees, there is perhaps no better cake to celebrate the arrival of spring, a baby shower or Easter than this delightful beehive cake from "Zoë Bakes Cakes" by Zoë François.

In the book — which is filled with dozens of cake recipes and luscious photographs — François prepares it using banana cake and walnut-praline buttercream filling. It's also delicious made with François' yellow cake and almond-praline buttercream.

In addition to the swarm of easy-to-make, whimsical marzipan bees adorning it, this buzz-worthy cake's buttercream frosting gets a sweet sting of flavor from honey rather than refined sugar. By varying the type of honey used, you can control how strong the flavor is; wildflower, buckwheat or heather honey will give the buttercream a strong flavor, while clover, orange blossom, Tupelo honey or a blended version like Fischer's are good bets if a milder flavor is desired.

You'll need two 8-inch round cake pans and an 8-inch, oven-safe metal bowl to form the skep shape of this cake; for frosting and decorating, gather a thermometer, food-safe paint brushes (I used a new eye makeup brush), wooden picks or skewers, cotton swabs, offset spatulas and a rotating cake decorating stand.

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Beehive Cake

  • 1 batch cake batter for a 3-layer cake such as Banana Cream Cake or Yellow Cake (recipes follow)
  • For the bees:
  • About 1 ounce marzipan or almond paste
  • Black gel food coloring
  • Gold luster dust, optional
  • Yellow gel food coloring
  • ¼ cup sliced almonds
  • For the filling and frosting:
  • 2 batches Honey Buttercream (recipe follows)
  • 1 batch Crushed Praline (recipe follows)

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Generously grease 2 (8-inch) round cake pans and then line with parchment paper. Grease and flour an 8-inch metal bowl.

Divide batter among the prepared pans and bowl, smoothing tops with an offset spatula.

Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until a tester inserted near the center comes out clean. The bowl might take several minutes longer to bake than the pans. Let the cakes cool completely.

Marzipan bees (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)
Marzipan bees (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)

Meanwhile, make the marzipan bees. Divide the marzipan into 12 pieces. Roll each piece between your fingers to make a ½-inch cylinder. Taper one end slightly to create a bee shape. Using a food-safe paintbrush or wooden pick, paint two or three black stripes around each piece of marzipan. Let the stripes dry and then, using a clean brush or cotton swab, paint yellow food color or luster dust between the stripes. If using food color, let the bees dry before proceeding. Press a sliced almond into the each side of each bee to create wings. Put the finished bees on wooden picks or small skewers and set aside. (I found it easier to brush the luster dust on first and then paint the black stripes.)

Divide the buttercream between two bowls.

In a food processor, pulverize the praline until there are small bits about the size of pine nuts, but not as fine as a powder. Add the crushed praline to one bowl of buttercream and mix well.

Stir a few drops yellow food color into the remaining buttercream and mix well.

Invert one of the cake rounds onto a serving plate or cake stand; place the plate on a spinning cake turner, if desired.

Using an offset spatula, spread half of the praline buttercream over the cake, making sure you spread it all the way to the edge. Place the second round on top and spread with the remaining praline buttercream. Remove the round cake baked in the bowl — trim the flat side if necessary — and place it round side up on top.

Transfer about 1 cup of the yellow-tinted buttercream to a small bowl. Use it to do a crumb coat on the cake. Spread it in a very thin and even layer over the sides and top of the cake. Refrigerate the cake for 20 to 30 minutes.

Using the remaining yellow-tinted buttercream, spread a thick layer all over the cake. Using a small icing spatula, starting at the top of the cake, create a spiral by slowly spinning the cake turner and moving the spatula downward.

Decorate the cake as desired using the marzipan bees.

Cake will keep, covered, at room temperature for 2 to 3 days.

Makes about 16 servings.

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Banana Cream Cake

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 ¼ cups granulated sugar
  • 2 ¼ teaspoons baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¾ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 cups mashed very ripe bananas (about 4 large)
  • ¾ cup mild flavored oil
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 3 eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts, optional

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the mashed bananas, oil, vanilla and eggs.

Add the wet ingredients to the flour mixture and stir until just combined.

In a third bowl, whip cream to medium peaks.

Using a rubber spatula, fold the whipped cream into the batter. Fold in nuts, if using.

Divide batter among the prepared pan(s), smoothing tops with an offset spatula.

Bake at 350-degrees for 30 to 45 minutes or until a tester inserted near the center comes out clean.

Makes enough batter for 3 (8-inch) layers or 1 (9-by-13-inch) sheet cake.

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Yellow Cake

  • 8 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
  • ½ cup mild-flavored vegetable oil
  • 2 ¼ cups granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 4 eggs, at room temperature
  • 5 egg yolks, at room temperature
  • 2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
  • ¾ teaspoon kosher salt (a bit less if using salted butter)
  • ½ cup whole milk, at room temperature
  • ½ cup sour cream, at room temperature

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter on medium-high speed until creamy and smooth. Decrease speed to medium; add the oil, sugar and vanilla extract and beat until mixture is light in color and about doubled in volume, about 5 minutes. On medium-low speed, one at a time, add the eggs and the egg yolks, mixing until incorporated and scraping the bowl between each addition.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt.

In a spouted measure, combine the milk and sour cream.

Add one-third of the flour mixture to the butter mixture and mix until combined. Scrape the bowl and add half the milk mixture, mixing until combined. Repeat with remaining flour and milk mixture, finishing with the final third of flour, scraping the bowl and paddle after each addition.

Pour batter into prepared pans and bake until a tester comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes for 8-inch round pans or 45 minutes for a sheet pan.

Makes enough batter for 3 (8-inch) layers or 1 (9-by-13-inch) sheet cake.

A thick layer of buttercream mixed with Crushed Praline is sandwiched between the cakes. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)
A thick layer of buttercream mixed with Crushed Praline is sandwiched between the cakes. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)

This frosting is a variation on Swiss meringue buttercream, which has a reputation for being finicky. But a basic understanding of its requirements makes it much easier to work with. The key — something I learned from another excellent baker and food writer, Stella Parks — is making sure it's the right temperature. If the buttercream is too cold, it will taste greasy. If it's too warm, it'll be loose and slippery. The ideal temperature is 72 degrees. To correct the temperature, either return the mixing bowl to the double boiler to warm it slightly, or place it in the refrigerator for a few minutes and then get back to whipping. For details, visit

I prepared the double batch in one go without any problems, but if this is your first time making a Swiss meringue buttercream, I recommend making two separate batches.

Honey Buttercream

  • ¾ cup honey
  • ½ cup egg whites (from 3 or 4 eggs)
  • 1 ½ cups butter (3 sticks), at room temperature
  • 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt (omit if using salted butter)

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the honey and the egg whites.

In a saucepan large enough to accommodate the stand mixer bowl, add enough water to fill 1 inch. Bring the water to a gentle simmer over medium heat. Place the bowl with the egg white and honey over the simmering water, making sure the bottom of the bowl does not come in contact with the water, and stir with a rubber spatula until the mixture reaches 140 degrees.

Place the bowl on the stand mixer, fit with the whisk attachment and beat on medium-high until the mixture is light, fluffy and glossy. The mixture will cool as it beats. When the bowl feels about room temperature, begin adding the butter. With the mixer on medium, add the butter 2 tablespoons at a time, beating until incorporated. (After you've added about half of the butter, the mixture may look runny and curdled. This is normal; keep adding the remaining butter.) Once you've added all of the butter, continue beating for 1 minute or so until the mixture is creamy and glossy again. Turn the speed to low and add the vanilla and salt. Mix until well blended. (Honey Buttercream will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 7 days or in the freezer for up to 1 month. Bring it to room temperature and whip before using.)

Makes enough to cover 1 (8-inch) three layer cake or 2 (9-by-13-inch) sheet cakes.

Praline made with almonds (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)
Praline made with almonds (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)

Crushed Praline

  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 teaspoon corn syrup
  • ½ cup chopped nuts such as walnuts or almonds
  • Pinch sea salt

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. If using parchment paper, lightly grease the paper.

To a medium saucepan over high heat, add the sugar, water and corn syrup and cook, without stirring, until mixture comes to a boil and the sugar begins to turn golden. (You can now stir or swirl without risk of crystalization.) Continue cooking the mixture until it turns deep amber; then remove from heat and stir in the nuts and salt. Immediately pour the mixture onto the prepared baking sheet. Let cool completely. Once cool, break it into pieces and then transfer to a food processor and pulse to crush. The praline will keep in an air tight container for up to 3 days.

Makes about 1 cup.

Recipes adapted from "Zoë Bakes Cakes" by Zoë François (Ten Speed Press, $30)

CORRECTION: The recipe for Banana Cream Cake in an earlier version of this story included the wrong measurement of baking powder. The correct amount is 2 ¼ teaspoons.