When I decided that I wanted to solve the mysteries of cake, I knew right away that it had to begin with yellow cake. Yellow vanilla cake, in all its simplicity, is everything that cake needs to be.
I didn’t want to start with chocolate cake, I didn’t want to start with red velvet cake, or anything crazy like carrot cake. Vanilla is a good baseline, a gatekeeper of sorts, to examine basic flavor, texture, moisture level, and bake time without being distracted by other flavors. So that was all I tried, here and there in my spare time, for about three months. You would be amazed how bad some of the recipes are, out there on the pages of a vast internet.
Once I found this recipe, though, it was a game changer. It hasn’t failed me yet and I expect I’ll be swearing by it for a long, long time. If mixed correctly, this cake is light, moist, spongy, with none of that questionable taste that comes from a boxed mix.
This is a very slightly modified version of Deb Perelman’s “Best Birthday Cake” from her Smitten Kitchen blog. If you take away anything from reading what I post here, I hope you decide to lose yourself in some of her recipes. She’s a treasure trove of information in all sorts of kitchen subjects, cooking and baking alike. In the same way that I credit her with this recipe, she too usually credits where she adapted her recipes from. Oddly, in this case she does not, so this one may come directly from her. Here’s the link.
When I say slightly modified, I really mean slightly. The main alteration is the substitution of half the fat for oil. When you use only butter in a cake, it runs the risk of drying out the baked good. It doesn’t seem especially intuitive if you don’t bake much, but all-butter cakes can actually lean towards the drier side. Consider how moist and fluffy a cake made from a boxed mix is. What’s the biggest difference between an all-butter recipe and the box? Oil. Oil provides a lot of moisture in baking whereas butter provides flavor. This recipe has both so we get the best of both worlds.
The only other alteration is regarding what kind of flour you wish to use, which I have noted in the Ingredients section below.
Regarding yields, this recipe can be easily halved or doubled depending on your project. For example, I do a half batch of this recipe to achieve 1 dozen cupcakes.
- two 8″ rounds, OR
- a maximum of 32 cupcakes
- 4 cups (480g) Cake Flour*
- 2 tsp Baking Powder
- 1 1/2 tsp Baking Soda
- 1 tsp Salt
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) Unsalted Butter, at room temperature
- 1/2 cup Vegetable Oil
- 2 cups (400g) Granulated Sugar
- 2 tsp Vanilla Extract
- 4 Large Eggs, at room temperature
- 2 cups (475ml) Buttermilk, well shaken, at room temperature
*Cake Flour is quite expensive compared to All Purpose Flour, at least at grocery store prices. Make your own Cake Flour! For every cup of All Purpose Flour, replace 2 tablespoons with the same amount of Corn Starch. If you weigh rather than measure, 15g Corn Starch + 105g AP Flour = 1 cup Cake Flour.
- Preheat your oven to 325°F if baking cakes. Preheat your oven to 350°F if baking cupcakes. Grease and flour your cake pans. Ensure that your Eggs, Butter, and Buttermilk are out and warming up to room temperature.
- Sift Cake Flour (or All Purpose Flour + Corn Starch), Baking Powder, Baking Soda, and Salt into a bowl to remove any lumps. Whisk to evenly distribute ingredients throughout the flour mixture.
- Using a stand mixer or hand mixer, cream Butter and Sugar at medium speed until the mixture is pale in color and fluffy. Scrape down bowl.
- Add the Vanilla Extract and one Egg. Mix until well combined and scrape down bowl. Continue adding Eggs one at at time, scraping down the bowl between each addition.
- Add the Oil and mix until well combined. Scrape down bowl.
- With mixer at a slow speed, gradually pour in the Buttermilk and mix until just combined. (Deb points out that the mixture will look curdled at this point. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, either way don’t worry about it. I believe it has happened most when I use all butter and no oil.)
- Add the Flour mixture in two additions, mixing only until just combined and scraping down the bowl after each addition. If there is flour showing after the final mix, gently fold it into the batter by spatula.
- Divide batter between your cake pans / cupcake liners and bake. Cakes, regardless of time, are done when a toothpick comes out clean with no batter and minimal crumbs, and the center of the cake is firm and springs back when touched.
- Approximately 18-20 minutes for cupcakes.
- Approximately 60-65 minutes for 8″ round cakes.
- Cool cakes in their pans for at least 10 minutes before attempting to remove. Cool cake on rack until completely cool, approximately 1 hour. Cupcakes may be removed from cupcake tins after only a few minutes, and will not take nearly as long to cool.