The hunt for the perfect yellow cake- round 1

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 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.

Yellow Cake Recipe Test Round 1

It’s a hard job, but somebody has to do it

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.

Yellow Cake Recipe Test Round 1

The contenders

Recipes:

#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, and you can see my recipe here.

#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)

#5- Cook’s Illustrated Fluffy Yellow Layer Cake, (I need to go buy the book– and so should you, but until then, the recipe can be found here)

*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.

Yellow Cake Recipe Test Round 1

Results:

#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?

Yellow Cake Recipe Test Winners Round 1

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.

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18 responses to “The hunt for the perfect yellow cake- round 1

  1. Pingback: Yellow Layer Cake with Raspberry & Vanilla Buttercream | Lucy Cakes·

  2. so glad I came across this when searching for the perfect yellow cake well guess what I need the perfect chocolate frosting too hehe thank you for the post I will be looking forwars to see round two of the best yellow cake recipe !

    • So glad I could help! Try the recipe for raspberry vanilla buttercream and just replace the jam for a couple ounces of your favorite chocolate. Swiss meringue buttercream is very stable and will work for whatever cake you decide to bake.

  3. Finding the perfect yellow cake is quite an ordeal, I love your scientific approach. Great post! Thanks for the follow and I am so happy to have found your blog.

    • Isn’t it, though?!?! I got so frustrated that it was easy to get a moist chocolate cake, but much more difficult for a yellow cake. I’ve been meaning to revisit this post, as there are definitely other modifications I want to test out. It’s just one the requires a lot of work, and also depends on what you’re using the cake for (in my case, buttercream cakes) I LOVE your blog! How do you like working for Food52? I love that site.

  4. Oh I’m so excited to try your recipe! I was thinking about separating the eggs/folding in the whites. Do you think your recipe would hold up to stacking? Eg- wedding cakes? It’s such a challenge for them too as I find that sometimes architecture wins out over texture/flavor. I haven’t ever entered recipes as I guess I feel like mine aren’t good enough yet, haha. I’ve thought about looking into their contests. I also am in the process of moving my blog and working on my etsy shop (www.etsy.com/shop/lucyjanecakes) so that’s be consuming a lot of my time right now.

  5. YUM, that looks so good. I did the Cook’s fluffy yellow layer cake for my kid’s birthday, and it was delish 🙂 It’s sitting in my files for a write-up soon. Thanks for the follow, Lucy! I just love this taste test you crafted 🙂

  6. Thank you for your testing! I am forever picking 2 or 3 recipes to try and if I am lucky, one of them will be good. You are quite right – yellow cakes are tricky. I will be trying both the winners myself, to see which one we like best. And the raspberry frosting sounds delish too!

    Alicia
    (and for what it’s worth, going only by the picture, I picked numbers 3 and 5 to be the best ones as well! 🙂 )

  7. I was looking for a yellow cake recipe to play around with using oil because I don’t have any butter right now so I think I am going to attempt # 3. But I have a question. The directions say to “whisk” so does that mean I should not use a paddle attachment to mix cake # 3?

    • I used the whisk attachment on my kitchen aid but I’m sure the paddle attachment would work just fine! Let me know how you like the cake.. I have to do a second round of cake tests as I’ve found more recipes to test out!

  8. I know you had a bit of a tie, but just wanted to share that I also did a “taste test” with one of your same winning cakes! I LOVE the Cook’s Illustrated recipe for Fluffy Yellow Layer Cake and Foolproof Chocolate Frosting! I tried a bunch of yellow cake recipes, side by side, I think seven recipes, broken up into two tastings a year apart, and my five already loved chocolate frosting recipes, and this was my favorite yellow cake (both years) AND favorite chocolate frosting! Best cake taste and texture! Awesome silky frosting! We love it with both milk and bittersweet chocolate depending on the type of cake I am frosting. Highly recommended!!!

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