Cooking from the Bar Cart: Milk Punch Cake with Brandy Buttercream

A simple cake-mix cake gets a dose of New Orleans–inspired decadence


There’s no shame in a cake-mix shortcut for busy bakers. In this riff on classic New Orleans milk punch, gussying up a boxed white cake batter with brandy, vanilla, and nutmeg—and replacing the usual liquid with whole milk—gives the finished cake delicious distinction. Using egg whites instead of whole eggs or yolks keeps the cake light and airy and the creamy white color you want for a milk punch cake. The richness here comes from “imbibing” the baked layers with a brandy-butter baste before stacking them and frosting them with a luscious brandy buttercream. Imbibing a cake—especially a basic boxed one—with liquid like simple syrup or liqueur is a classic method for infusing it with flavor while ensuring it stays moist. I like to wrap the soaked layers in plastic wrap and pop them in the freezer for twenty to thirty minutes before frosting. This helps the cake hold its shape and the crumb stay put while you’re spreading the buttercream.

Use brandy distilled from grapes, or cognac, here. It doesn’t have to be top-shelf but should be one you would enjoy sipping. Thanks to the potent spirit’s low acidity and notes of vanilla, spice, maple, and sherry, brandy shines in desserts like ice cream, custard, bread pudding, and cake. Since liquids and fats like oil and butter don’t naturally mingle, the trick is to add the brandy a teaspoon at a time while mixing the buttercream on low to incorporate it. When these opposites come together, the result is magical.


  • Milk Punch Cake with Brandy Buttercream Yield: 1 (8-inch) double-layer cake

  • For the cake

    • 1 boxed white cake mix, such as Betty Crocker

    • ½ cup unsalted butter, softened

    • 3 egg whites

    • ⅔ cup whole milk

    • 6 tbsp. brandy

    • 1 tsp. vanilla extract

    • ¼ tsp. ground nutmeg

  • For the brandy-butter baste

    • 2 tbsp. very hot water

    • 2 tbsp. unsalted butter

    • ¼ cup superfine sugar

    • 2 tbsp. brandy

    • ⅛ tsp. vanilla extract

  • For the brandy buttercream

    • 2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened

    • 2 sticks (1 cup) salted butter, softened

    • 6 cups confectioners’ sugar

    • ¼ cup brandy

    • ½ tsp. ground nutmeg


  1. For the cake: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease 2 (8-inch) cake pans and set aside.

  2. Combine the cake mix, butter, egg whites, milk, brandy, vanilla extract, and nutmeg in a mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer on high speed for 2 minutes. Divide the batter between the prepared pans.

  3. Bake on separate oven racks, alternating the pan positions halfway through, for 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the centers of the cakes comes out clean. Remove the pans from the oven and cool the cakes in the pans for 10 minutes. Carefully invert the cakes from the pans and place on a baking rack to cool completely, about 1 hour.

  4. For the baste: Pierce the cake tops in several places with a toothpick. Whisk together the hot water, butter, and sugar until the butter melts and sugar dissolves. Stir in the brandy and vanilla extract. 

  5. Brush 2 to 3 tablespoons of the mixture over the tops of each cooled cake with a basting brush. Let sit for 15 minutes. Wrap layers in plastic wrap and freeze them for 20 to 30 minutes to firm up if frosting the cake that same day. (Alternately, you can freeze the wrapped layers for up to 3 months. Remove and unwrap frozen layers and allow them to rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes before frosting.)

  6. For the brandy buttercream: Cream the butters with an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on medium-high until light and creamy, 2 to 3 minutes. 

  7. Beat in the confectioners’ sugar 1 cup at a time on low speed until incorporated, and then beat on medium speed until fluffy, about 30 seconds more. 

  8. Add the brandy 1 teaspoon at a time on low speed until incorporated. Use right away or refrigerate up to 1 week or freeze up to 6 months. If chilling the buttercream, beat it again with a mixer for 2 to 3 minutes before frosting for best consistency. Makes 5 cups.

  9. To assemble: Place 1 cake layer on a cake stand or platter. Spread the top with about 1 ½ cups frosting. Place the second layer on top. Spread the remaining frosting on the top and sides of the stacked cakes. Sprinkle the surface of the cake lightly with the ground nutmeg.

Katherine Cobbs is a cookbook author and editor. Her most recent books are Pantry CocktailsTequila & Tacos, and Cookies & Cocktails, published by Simon & Schuster. She also developed recipes for Garden & Gun’s The Southerner’s Cookbook – Recipes, Wisdom, and Stories.