Well, the day is finally here. As many of you know, I’ve been on a quest to perfect the best yellow cake on the planet. And this is it. I’m sitting here wondering why the earth hasn’t stopped moving or why the President has called me personally yet (actually, scratch that, I’d rather have a call from Bobby Flay). I mean, this is a big day. Monumental, some would say. But probably only if they are a total baking nerd like me. So yeah, I’ll stop waiting around for any phone calls. While this post is a bit involved (I couldn’t help but share the testing results with you!), the truth is, the actual cake recipe is super simple so don’t let the explanations scare you. If you follow the recommendations thoroughly, you’ll end up with the fluffiest, most delicious yellow cake ever.
Many of you were shocked when I said I was on version #16 or something like that. Lemmetellyousomething: the perfect yellow cake didn’t just fall into my hands easily like I thought it would and I knew I couldn’t give you just an okay yellow cake. It took a ton of testing and my family and I have eaten more yellow cake in the last couple months than is probably legal. For some reason, yellow cake is a bit fussier to get just.right then, say, chocolate cake (my most beloved recipe for chocolate cake is a one-bowl recipe where you basically throw everything together without room temperaturing anything and it comes out completely divine).
I’ve been amused by all of you who have left comments and emailed me about what on earth I’ve done with all 16+ yellow cakes; apparently this is a source of much concern. There were two or three variations that honestly were inedible (either burned or so dry, even my toddler couldn’t choke them down). The others have been widely shared with friends and company and I even have a few unfrosted layers hanging out in my freezer for when we get the hankering to crumble it up and toss it on some ice cream. So rest your weary minds: the yellow cakes were well taken care of and devoured, although I don’t think anyone in my family will be requesting a yellow cake for his/her birthday for a long time. We are a little yellow-caked out.
I’d Be Lost Without Them
A special, super, huge thank you to two very important people (I kind of feel like I’m giving an acceptance speech at The National Convention for Perfect Yellow Cakes here): Nicole, a wonderful friend of mine, was the one who finally gave me the insight I needed for the last step in perfecting this cake (a huge blessing because I didn’t know if I honestly had another yellow cake in me and her advice resulted in the.perfect.cake) and Lisa, sweetest sweetie ever, who willingly tested this cake for me (multiple times) in order to provide all you high altitude dwellers with essential tips for success. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
The Evolution of Testing the Perfect Yellow Cake
When I first set out to perfect the almighty yellow cake, I started with three recipes popular online (David’s Yellow Cake from allrecipes.com, Deb’s yellow birthday cake from smittenkitchen.com and Cook’s Illustrated Yellow Layer Cake). I made each of them as is. While I am a fan of each of these sites and resources, respectively, the cakes were all lacking to me. David’s Yellow Cake was a little dry with kind of a weird, spongy texture, the cake from Smitten Kitchen was reminiscent of cornbread and the Cook’s Illustrated yellow cake was by far the driest of them all.
I set about modifying ingredients and amounts and methods and while someone smarter than I probably could have pared the testing down to just a couple of cakes, what can I say, it took me a while.
For all of you interested in the ins and outs of testing, I’ve included probably more details than anyone wants below the recipe. If you don’t give a hoot (don’t worry, I still love you), the recipe is below just waiting for you to make it.
P.S. If you are wondering, that adorable little cake stand in a few of the pictures is from Rita Marie Weddings. The Audrey – Regular Size and I love, love, love it. Dana, owner of Rita Marie, sent it to me ages ago and I’ve been using it like crazy during the Yellow Cake Experiment.
Please read below the recipe for information on specific ingredients. I made and tested this cake over 16 times and have fine-tuned the ingredients and the methods. That isn't to say you aren't welcome to substitute and change, but in my yellow cake experience, this match up creates yellow cake perfection (substituting all-purpose flour, using cold eggs/milk, overly greasy soft butter, and a multitude of other factors can result in a dense, dry cake).
If you are making your own cake flour using one of the two simple methods I posted about, don't worry about making one cup of cake flour at a time, instead, use 210 grams all-purpose flour and 45 grams cornstarch; sift twice. Then add the other dry ingredients and sift once more.
For high altitude, add an additional 2 1/2 tablespoons cake flour before sifting (that would be about 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour and 1/2 tablespoon cornstarch if using a homemade cake flour substitute).
Update: I've heard from several of you that while the cake tastes amazing, it is sinking in the middle or is baking flat. I can't analyze the why's too much because it will make my head pop off since I dedicated months of my life to this cake anyway. When I had too much leavening in the cake (2 teaspoons baking powder + 1 1/2 teaspoons soda), the cake rose too much in the oven and then deflated so I scaled it back to what worked perfectly for me. But here's the deal, if you are worried about sunken layers, increase the baking soda. My suggestion would be 1/2 or 3/4 teaspoon.
- 1 cup butter, softened to room temperature
- 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar (13 ounces, 368 grams)
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 3 large eggs, room temperature
- 2 large egg yolks, room temperature
- 2 1/4 cups cake flour, lightly measured (9 ounces, 255 grams), see note for high altitude adjustments
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda (see note)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup milk (1% or above), room temperature
- 1/2 cup sour cream (light or regular), room temperature
- To prep, whisk together the milk and sour cream together in a liquid measure and let come to room temperature.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and make sure an oven rack is placed in the middle of the oven.
- In a large bowl of an electric stand mixer or with a handheld electric mixer, whip the butter on medium speed for 1-2 minutes. Add the granulated sugar and beat for 4-5 minutes on medium speed. Mix in the vanilla.
- One at a time, add the eggs and egg yolks, mixing just until combined in between additions. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
- Combine the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Sift them together through a fine mesh strainer.
- Add 1/3 of the dry ingredients to the batter and mix just until combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add 1/2 of the milk/sour cream mixture and mix. Add another 1/3 of the dry ingredients, mixing just until combined. Add the last 1/2 of the milk/sour cream mixture and beat until just combined. Add the final 1/3 of the dry ingredients and mix just until combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl if necessary. Give the batter one good, final stir with the rubber spatula.
- Grease the cake pans and line the bottoms with a parchment round. Grease the parchment and sides of the pan again very well. I use regular cooking spray but you can also use butter or cooking spray with flour. If your cake pans tend to cause sticking, consider also flouring the pans.
- Divide the batter evenly between the two pans. Drop each pan from about 3-inches onto the counter to minimize air bubbles while baking.
- Bake for 25-28 minutes (high altitude: 28-30 minutes) until lightly golden around the edges and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with moist crumbs. Resist the urge to open and close the oven to check on the cake - this can cause the center of the cake to fall and never recover. And as with all cakes, don't overbake or the cake will be dry.
- Let the cakes rest in the pans for 5-10 minutes before gently turning them onto a cooling rack to cool completely.
Ok, let’s talk…
I’ve jotted down all the details of why the type of ingredients/method matters for this cake. Read on, read on!
I’ve mentioned it before, but I rarely use unsalted butter. I tested this cake with both unsalted and salted and adjusted the salt amount accordingly. In the end, there wasn’t a difference in outcome, so I stuck with my go-to: salted butter. I use the Land o’ Lakes brand mostly (sometimes the Sam’s Club brand). If you want to use unsalted butter, increase the salt to 1 teaspoon. Also, butter temperature really matters. It should be soft enough to gently slide a finger through with a bit of pressure but not sludgy, greasy or overly soft. The time I accidentally used overly soft butter (uh, it somehow stayed on the counter for, like, 12 hours because even though I love baking, my five kids still take precedence over making a yellow cake), it resulted in a greasy, weirdly spongy cake. I did not test this cake with margarine, coconut oil, shortening or the like so you’ll have to experiment with those if desired. Also, whipping that butter for a good 1-2 minutes is extra important. And beating the heck out of it and the sugar for another 4-5 is non-negotiable. Doing this creates air which helps create fluffiness in the baked cake. The cake(s) that I tested where the butter was minimally whipped were not nearly as fluffy. And fluffy = greatness.
I know, I know. Using room temperature eggs is a total pain in the behind. I’m right there with you! I hate recipes that require it. And so when I first started testing cakes, I refused to do it. And my cakes were looking like this:
So I crumbled, no pun intended, and used room temperature eggs the next time I made a cake and the difference was remarkable. Light and fluffy where before the cake was slightly dense and a bit crumbly. There may have been other factors at play, but as I messed around with the recipe, it was very, very clear that room temperature eggs are important. If you are like me and often forget to plan in advance, don’t fret – place those chilled eggs in a bowl or liquid measure filled with very slightly warm water for 15-ish minutes and you’ll be good to go.
Speaking of the eggs, it was my friend, Nicole (as mentioned above in the post), who encouraged me to scale down the whole eggs from four to three and add an egg yolk or two to replace the missing whole egg – two egg yolks managed to be the perfect answer. Egg whites add structure but can take away moisture from baked goods, hence the three whole eggs + two egg yolks in the recipe. Don’t be like me and get tempted to sub a whole egg for the two egg yolks. You’ll get a pretty decent cake but not a fantastic, best-ever cake. Know what I mean? I was quite in awe of the difference two egg yolks made. However, when I used all egg yolks and no whites, the cake was slightly gummy and not as fluffer-fluffy as I wanted.
I was sure that plain old milk was the only liquid I needed in my cake. At about cake #10, I was fairly positive it needed to be one cup of whole milk, even though the thought made me cringe since I never have whole milk on hand. However, I knew perfection was the goal so I put my whole milk annoyances behind me and moved on…until my friend Nicole (yes, she’s brilliant and I want to be her when I grow up), helping me troubleshoot my cake conundrums, suggested that a bit of acid in the recipe would create the tenderness I was after. I was befuddled why I was getting a really, really good cake that was still just so, very slightly dry. In the end, it wasn’t necessarily dryness but a lack of tenderness I was noticing. And the adjustment of sour cream to compensate for the reduced milk did just the trick (plus adding baking soda in for the acidity in combination with the already present baking powder, which took a couple rounds because I misjudged the amount of baking soda at first and there was so much leavening power in the cake that it sank in the middle…badly…however, once the baking powder and soda were adjusted accordingly, the cake was magnificent). The real plus was that after I added sour cream, I used 1% milk instead of whole without sacrificing any moisture or tenderness.
As much as my heart wanted a fabulous yellow cake without having to use cake flour, it didn’t happen. The cakes I made with all-purpose flour were dry and dense with a much coarser crumb, slightly reminiscent of dry cornbread. And uh, I don’t want cake that tastes like dry cornbread. Cake flour is lower protein than all-purpose flour and also has a finer texture (thanks to the starch in it) which results in a much finer crumb in a baked cake. The good news is that even though the recipe requires cake flour, you can make your own (my kitchen tip from yesterday gives you two super easy methods). If you have a kitchen scale, use it. You’ll get very precise results. If you don’t have a kitchen scale, buy one. Ok, just joking. Kind of. I know not everyone can do that (but you should really put it on your wish list). If you are measuring using cups, measure with a light hand. Spoon the cake flour into the cup and gently level off with a flat edge.
For this recipe, if you are making your own cake flour, don’t mess with making one cup at a time, instead, I’ve done the math for you: you’ll need 210 grams of all-purpose flour and 45 grams of cornstarch. Sift it twice. Then add the baking powder, baking soda, salt and sift once more. Make sense?
Also, for high altitude, I’ve got your back. Ok, actually, my friend, Lisa, has your back. She tested this recipe for me – she lives at 5,400 feet elevation. She made the cake twice, the first time it fell significantly. She added an additional 2 1/2 tablespoons cake flour (if using a homemade cake flour substitute, that would be about 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour and 1/2 tablespoon cornstarch) and the cake baked up perfectly (along with a slight increase in baking time and buttering the heck out of the pans).
This sifting action, called for in the recipe, is in addition to any sifting you may have done if you are making your own cake flour. You don’t need to sift twice, just give the flour, baking powder, salt and baking soda a quick sift through a fine mesh strainer. This was one of the last variables to add to the recipe. The last few cakes I made were so good. But just not quite there. I should have considered sifting earlier on, but again, I was trying to minimize fussiness. Once I sifted the dry ingredients prior to incorporating into the batter, the results were far superior – lighter and fluffier (let’s see how many times I can use those two descriptors in this post).
Ah, the gorgeous batter. It may look just slightly curdled and that’s ok. Spread it evenly in the pan (hasn’t been done in the picture, just so you know – don’t leave your batter lumped up like that) and give it a quick tap or light drop on the counter. When I didn’t do this, there were significant air bubbles in the baked cake. You don’t want to drop it from the rooftop like a crazy egg-drop challenge and you don’t need to tap more than once, just a quick light drop will suffice. I only ever baked the cake in two 9-inch pans to keep testing criteria similar, however, I think it could also be made in three 8-inch pans. Cupcakes and sheet cakes will have to be an experiment until someone reports back. I have them on my radar also, but it may be a little while before I actually try them.
As for the cake pans, significant greasing (with butter and cooking spray and possibly flour, too) is needed for the cake not to stick. I also line the bottom of the greased pan with a parchment round that I’ve cut out and then grease the top of it. My magic number for baking was right at 27 minutes; however, keep in mind that all ovens vary slightly. Lisa, my awesome friend who tested high altitude baking for me, needed more like 30 minutes for her cakes (she made the recipe twice).
Phew! I’m tired! If you made it this far, you seriously deserve a big huge kitchen nerd award (from one baking nerd to another).
Now, the big question…