I was asked to make a cake for a friend’s birthday party next week, which sent me into a bit of a tailspin. I mean, I’ve made my share of cakes over the years. I learned a bunch about genoise, high-ratio, dacquoise, biscuits, genoise and the like throughout my few months at the French Pastry School’s L’Art du Gateau program (not to mention all my pre-school years of baking). But the truth is, I still don’t have a white cake that I love. It’s not that any of them are bad per se- I mean no one ever takes a bite and says- ‘mmmhmm..yeeeaaa.. sorry, but I’m going to have to pass on this’. It’s more that none of them have knocked my socks off on the first go. So, I went back to the drawing board.
After scouring the internet for ‘the best of’ recipes, and getting sufficiently overwhelmed, I decided to just pick a few and start baking. After testing about five or six recipes, I started to notice a lot of them followed the 1-2-3-4 cake style. What the heck is 1-2-3-4 cake? It’s an old recipe that could be remembered easily because it calls for: 1 cup of butter, 2 cups of sugar, 3 cups of flour, and 4 eggs. I know, clever-right? The thing is, once you start to look for it, modifications of this ratio start to pop up in a lot of recipes. Suddenly, I was having the urge to go buy Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio.
Anyway, below are a couple of recipes that I tested with my family (and next-door neighbors) to see if I could come up with a favorite yellow cake.
#1- Lucy’s take on this recipe- Grown-up Birthday Cake with a slew of modifications- cake flour instead of A/P, superfine sugar instead of regular, a mix of oil and butter, and sour cream too. I used a standard creaming method. *note that when you switch cake flour for A/P you have to be mindful of weights (see Joe Pastry’s discussion here)
#2- Boxed cake- Okay so I literally don’t think I’ve ever made one before, so I figured I should include one for experiment’s sake. I used Betty Crocker SuperMoist Butter Recipe Yellow. *spoiler-alert*- it tastes like chemicals.
#3- Same Grown-up Birthday Cake but modified with cake flour instead of A/P, whole milk instead of wine, and vegetable oil instead of olive oil. I wanted this recipe in the mix to see how oil would work instead of butter.
#4- Lora Brody’s Classic Yellow Layer Cake recipe from Basic Baking (It’s your run-of-the-mill yellow cake with A/P flour, milk, eggs, butter, regular sugar, baking powder, salt and vanilla- uses two-step method)
*Note*- I did not use baking strips for any of these cakes, which I might try for round two, to see if it improves moisture.
#1- A bit denser than the others (I think due to the creaming method). Good, buttery, flavor. Slightly dry.
#2- Light, tender, and fluffy. Tasted a bit like air and had chemical aftertaste. Gross.
#3- Moist, good vanilla flavor, nice fluffy texture
#4- A bit denser than the others, best buttery flavor, but doesn’t have that fluffy texture that melts in your mouth.
#5- Very tender, good flavor, ‘springy’ texture, most similar to #2 but with no aftertaste and good crumb
So the winner?
For the best overall, #3 and #5 are the winners. They had the softest texture, best flavor, and held up to the buttercream the best. Some like #4 because it ‘tasted like what I expect a yellow cake to be’ but I found it too dense, which is a surprise because of the two-step method. It was almost like a pound cake, and my only thought is that the all-purpose flour made it too dense. Perhaps it’s worth making again with cake flour. My dad liked the box cake the best, and well, I’m just not even going there. If you can’t taste the chemicals, I guess you can go for it, but I think it’s nasty.
So there you have it. I have enough cake in my freezer to last the zombie apocalypse and I’ve gained at least five pounds. Another test round is definitely in order, but for now I need a break.
Note: I also created a page with my favorite baking tips & tricks here to help with any questions related to my methods.