Every baker has their own arsenal of classic recipes. They all have their preferred versions of almost anything, but not many discuss how long it took them to get to that choice of a recipe. I’m still very much a beginner baker, and as I try to build my own arsenal, there’s tons of trial and error in choosing recipes, testing, and tasting.
I’ve been searching for the perfect yellow cake recipe for a couple of years now. It’s complicated because the recipe stratosphere is crowded with hundreds of variations of the same thing. There’s no way to test them all, and there’s no way to tell which one’s the best. As I go through many of these recipes, I ask myself what it is I’m looking for exactly. Criteria is important because how else will you know if a certain recipe is “it?” For me, it has to do with what I grew up with.
As a kid, I grew up with Dominican cakes; which consist of two yellow cake layers, a middle layer of some sort of filling, all covered in meringue frosting (similar to 7 minute frosting). My entire cake life revolved around this style of cake, and still kind of does. There’s only one bakery that does these cakes the “right” way (according to my mom, and everyone else we’ve introduced those cakes to), but I have yet to find a recipe that resembles their yellow cake.
While that still haunts me from time to time, I set out on looking for a different kind of cake that still reminded me of my childhood. I’ve mentioned here before how my dad was the resident baker in my house way back in the day. I inherited his hand mixer, which we got at a garage sale, and consequently killed it last year (RIP green Presto mixer; you lived a long and productive life). He used it to make boxed cake mix for us every now and then. I watched him in the kitchen (obviously) when he made it because mixing powder with some eggs, oil, and milk into a real cake was mind blowing. It actually still is, more because I know how to make them from scratch now. He used to make them in a 9×13″ pan, which produced a golden brown pillow sized cake. I remember fighting with my sister over the who got the corner pieces, and arguing with my dad that cakes taste best warm so he’d let us eat it straight out of the oven.
Besides the awesome memories, I remember how the cake tasted. It was box mix, so it tasted exactly the same each and every time. It still tastes the same today, but I haven’t had box mix in forever. It tasted like perfection; like how all cakes should taste. There’s no other way to describe it. When I’m not trying to resemble those Dominican cakes, this is my standard. What cake recipe can resemble a box mix, without the box mix, and taste like what I remembered from when I was a kid?
I had planned on making cupcakes a couple weeks ago for my class. I’m not back in school but am part of a program that requires a month of class. So, me and 11 other awesome grads hang out every night and learn about digital marketing, and other business skills we need to know. Since before classes started, I knew I wanted to use them as my guinea pigs for testing recipes. Sounds bad saying it like that, but I mean no harm! Anyway, I wanted to take some cupcakes in for two reasons; I hadn’t made any cupcakes in forever and because who doesn’t love cupcakes?! I thought about what flavor combinations I could use and came up with the classic yellow cake and chocolate frosting. I know most people grew up with this kind of cake for their birthdays. None of us are those people but the combo is such a classic, I wanted to go for it anyway.
Trust me when I tell you that this cake tastes like my childhood. It was ridiculously amazing. I’m still perplexed as to how I can bake a cake from scratch that tastes so similar to box mix! The cakes came out super soft and fluffy, with a hint of a golden brown hue from the oven. It was like a melt in your mouth kind of experience. Then coupled with chocolate frosting, it was just great. The frosting had a slight tang from the cream cheese and sour cream but still packed a chocolatey punch; thanks to the cocoa powder and semisweet chocolate in there. It also wasn’t overwhelmingly sweet, which happens with most frostings. I loved them, my folks loved them, and my class loved them too!
While this isn’t the recipe that resembles the cakes from birthdays past, it does take me back to being in the kitchen with my dad as I watched him transform a cake mix into a real cake. That right there is reason enough to put this one in my arsenal.
Classic Yellow Cupcakes – adapted from Smitten Kitchen
Makes 30 cupcakes
- 4 cups plus 2 tablespoons cake flour (sifted before measuring!)
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon table salt
- 2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 4 large eggs, at room temperature
- 2 cups buttermilk, well-shaken
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Place cupcake liners into your cupcake/muffin tins.
- Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy. Incorporate the vanilla, and add eggs 1 at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition.
- At low speed, beat in buttermilk until just combined (mixture will look curdled and gross; do not be deterred!). Add flour mixture in three batches, mixing until each addition is just incorporated.
- Spoon batter into lined cups, 3/4 of the way up, then rap pan on counter several times to eliminate air bubbles. Bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 22 to 24 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes, then remove cupcakes from the pan to finish cooling on the racks. Cool completely before frosting.
Cream Cheese Sour Cream Chocolate Frosting – adapted from Martha Stewart
Makes enough to frost those 30 cupcakes (4 cups)
- 2 1/4 cups powdered sugar
- 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- Pinch of salt
- 6oz softened cream cheese, room temperature
- 1 1/2 sticks of unsalted butter, softened
- 9oz bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, melted and slightly cooled
- 3/4 cups sour cream
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- Over a double boiler, carefully melt the chocolate. Remove from heat and set aside.
- In a medium sized bowl, sift together the powdered sugar, cocoa powder, and salt.
- In a large bowl, cream together the softened butter and cream cheese until smooth. Gradually add the sugar/cocoa mix, scraping down the bowl after each addition.
- Pour in the melted chocolate until incorporated. Finally, beat in the sour cream and vanilla until combined.
- Frost cupcakes!
- Always, always, ALWAYS, sift your cake flour before measuring. Sift, and gently spoon into your measuring cups. Sift once more after measuring for added security. I know, it seems like a ton of work but trust me, it’s worth it!
- The recipe calls for large eggs (as all recipes do; it’s the standard in baking) but I got away with using three jumbo eggs (my folks don’t believe in eggs that are smaller). Use what you have, just be mindful of the amount of moisture you’re adding vs. what’s needed.
- The frosting is pretty good but I feel like the sour cream can almost be optional.
- Deb lied to me in telling me this recipe made 22 to 24 cupcakes. I expected that many but ended up with 30. I usually have the opposite of that problem but just a heads up (not that 30 cupcakes is a bad thing; I’m happy I got more it’s just that I wasn’t ready to have my kitchen overtaken by cupcakes!)
- To ensure the same amount of batter goes into every cupcake, use an ice cream scoop/disher to distribute the batter.