Why is it so difficult to make a plain-vanilla yellow cake?
Well, it shouldn't be any more difficult than it is to make a chocolate cake, or most any other type of cake. After all, the steps are the same: mix ingredients, pour batter into pans, bake.
Chocolate cake always turns out pretty well; after all, it's CHOCOLATE. But to make a GOOD vanilla cake – moist, tender, high-rising,and flavorful – well, that's another story.
And I think I know why.
Most of us grew up enjoying cakes made from a mix. Starting in the 1950s and stretching right up to the present day, boxed cake mixes in the supermarket baking aisle have been as ubiquitous as oranges and bananas in the produce section. They're a given.
Show me a grocery store – any store selling groceries, from Kroger to 7-Eleven® – without at least one box of Duncan Hines or Betty Crocker, and I'll show you a store that's missing the boat, demand-wise.
Birthdays. Potlucks. Bake sales. Team parties. Everyone needs to make a cake sometime, right? And for many, making a cake means heading right for the Pillsbury Funfetti®.
For those of us who actually enjoy the process of baking as much as its tasty end product, a boxed cake mix isn't the answer. But neither is the dry, heavy, low-flavor cake a lot of the recipes out there on the Internet or in cookbooks yields.
The standard for a lot of us is the yellow cake Mom used to make. Which, judging by frequent discussions in the King Arthur Flour test kitchen among us test bakers, was made from a box – and was pretty darned good. Moist. Flavorful. Bright yellow.
So I set out to replicate that experience using a recipe, not a mix. I baked 13 cakes in four days, in hopes of hitting the exact right mix of ingredients that would yield yellow cake bliss: the flavorful cake of our collective memory.
At the end of the day, I don't think I achieved that perfect childhood cake. But then, neither did Duncan, Betty, or the Doughboy – all of which I tested right alongside my recipe.
Here's the story.
To give myself a fighting chance at success, I figured I'd best start with our King Arthur Unbleached Cake Flour Blend.
Most cake flours (and the flours in boxed cake mixes) are bleached. The protein level of cake flour is low; you don't want a lot of gluten toughening your tender cake. You do, however, need what gluten there is to be strong, in order to "carry" the high levels of sugar and fat in most cakes. Bleaching strengthens gluten.
So how does King Arthur Flour manage to produce a cake flour that works well without bleach? While the protein level of a typical cake flour is 6% to 8%, the protein level of King Arthur's cake flour is 9.4% – just a bit higher. We've found this slightly elevated protein is sufficient to produce a cake that rises nicely, without adversely affecting its tender texture.
Next, I decided to follow a typical cake recipe direction I usually ignore: have your ingredients at room temperature.
As it turns out, this DOES make a difference. I found that using eggs, butter, and milk straight from the fridge yielded a cake that didn't rise as high, and wasn't as fine-grained.
If you're in a hurry, your microwave can be your best friend. Use it to take the chill off your milk; and to soften your butter. Thankfully, many microwave ovens these days have a "soften" setting, and it works well.
To warm cold eggs quickly, submerge them in hot water for 5 to 10 minutes.
Next, use pans that are sufficiently deep to hold your cake. I like a 2"-deep cake pan; I never have to worry about the baking cake spilling over its edges.
Notice I've greased the pan, then lined it with parchment, then greased the parchment. Why hold your breath when turning your cake out onto a cooling rack, hoping it'll pop out of the pan intact? Parchment guarantees a crumble-free cake.
OK, let's get down to the recipe itself, shall we? While you'll see me making two layers here, this Plain & Simple Golden Cake recipe actually make a single tall 9" layer. The "extra" pans of batter you'll see are tests – trust me, when you bake 13 cakes in 4 days, you don't bake them one by one.
First, preheat the oven to 350°F. The batter for this cake goes together quickly, and you want to make sure your oven is fully up to temperature.
Let's start by whisking together the liquid ingredients:
Next, whisk together the following:
1 1/2 cups (177g) King Arthur Unbleached Cake Flour Blend
1 cup (198g) sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt, your preference
2 tablespoons (14g) Cake Enhancer, optional; for improved texture and moistness
"Cake enhancer"? You probably don't keep it in your pantry, it's true. But those 13 cakes I baked made me a believer: this product, which we discovered in Europe, yields cake that's taller, lighter , and more reliably moist than cake made without it.
And at a cost of about 40¢ per cake, I think it's worth it.
And how about that range in the amount of salt? I tend to like my baked goods a bit saltier, so settled on 1/2 teaspoon salt. But I know others of you prefer to cut back on salt, so feel free to use just 1/4 teaspoon, if you're in this camp.
Take 6 tablespoons (85g) of your room-temperature butter, and plop it down into the middle of the bowl of dry ingredients. You can cut the butter into pats first, or not; if it's truly at room temperature, it won't really matter.
Mix at low speed until the mixture is crumbly. Mix longer than you would for pie crust; you don't want a lot of big chunks of butter remaining.
Add half the milk/egg mixture to the flour in the bowl. Beat just to combine, then add the remaining milk/egg mixture, beating just to combine.
Add 1 tablespoon (14g) freshly squeezed lemon juice,* if desired. Once everything is thoroughly combined, scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl, then beat the batter for 15 seconds at high speed; this will "fluff" it up a bit.
*Hey, I thought this was a vanilla cake – what's with the almond extract and lemon juice? In trying to replicate the "box mix" we all seemed to love growing up, I found adding these elements, while they don't contribute any identifiable lemon or almond flavor, do add to its "I don't know what it is but I know I like it" flavor.
Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing it to the edges.
Bake the cake on your oven's middle rack for 35 to 38 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, and the center of the top springs back when pressed lightly with your finger.
Here's my first experiment: that's a cake made with all-purpose flour on the left, cake flour on the right. The cake-flour cake rose higher, and showed a somewhat finer texture.
And here's the next experiment:
Could I bake a cake as tasty and moist as the Doughboy's... without the polysorbate 60, DATEM, and TBHQ?
The answer is yes. While the boxed mix cake is definitely bright yellow (probably thanks to the Red 40 and Yellow 5 in its ingredient list), its flavor, texture, and moistness aren't superior to my own homemade-recipe cake.
In fact, I did a blind taste test over Easter, using my extended family as the judging panel. No one chose the boxed cake mix cake as their favorite; and while a couple did prefer the cake made with all-purpose flour, the majority picked the cake made with cake flour.
The remaining tests I did aren't easily pictured, as they all involve shelf life. I tried baking cake with and without Cake Enhancer; and then compared adding dry instant vanilla pudding mix to adding Cake Enhancer, figuring all the claims of "there's pudding in the mix" must hold some water.
The pudding-mix cakes, compared to the Cake Enhancer cakes, stayed comparably nice and moist; but they were also heavier and denser, as well.
Score another one for Cake Enhancer.
At the end of the day, is this the best yellow/vanilla/golden cake you'll ever bake?
Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on your own particular palate, and the "memory cake" you're trying to match.
I'd love the cake to have more assertive vanilla flavor. And I tried to accomplish that by brushing it with a vanilla-water "glaze" 5 minutes before taking it out of the oven – an extra step that, surprisingly, made NO difference in taste. So, I'm still thinking about this angle.
But the light texture? The moistness? I think the cake passes muster in those departments. Surprisingly, letting the cake rest overnight (covered with a cake cover) enhances its texture; I found it a tiny bit dry the first day, nicer the second.
Eating this cake plain, you might think it's a bit less sweet than it might be. I've deliberately made it that way, assuming most of you will be topping it with icing, or fruit and whipped cream, or a glaze of some sort – if only a blizzard of confectioners' sugar.
And what if you want to bake a double-layer birthday cake? Simply double the recipe.
Finally, can you make this cake with all-purpose flour? Of course. It'll simply be a bit heartier.
So, there you have it – a baker's dozen experiments, all leading to a couple of simple tips.
Cake flour and Cake Enhancer make a soft and tender, fine-textured, moist cake. And a combination of simple flavors – vanilla, almond, lemon – add depth to the cake's taste.
Are you ready to test this recipe against your own favorite-memory cake?
Please read, bake, and review our recipe for Plain & Simple Golden Cake.