ok, this is gonna be a long one. i’m happy to wait if you’d like to get a cup of tea, perhaps a snack.
let’s start with some fun facts:
fun fact #1: my husband’s birthday is in january.
fun fact #2: my birthday is in august.
fun fact #3: my husband and i both know the truth: yellow cake with chocolate frosting is the best kind of birthday cake. of cake, period.
as you may know, you calendar wizards you, january and august are not terrifically close together. as in, by the time august rolls around, you have probably forgotten *exactly* what something, say, yellow cake with chocolate frosting, that you ate in january tasted like. you’ve probably forgotten it at least enough that you can’t precisely determine if this cake that you are eating right now is, in fact, definitively better than the cake you ate in january. i mean, clearly the fact that it is here in front of you right now is better, but the cake itself? hard to say.
such has been my struggle over the past few years. i have been on a protracted quest to find The Best Yellow Cake with Chocolate Frosting and yet, up until now, my method has been flawed: i would make one cake and one frosting, we’d celebrate a birthday, and unless the cake was truly not good, we’d file it under “it’s good but…” and by the time the next birthday rolled around, exactly what was not quite ideal about the last cake would have blurred a little in our memories.
i finally realized what i had to do: i had to spend an entire weekend baking a bunch of (half) cakes, one right after the next. and there would be taste tests, and comparison grid sheets created in excel, and tinkering. and a winner. there would be a definitive winner.
and there was. well, at least kind of. we did select a favorite cake but the perfect frosting still eludes us. or, rather, it is more dependent on your personal preference. without further ado, here is what we learned:
the first cake i made was one that i had eaten and enjoyed before. the recipe comes from a friend who loves to bake and is super good at it, so i knew we’d have a solid start. taste testers unanimously agreed that this cake had the best flavor of the four yellow cake recipes that i made. the only downside was that the cake was a smidge drier than the moistest cake.
the second cake i made i expected to love, as i basically always love the recipes on the blog where i found this recipe. and yet. did. not. love. i think this cake would be a solid choice if you were baking it into a t-rex mold and wanted to make sure rexy’s arm didn’t fall off because the cake was too delicate. aside from that, we found this cake to be the driest and densest of the lot. i likened it to a non-sweetened cornbread. each to their own preferences, this just wasn’t ours.
cake numero tres was from another popular food blog (we’ll call this “blog two”). this yellow cake easily won best texture: it was super moist and had a nice lightly caramelized “crust” without being dry, even at the edges. magic i tell you. the only downside was that the cake flavor wasn’t quite as good as the first cake from my friend.
the last cake i made used a recipe from a reputable authority on recipe development. their massive cookbook contained more than one recipe for yellow cake and i had previously made another yellow cake of theirs and didn’t love it so this time i tried a different yellow cake recipe from their cookbook. didn’t love that one either. my husband and i had basically opposite opinions of this cake on each individual measure (he thought it was sticky, i thought i was dry) but we both agreed this was not the one.
at this point, we had totally eliminated two of the cake recipes and i was down to tinkering with my friend’s recipe and blog two’s recipe. because baking secretly = chemistry and relationships and because i <3 excel, i made a comparison grid to tease out the relationships between the wet, dry, and tasty ingredients to see if i could create The Cake. i knew that i wanted the flavor of my friend’s cake with the moisture/texture of blog two’s cake. after all of my complex calculations, in the end, it came down to increasing the milk in my friend’s recipe by 1 oz. hardly rocket science.
but it worked! when i made frankencake #5, it had the great flavor from my friend’s original recipe and a moisture level closer to the blog two recipe. yum! even though i was using ingredient ratios based on my friend’s recipe, i opted to use the method from blog two since i liked the final texture of that cake better.
finally, the chocolate frosting conundrum. as i alluded to earlier, my taste tester and i didn’t agree on which frosting was objectively better. he liked the chocolate buttercream, which i found too sweet. i liked the intense chocolate flavor and balanced sweetness of the chocolate sour cream frosting but my taste tester wasn’t digging the sour cream flavor. so for now, until we find that elusive chocolate frosting that we both prefer, we’re using the buttercream for his birthday and the chocolate sour cream frosting when it’s my turn. i’ve included the recipe for the chocolate sour cream frosting below but if you’d like the buttercream, just leave a comment – i’m happy to post it.
phew! i hope this was helpful. and what i really hope is that you don’t wait too long to put this information to use. some quick googling indicates that july and august are peak months for birthdays but even if you don’t have any birthdays coming up, this is a great graduation celebration or “just because” cake, so whatever your (non-) occasion, enjoy!
- 210 g. (1 ¾ cups / ~7 3/8 oz.) cake flour (see notes), plus extra for the pans
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 5 oz. (1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons / 74 ml) milk (skim, 2%, whole, and soy all work)
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 2 sticks (227 g. / 8 oz. / 1 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature (see notes), plus extra for the pans
- 297 g. (1 ½ cups / 10 ½ oz.) granulated sugar
- 4 large eggs, room temperature (see notes)
- 1 stick (113 g. / 4 oz. / 1/2 cup) unsalted butter
- 57 g. (2 oz.) unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
- 25.5 g. (1/3 cup/ 1 oz.) natural, unsweetened cocoa powder (not dutch process)
- 113.5 g. (1 cup / 4 oz.) powdered sugar, sifted
- 113.5 g. (1/2 cup / 4 oz.) sour cream, room temperature (i’ve used full and low fat successfully and imagine fat free would work too)
- 113 g. (4 oz.) unsweetened chocolate
- 340 g. (12 oz. / 3 cups) powdered sugar, sifted
- 1 stick (113 g. / 4 oz. / 1/2 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1/3 cup (80 ml) milk, room temperature (any kind works, i use skim)
- butter the sides and bottoms of two 9” round cake pans (my inner thrifty 1950s housewife wants me to remind you that you can use the wrappers from your sticks of butter to grease the pans). trace the pans onto parchment paper, cut just inside the lines of your trace marks, and put the circles in the pan. (believe me, i’d like to skip this step too, and you can, but you will lose about 2 tablespoons of cake crumbs from the bottom of each cake.) butter the parchment paper and then flour all of the insides of each pan.
- position the oven rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat the oven to 350° F.
- in a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt. (if you’re making your own cake flour, you can sift the cornstarch, baking powder, and salt into the flour together all at once.) set aside.
- measure the milk into a liquid measuring cup then stir in the vanilla extract. set this aside too.
- in the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar together using the paddle attachment (or better yet, this) and medium speed, until the butter and sugar are light and fluffy. this takes about 3 minutes in a kitchenaid set to speed 4.
- reduce the mixer speed to medium low (2 on a kitchenaid) and add the eggs one at a time. beat for one minute after each egg is added. don’t worry if the batter begins to look a little curdled.
- reduce the mixer to its lowest speed and add the flour and the milk, alternating back and forth. start and end with the flour (so you’ll have 3 batches of flour and 2 batches of milk). just before the batter is completely combined, stop the mixer and finish combining the ingredients with a rubber spatula. be sure to scrape up and incorporate any bits stuck to the bottom of the bowl.
- divide the batter evenly between the two prepared cake pans. if you really want to make sure the cake layers will be even, you can weigh the filled pans but i never fuss with this. spread the batter slightly thicker at the edges to help combat the doming effect as the cake rises.
- bake for 20 – 25 minutes. as soon as you can smell the cake, take a quick peek at it to make sure it’s not cooking faster than expected (overcooked cake is dry cake). the goal is for a toothpick to come out of the center clean. the center should be light golden and the edges will be just beginning to brown.
- once the cakes are done baking, remove from the oven and place the pans on wire cooling racks for 10 minutes. after the cakes have cooled in the pans for 10 minutes, run a thin spatula or butter knife gently around the edge of the pan to loosen any areas that may be stuck. place a wire rack over the top of the cake and turn the whole unit upside down to release the cake. repeat with the other cake pan. remove parchment from both cakes and let them cool completely. this will take several hours. you must be patient. around here, we refer to yellow cake with chocolate frosting as “slider cake” after one very well-intentioned but impatient birthday cake making experience in which the not-completely-cooled cakes melted the frosting sandwiched between them and the top cake developed a huge fault line, before finally sliding off the bottom layer entirely. attempts at toothpick buttressing were wholly unsuccessful. just let the cake cool.
- in a double boiler (aka heat proof bowl set over a pan of simmering water), melt the chocolate and butter, stirring constantly so that everything melts evenly.
- remove bowl from heat and let cool 5 minutes. whisk in the cocoa powder.
- whisk in most of the sugar and most of the sour cream, reserving a little bit of each so that you can taste the frosting and decide which one, if either, it needs more of. whisk until everything is well combined and the frosting is adjusted to your taste.
- in a double boiler (aka heat proof bowl from your mixer set over a pan of simmering water), melt the chocolate, stirring constantly so that it melts evenly.
- remove bowl from heat and let cool 5 minutes. add the sugar, butter, and vanilla, and beat on low speed, slowly drizzling the milk in (watch for splashes).
- once the cakes are really and truly totally cool (please see #10 above: “slider cake”), put your serving plate upside down and centered over whichever cake layer you want to be the bottom. flip the whole thing upside down. fancy people put strips of waxed paper under the bottom layer of cake so that the frosting doesn’t get all over the serving plate. i only do that when i’m trying to impress y’all. truth.
- anyway, spread 1/4 - 1/3 of the frosting gently over the top of the bottom layer of cake. once that layer is frosted, carefully flip the remaining layer onto the bottom layer. spread a thin layer of frosting over the top and sides of the cake, then go over it again with a thicker layer of frosting. apparently this is known as a “crumb coat” by people who know about things like frosting cakes. i have always thought of it as “i’m not sure how much frosting i have vs. how much cake i have to cover so i better start off sparingly so my cake doesn’t have bald spots”. either way. (see notes for further instructions on being fancy.)
- and off you go! enjoy your cake!
cake flour: my friend warned me that while king arthur and swan’s down brands of cake flour both work well, pillsbury, for some reason, produces a cake “like a spongy hockey puck”. if you don’t have cake flour, measure out 210 g. / 1 ¾ cups of all purpose flour, then remove 3.5 tablespoons of flour from what you measured out. add 3.5 tablespoons of cornstarch instead. sift 5 times and you’re ready to go. joy the baker has more detailed instructions, if you’re so inclined.
room temperature butter: to bring butter to room temperature more quickly, slice it into roughly tablespoon chunks. this method isn’t instant, but it is much faster than waiting for the intact stick to soften.
room temperature eggs: to bring eggs to room temperature more quickly, fill a medium bowl with barely warm (we’re talking inside of your wrist registers it as barely warm) water and put the eggs in the bowl. check them every few minutes by removing them from the bowl and holding them to see if they still feel cold.
frosting: you only need one of these two frostings; i'm listing both because my husband and i don't agree on which one is superior.
decorating: for anything fancier than getting the frosting onto the cake in a roughly even layer with no cake showing through, please refer to i am baker. she’s amazing and does all of those amazing cake decorating things that i will never even attempt because i have a good amount of self-awareness and just about zero patience. namaste.
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