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Italian Rum Cake

Indulge in the fantastic flavors of Italy with our authentic Italian Rum Cake – a perfect blend of airy sponge cake soaked in a rich rum syrup, layered with velvety custard, enveloped in a smooth whipped cream (or buttercream frosting) and coated with nuts. It is off-the-hook in flavor and amazingly delicious!!

Each bite has the perfect balance of moist cake, creamy filling, and a little kick of rum, topped with crunchy nuts for an added texture. Ideal for weddings, anniversaries, or any special occasion, this luxurious cake offers the ultimate celebration and is truly unforgettable! It’s my top choice every year for my birthday.

I have a lot to say about this cake, so pull up a chair, and please feel free to jump around using the links below:

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Growing up, Italian rum cake was a must-have for every birthday celebration. We didn’t do chocolate cake, sheet cake, or any other cake. My family and most other Italian American families in the neighborhood had this kind of cake to celebrate birthdays.

side view of italian rum cake with candles for happy birthday

What is Italian Rum Cake?

If you’re not familiar with this cake, let me introduce you (because I think you’ll really LOVE it)!

Italian rum cake is typically made of the following major components: (1) three layers of sponge cake that are soaked with a sweetened rum-flavored syrup, (2) decadent layers of vanilla and chocolate pastry cream filling (3) bakery style frosting, stabilized whipped cream frosting , or even cream cheese frosting (4) edges coated with lots of crushed nuts (peanuts in Philly or sliced almonds in other areas of the Northeastern USA).


italian rum cake on cake stand with several pieces missing, showing layers of vanilla and chocolate pastry cream

Suggested Time Table

Don’t be intimidated by the instructions – I have found that the real key is to make the cake in small steps over time.

Making things over two or three days allows for easier assembly the morning of or the day before the event/celebration. Although the cake can be served a few hours after assembly, but it is best served the following day to allow it to set.

A suggested timetable could be:

  • A week to a month beforehand, make the sponge cake and freeze it.
  • Two days before, make the pastry cream and the rum syrup.
  • The day before, add whipped cream to the pastry cream, make the frosting, and assemble the cake.

Sponge Cake: Ingredients and Method

tray of sponge cake ingredients in bowls
Shown above: sugar, water, eggs, vanilla extract, all purpose flour and cream of tartar (salt also used; not shown).

Start by combining flour and salt in a small bowl and set it aside. In a standing mixer, whip egg whites on medium-low until foamy, then add cream of tartar. Continue mixing until the whites become opaque, ensuring there is no yolk mixed in, as this is critical for the cake to rise properly. Gradually add 1/2 cup of sugar to the bowl, increasing the mixer’s speed until soft peaks form. Then, transfer the egg whites to another bowl and set aside.

frothy egg whites in mixing bowl
Above: Foamy/frothy egg whites

In the same bowl, now empty, whip the egg yolks at high speed for 3 to 5 minutes until they lighten in color and ribbon when the beaters are lifted. Slowly add the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar, cold water, and vanilla, mixing at low speed until combined. Sift the flour mixture onto the egg yolk mixture in two stages, stirring gently with a large spatula.

Next, fold in the whipped egg whites gently but thoroughly. Transfer the mixture to prepared pans, smoothing the tops if necessary. Bake for about 20 minutes until cooked through. Even if slightly overbaked, the rum syrup added later will effectively moisten the cake.

Tips for Making the Sponge Cake

When making a sponge cake, start by separating the eggs while they’re cold, as this makes it easier to keep the yolks and whites separate.

Weighing ingredients is more accurate than measuring by volume, so use grams or ounces. When incorporating the egg whites into the batter, do it gently but thoroughly to maintain their volume.

Do not grease the sides of your pan, as sponge cakes require a surface to cling to for rising. Finally, bake the cake immediately after mixing the batter to get the best results.

Pastry Cream: Ingredients and Method

The process to make the vanilla and the chocolate pastry creams is quite similar so to save time and space, only the chocolate version is shown.

Keep in mind that you’ll repeat this process and omit the cocoa powder and add vanilla extra instead for your second filling.

The preparation of the pastry cream for this cake involves a few critical steps. Start by whipping heavy cream separately and set it aside; this will be added to the pastry cream later, after it has been cooked and cooled, and just before assembling the cake.

In a small bowl, whisk together egg yolks and cornstarch, then set this mixture aside. In a medium saucepan, combine milk, sugar, salt, and your choice of vanilla or chocolate (for vanilla or chocolate cream). Heat this mixture until small bubbles form (scalding), then remove from heat.

To temper the eggs, gradually add about 1/2 cup of the hot milk mixture to the egg yolks and cornstarch, whisking quickly to prevent the eggs from curdling. Once all the milk mixture is incorporated, return the entire mixture to the saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens. Be vigilant as the mixture can thicken rapidly. Continue stirring until the thickening process slows or stops.

Allow the pastry cream to cool, then refrigerate it until you’re ready to assemble the cake. When assembling, first whip the heavy cream until soft peaks form, being careful not to overbeat. If the pastry cream has been refrigerated and has firmed up significantly, rewhip it before folding it together with the whipped heavy cream.

Frosting: Ingredients and Method

wooden board with ingredients for stabilized whipped cream
Shown above: heavy cream, water, gelatin, and powdered sugar

Start by adding gelatin and water to a small saucepan, heating it on low until the gelatin dissolves. Be careful not to let the gelatin set.

Meanwhile, whip the cream and sugar together on medium speed until the mixture is slightly thickened. Gradually add the dissolved gelatin mixture to the cream, continuing to whip. Finally, increase the mixer speed and continue whipping until the mixture is firm.

close up view of stabilized whipped cream in silver bowl
Above: stabilized whipped cream finished

The Rum Syrup

This is probably the easiest step: simply mix sugar, extract (or rum), and water in a small saucepan, heat gently until the sugar is dissolved, and then cool the mixture. Avoid overheating the syrup after the extract or alcohol has been added, or you will cook off the flavor.

You can apply to the sponge cakes with a large spoon or using a squeeze bottle if you have one.

I like to line up the cakes and apply the syrup while the parchment paper is still on bottom of cakes – makes it easier to move the cakes.

Rum extract substitution: you can use 2 tablespoons of dark rum OR 5 tablespoons of light rum for every 1 tablespoon of rum extract.

Assembly

Ensure all your ingredients are ready including the baked and cooled cake layers, pastry cream (with the whipped cream folded in), rum syrup, and frosting.

Begin assembling the cake by placing a layer of sponge cake on a cake plate or board (be sure to peel off the parchment first). Soak this layer with one-third of the rum syrup. Next, spread all of the vanilla pastry cream over this layer.

Add a second layer of sponge cake on top of the vanilla cream (again, peel off the parchment) and soak it with another third of the rum syrup. Then, cover this layer with all the chocolate pastry cream. Place the final sponge cake layer on top (peel off parchment) and soak it with the remaining rum syrup.

Finish by applying frosting to the top and sides of the cake. Decorate the sides with nuts and add any additional decorations to the top as desired.

three slices of italian rum cake on white dishes with forks on black table

Variations

Nuts: while almonds are common in some places, peanuts are preferred in Philadelphia. Choose nuts according to your preference.

Filling: The traditional Italian rum cake filling includes one layer each of vanilla and chocolate pastry cream, but feel free to experiment with all vanilla, all chocolate, or even raspberry or cannoli cream fillings.

Syrup: Consider substituting rum syrup with sweetened vanilla syrup for a lighter touch.

Frosting: Options range from bakery-style frosting to stabilized whipped cream or cream cheese frosting. Choose what suits your taste.

Cake layers: While sponge cake is traditional, a butter cake base can also be used as an alternative.

sponge cake layers in freezer bags with parchment paper separating layers
Above: layers of sponge cake are placed into freezer bags for later use (parchment paper separates 2 layers in one of the bags

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📖 Recipe

side view of italian rum cake with candles for happy birthday

Italian Rum Cake

Makes an 8-inch, three layer vanilla sponge cake sprinkled with rum syrup then filled with vanilla and chocolate pastry cream, topped with bakery-style buttercream and decorated with crushed peanuts – does it get any better?!?
4.83 from 117 votes
Author: Marie
Prep Time 4 hours
Cook Time 1 hour 30 minutes
Total Time 5 hours 30 minutes
Course Dessert
Cuisine Italian
Servings 20
Calories 300 kcal

Equipment

  • 8-inch round cake pans (three total) or use 9 inch cake pans and do 1.5X the sponge cake recipe
  • parchment paper to line bottom of cake pans
  • standing mixer or hand mixer
  • cake board (I use 10-inch size) (helpful but not necessary)

Ingredients
 

Ingredients for the sponge cake: (can use 9 inch cake pans and make 1.5 times the sponge cake recipe for thicker layers).

  • 1 cup (125 g) unbleached all-purpose flour sift onto a sheet of waxed paper and then spoon into measuring cup and level to rim if not weighing
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 6 large eggs (separated into yolks and egg whites) separate when cold. Use when room temperature. Make sure egg whites do not contain any yolk!
  • 1 cup (200 g) superfine or regular sugar , divided
  • 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 3 tablespoons water , cold
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Ingredients for frosting (stabilized whipped cream):

  • 3 cups (714 g) heavy cream
  • 3/4 cup (90 g) powdered sugar
  • 3 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
  • 4 tbsp cold water

Ingredients for the vanilla pastry cream filling:

  • 5 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup (100 g) sugar
  • 4 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1 cup (244 g) milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/16 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup (59.5 g) heavy cream (whipped) NOTE: this gets mixed in AFTER the pastry cream has been cooked and chilled

Ingredients for the chocolate pastry cream filling:

  • 5 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup (100 g) sugar plus 2 tablespoons
  • 4 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1 cup (244 g) milk
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 1/16 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup (59.5 g) heavy cream (whipped) NOTE: this gets mixed in AFTER the pastry cream has been cooked and chilled.

Ingredients for the rum syrup:

  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup (100 g) sugar
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon rum extract

Ingredients to assemble the cake:

  • 2 cups (473.18 g) crushed peanuts OR sliced almonds , lightly salted
  • 8 inch cake board (optional)

Instructions
 

How to make the sponge cake:

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees and position rack in center of oven
  • Grease bottom only of cake pans with butter and flour/cake spray and for added measure, line bottom of pans with parchment paper (DO NOT grease the sides of the pan or your spongecake may not rise properly)
  • Combine flour with salt in a small bowl and set aside.
  • In a standing mixer, whip the egg whites on medium-low speed until foamy (not stiff) and then add the cream of tartar and continue mixing until the whites become opaque
  • Add 1/2 cup sugar slowly to the side of the bowl and increase the speed of the mixer until soft but not stiff peaks form. Scrape the contents to another bowl and set aside
  • Using the same bowl, which is now empty, add the egg yolks and whip at high speed for 3 to 5 minutes until lightened in color and the mixture "ribbons" when the beaters are raised
  • Slowly add the remaining sugar (ie, 1/2 cup), cold water, and vanilla into the egg yolks and mix until combined on low speed
  • Sift the flour onto the egg yolks in two additions, and stir gently with large spatula to combine.
  • Gently but thoroughly fold in the whipped egg whites
  • Transfer mixture to prepared pans and bake for about 20 to 30 minutes until cooked through; using 3 pans, I only needed 20 minutes.
  • Remove from oven, cool for about 10 minutes in the pans and then carefully remove the cakes from the pan (see next step).
  • To prevent tearing or crumbling around the edges, I carefully use a knife to loosen the edges with a gentle up-and-down sawing motion (not gliding the knife around), ensuring a smooth release of the cake without damaging its sides.
  • After fully cooled, wrap and refrigerate or freeze.

How to make the pastry cream:

  • Note that the heavy cream gets whipped separately and is added to the finished pastry cream AFTER it has been cooked and cooled. I do this just before I'm getting ready to assemble the cake.
  • In a small bowl, add egg yolks and cornstarch. Whisk to blend and set aside
  • In a medium saucepan, add milk, sugar, salt, and vanilla OR chocolate (depending on if you are making the chocolate or the vanilla cream [you will repeat all of these steps to make the other flavor)
    Heat until small bubbles form (scalded) and remove from heat.
  • Temper eggs by adding small amounts (about 1/2 cup/4 ounces) of the hot milk mixture, a little at a time, while whisking very QUICKLY to prevent the eggs from curdling.
  • After all of the milk mixture has been added into the eggs/cornstarch, return everything to the saucepan and cook over medium heat and stir constantly until thickened.
    The mixture thickens quickly (depending on how hight heat is)!! Stir fast and furious with whisk!
    Continue to heat and stir until it has stopped thickening.
  • Cool the pastry cream and refrigerate until ready to use (this is when you do the last step below, adding the whipped cream). TIP: when folding in the whipped cream during next step, you must rewhip the pastry cream if it has set.
  • When ready to assemble the cake, whip heavy cream until soft peaks form (overbeating will cause it to turn to butter) and then fold together with cooled pastry cream (rewhip the pastry cream first if it has been refrigerated and/or it has firmed up a lot).
  • Repeat all these steps for other flavor (chocolate or vanilla).

How to make stabilized whipped cream

  • Add gelatin and water to a small saucepan and heat gently just until the gelatin dissolves. Do not let the mixture set. If the gelatin cools too much you will have lumps or threads of gelatin in your whipped cream.
  • Whip the cream and sugar using a standing mixer until the mixture is slightly thickened.
  • Add the gelatin mixture slowly and then increase speed to high and continue whipping until the frosting is firm.

How to make the rum syrup:

  • Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and heat over medium-high heat until sugar dissolves and then cool or store in refrigerator.

How to assemble the cake:

  • Using a teaspoon or small squeeze bottle, distribute the rum syrup evenly over each of the three cake layers.
  • Place one cake layer on the bottom of an 8- or 10-inch cake board or cake dish (you may spread some frosting between the dish and bottom layer to prevent the cake from shifting)
  • Spread all of the vanilla pastry cream on top on the bottom layer and then top with another layer of sponge cake. Spread all of the chocolate pastry cream on top of middle layer and then top with final layer of sponge cake
  • Frost cake, and add generous amount of crushed peanuts or sliced almonds to the sides of the cake. (if you have refrigerated the frosting (made ahead) you may have to rewhip it.
  • Decorate the top if desired and refrigerate until serving.

Notes

NOTE: nutrition does NOT include frosting (since you can choose between the two frosting shown (bakery style [see below] or stabilized whipped cream frosting) 
Substitute rum extract with 5 tablespoons of light rum or 1/2 to 1 tablespoon of dark rum. 
Egg whites for cake should not have any trace of egg yolk in them or they will not whip up well, which is necessary to get good volume in cake. 
Gelatin mixture should be warm and not too cool because once the mixture thickens/sets, it can form lumps when added to the whipped cream. 
If your pastry cream has been refrigerated and is very firm, be sure to whip it well before folding in whipped cream (otherwise, it might be lumpy). 
Cake is best served the day after it is assembled so it sets but can be served after several hours of refrigeration.  
Bakery Style Frosting (Optional substitute for stabilized whipped cream frosting):
  • 28 ounces of powdered sugar (7 cups)
  •  1 cup butter, room temperature 
  •  1 cup shortening
  •  1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  •  milk to thin frosting if needed
Combine butter and shortening. 
Add powdered sugar slowly, 1 cup at a time. 
Mix on medium-to-low speed to prevent air bubbles from forming. 
Add vanilla extract and mix to combine. 
STORAGE
Frosting and fillings keep for about five days in the refrigerator. Cake layers can be frozen for up to 3 months (wrap well in plastic wrap and place in freezer bags).
Store the Italian rum cake in the refrigerator until you are ready to serve it. Leftovers should also be stored in the refrigerator.
I have successfully frozen leftover pieces of cake to save some for a future date. The slices of cake freeze well and taste great! I wrap slices in plastic wrap and then place in a freezer bag. I have not attempted to freeze a whole cake.

Nutrition

Calories: 300kcalCarbohydrates: 37gProtein: 8gFat: 14gSaturated Fat: 4gTrans Fat: 1gCholesterol: 157mgSodium: 99mgPotassium: 206mgFiber: 2gSugar: 26gVitamin A: 328IUVitamin C: 1mgCalcium: 68mgIron: 1mg
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Sources: Pastry cream adapted from Good Things by David; Sponge cake from Baking911; Bakery Frosting from My Madison Bistro

321 Comments

  1. 5 stars
    Just want to say what a great recipe! Made this cake last week for my mom’s 88th birthday and got rave reviews from mom —who is a retired professional baker.
    This cake reminded us of the torte we would get from Ninni’s Bakery in Akron,OH for all of our special occasions.
    Thank you, and I look forward to making cake again. Loved the whipped cream icing and it was so easy to use!

    1. I couldn’t say as I have never tried it but I believe it would work as the eggs are what give this cake most of the structure. Also, I have been making 1.5 times the batter and the layers are thicker. I will add a note to the recipe card.

  2. We call this cake Italian Liqueur Cake in Australia, & if I had 5 cents for every time I ate this cake I would be a rich woman by now. It was & still is the most popular cake for any & every celebration. (There have been others like Chocolate Mud or Red Velvet but Liqueur Cake still beats them hands down every time). This was my wedding cake & it was in the shape of the Colosseum. Also I’ve only ever had it with almond around it. Your detailed description is the best I’ve seen so far & I’m going to attempt to make this gorgeous cake, at least once in my life.

    Thank you for a wonderful recipe
    Kindest regards
    Reet

  3. I grew up in western Massachusetts. This cake was my birthday cake for many years and from a bakery in Springfield. The only difference is, my cake was coated around the outside with cake crumbs vs almonds or nuts. They do have the version with almonds too. I am severely allergic to nuts, so the cake crumb version was awesome for me. Its been well over 45 years since I had a slice of that cake. I live in the southeast now and there aren’t any bakeries that make this cake. Thank you for the recipe.

  4. Hi marie
    Best cake ever. Recipe is a101 to all
    Flavors. Wondering if you have a chocolate sponge cake recipe? And a corrosive sponge cake?

  5. 5 stars
    Marie, my husband was born in South Philly and grew up having Termini’s Italian Rum cake every year for his birthday. We now live at the Jersey Shore and so I decided to tackle the cake this year for his birthday. I’m an accomplished cook and pretty good baker so this cake was a bit beyond my comfort zone. Happy to say the cake turned out better than we expected. I opted for the whipped cream frosting and think we actually like it better than the buttercream. Your instructions were spot on and with a little help from Siri I was able to get through all the techniques, even though some were new to me. Home Run and thank you for the recipe.

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