Or should I call it Pandemic Yellow Cake? Why, oh why would I call this a Pandemic Yellow Cake? Because we are experiencing one of the strangest and scariest times the world has known since the influenza epidemic of 1918, and in the middle of it all, I am trying to make a decent yellow cake from scratch. It actually started years ago when I got the recipe from my friend Susan. She told me that she absolutely loved this recipe, but that the last few times she had made it, the cake had a dense line running through the middle of it, so it wasn’t the fluffy wonderful cake she remembered. I never got around to trying the recipe until last week, for Matthew’s birthday.
Of course I made some changes right off the bat, which is not a good idea, but I was out of cake flour, so I substituted a combination of all-purpose flour with a bit of cornstarch, which you will find all over the internet as a fine substitute. I also decided to mess around with the egg configuration…. don’t ask me why. So the cake was good, but not great, and day two it was starting to be not as good, and really needed the ice cream to compensate for the denseness. The texture was a bit off, and the flavor too. But it still was a beautiful cake that tasted pretty darn good on Day #1.
I thought I could let this go, but when I was out in search of flour yesterday, because all of the stores are sold out because everyone is baking while quaranting themselves, I spied a box of King Arthur cake flour on the shelves, and knew I had to have a second shot at this cake.
I decided to only make half a cake, because, well, #quarantinefifteen. And also, last week was Matthew’s birthday, and this Saturday is Mara’s birthday, and we really don’t need a cake in the middle of the birthdays, but half a cake for the halfway mark, yes. And this time I followed the recipe to a T, and resisted all urges that I had to tweak it. This recipe comes from America’s Test Kitchen, and, made following all the instructions, it is fantastic. The cake is tender, moist and velvety, and the edges have a slight crispness to them that is oh so delicious. And the flavor is buttery and just the right amount of sweet. For the best texture, enjoy this cake the day it is made. I will include little tips about what I did to make this cake a success.
Have your milk, eggs, and butter all at room temperature. Very important. Don’t skip this step!! If you are impatient like me, here is what I do to speed up the process. I turn on my oven to 350° and preheat it for FORTY-FIVE SECONDS. Then turn the oven off. Please read this carefully. You just want your oven to be a little warmer than your kitchen. I then put the milk and eggs and butter (cut into pieces) into the oven and leave them in there for an hour or so. Today it was an hour and a half and it seemed to be perfect. You want to take the chill off of everything. Imagine a hot summer day in your non-air-conditioned kitchen. That’s your oven that is TURNED OFF.
When you are ready to go, prepare your 9″cake pan: grease inside of pan with unsalted butter, put a round of parchment paper on the bottom, then grease the parchment paper. Now flour the inside of the pan and tap out the excess.
Remove the milk, eggs, and butter from the oven (if you have used that technique to bring items to room temp, or if you are hiding them from your cats). Now preheat your empty oven to 350°.
Combine the cake flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl and whisk well.
Beat the sugar and butter in a large bowl. I like to use an hand mixer so I have more control and can mix thoroughly and see what’s going on. Beat on med-high until the mixture is light in color and fluffy. The recipe says to beat for 3 to 6 minutes, but for me, I watched the mixture like a hawk, and when I noticed the texture change, I stopped. It took about 2 minutes. You don’t want to over beat the sugar and butter [sigh]. If you over beat, the butter gets too soft, which will make for a flatter, less fluffy cake. Who knew? When I say texture change, what I mean is that it goes from grainy to fluffy and incorporated. I never really paid that much attention until now. I think it makes a difference.
Then add your eggs, one at time, beating just until incorporated, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula between each addition.
Now add the vanilla to the room temp milk.
Add 1/3 of the cake flour mixture to the butter/sugar/egg mixture and beat on low just until incorporated. Add half of the milk/vanilla combination and beat until incorporated. Continue with 1/3 of the flour mixture, then the other half of the milk/vanilla mixture, and end with the flour, always beating on low just to mix. Pour the batter into a prepared 9″ round cake pan and spread the top to fill the pan evenly.
Pick up your filled cake pan and hold it about 4 inches above your counter, and drop the pan one time. This will get rid of any larger air bubbles so the cake has a nice even crumb. Then spin the cake pan on the counter one time, like a spinning top. This creates centrifugal force and causes the cake batter to creep up the side of the pan, which makes for less of a dome shape when baking.
Place on middle rack in preheated 350° oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes (mine took 23 minutes). I always check sooner. At twenty-one minutes there was a teeny bit of sludge on the toothpick tester. At twenty-three minutes there were a few crumbs but no sludge. Perfect. Time to take out of the oven.
Let cool in the pan on cooling rack for about fifteen minutes.
Then remove from pan and cool completely before frosting.
If you haven’t noticed from the pictures, I only made enough batter for one 9″ round cake. So it’s half the original recipe (I am including the full recipe below, so please don’t let the pictures confuse you as to amounts). And guess what I did to still make a fancy layer cake? I frosted the one cake, making it look beautiful, and putting wax paper around the edges to make for easy clean up.
I then cut the cake in half using a very sharp knife.
Then I stacked the two halves.
Because everyone loves a festive layer cake!
Buttery Yellow Cake
(From America’s Test Kitchen – makes 2 9″ round cakes)
- 2 3/4 cups (12.5 ounces) cake flour (I used King Arthur cake flour)
- 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
- 1 3/4 cups sugar
- 4 large eggs at room temperature
- 1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 cups whole milk, at room temperature
(Adapted from the Hershey’s Cocoa chocolate frosting recipe)
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
- 2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
- 3 cups powdered sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt or table salt
- 1/3 cup milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
To make the cake:
- Preheat oven to 350°
- Grease 2 9″ round cake pans with unsalted butter. Place round parchment on the bottom of pans. Grease parchment paper. Dust with flour and tap out the excess.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the cake flour, baking powder, and salt.
- In a large bowl, beat together the softened butter and sugar on medium-high until light and fluffy – 2 to 3 minutes. Watch closely for change in texture and do not over beat.
- Beat in eggs one at a time just until incorporated, scraping down side of bowl with spatula between each addition.
- Add vanilla to room temperature milk.
- On low speed, beat in 1/3 of the flour mixture, then 1/2 of milk/vanilla, then 1/3 of flour, then the other half of the milk. End with the last third of the flour, always mixing only enough to incorporate.
- Pour batter into prepared pans, smoothing to the edges of pans. One at a time, hold each pan about 4 inches above your counter and drop the pan to eliminate any large bubbles. Give each pan a spin to encourage the batter to creep up the sides a bit, to make less of a dome shape when baking.
- Place pans on middle rack of preheated 350° oven, and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until a toothpick comes out with just a few crumbs on it. Start checking at 20 minutes. Do not over-bake!
- Remove from oven and cool in the pans on a cooling rack for about ten to fifteen minutes. Remove cakes from pans and let finish cooling on racks. Cool completely before frosting.
To make the frosting:
- Place butter, cocoa, powdered sugar, salt, and vanilla in a medium bowl. Add one tablespoon of the milk. Mix on medium speed. Slowly drizzle in more milk, one tablespoon at a time, until you reach desired consistency.
A side note: This is an older recipe from America’s Test Kitchen. Over the years they have come up with all kinds of ways to improve on this cake. But this recipe is simple and not fussy, and the cake is lovely. If you want the cake to be a little fluffier, try whipping 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream to stiff peaks, and folding it into the batter just before pouring into the cake pans. If you want the cake to be a little more moist, replace 1/4 cup of the butter with 1/4 cup canola oil. If you want to add a bit of tang to the flavor, try replacing the milk with buttermilk, and adding 1/2 teaspoon baking soda to the dry ingredients, which should also add more height to the cake. But before you go messing around with this recipe, make it just as is with no changes. Let me know what you think.