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Yellow Layer Cake

BECAUSE EVERYONE DESERVES A HOMEMADE BIRTHDAY CAKE

When it comes to celebrating a birthday, nothing says you care quite like a homemade cake. Of course, for many cooks “homemade” starts with a box mix. And that’s a shame. These high-tech cakes certainly look great, but once the candles have been blown out things go downhill. All the additives that make the cake so tall and fluffy don’t do much for the flavor.

Many bakers turn to box mixes because truly homemade recipes often yield dense, squat layers. Many from-scratch cakes taste buttery and delicious, but they don’t have the necessary height to make a true showstopper. And their short stature means that the cake-to-frosting ratio is out of whack. (Yes, there is such a thing as too much frosting.)

We set out to rework the classic yellow cake recipe, taking what we like about the box mixes (height and texture) and combining that with real ingredients. Our goal was to produce fluffy cake layers that were sturdy enough to frost easily. An ingenious solution helped us achieve stunning results.

Chiffon cakes are especially weightless, springy, and moist, but they are too light to stand up to a serious slathering of frosting. So we adapted a chiffon technique (using a large quantity of whipped egg whites to get a light texture) with ingredients from our favorite butter cake recipe. This unorthodox method produces a light, porous cake that is sturdy enough to hold the frosting’s weight.

As for the frosting, a hefty amount of cocoa powder combined with melted chocolate creates intense flavor, while corn syrup, along with the usual confectioners’ sugar, makes it glossy. The food processor ensures a silky-smooth result in record time.

WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS

Fully Whip the Whites

The fluffy texture of the cake layers relies heavily on whipped egg whites. For maximum volume, whip the whites (and a pinch of cream of tartar for stabilization) until foamy and then gradually add some sugar to further stabilize them. Keep whipping until the whites reach stiff peaks (see this section).

Flour First

In most cake recipes, the flour and other dry ingredients are the last items to go into the mixing bowl. In this recipe, once the whites are whipped and transferred to a clean bowl, you place the flour and dry ingredients (including most of the sugar) in the mixer bowl and begin mixing the batter by adding the egg yolk and melted butter mixture.

Fold Gently

Once the batter is smooth, it’s time to fold in the whipped whites, by hand. (The mixer would knock out too much air.) The batter is quite thick so use one-third of the whipped whites to lighten it. You can stir in this first batch of whites quite thoroughly. However, the remaining whites must be gently folded into the lightened batter. Once you no longer see large streaks of whites, stop.

Don’t Overbake

Many novice bakers worry that under-baked cake layers will stick to the pan. However, overbaked layers are just as problematic, becoming dry and even crumbly if they spend too long in the oven. Use a toothpick to tell when the cakes are done—it should come out clean when inserted into the center of the cakes.

Faster Frosting

Softened butter gives our frosting rich, old-fashioned flavor that trumps anything you can get from a can. Supplement some of the confectioners’ sugar with corn syrup for a silky texture and mix it all in a food processor for ultimate ease.

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For perfect results, prepare the pans as directed and whip the egg whites to stiff peaks.

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Fluffy Yellow Layer Cake with Chocolate Frosting

SERVES 10 TO 12

RECIPE DETAILS

Timeline

  • 30 minutes to prep ingredients (start by measuring buttermilk and separating eggs so these ingredients warm up to room temperature)
  • 15 minutes to prepare cake batter
  • 2½ hours to bake and cool cake layers (mostly hands-off)
  • 15 minutes to make frosting (best done while cake layers are cooling)
  • 10 minutes to frost cake

Essential Tools

  • Two 9-inch round cake pans (at least 2 inches tall)
  • Stand mixer
  • Toothpick for testing cake layers (If you don’t have a toothpick, gently press your fingertip into the top of a cake layer-yes, it will be hot, so be careful. If the top springs back when touched, the cake is done.)
  • Food processor
  • Large offset spatula for spreading the frosting

Substitutions & Variations

  • Cake flour is a must here; all-purpose flour will make the layers tough, dry, and dense. In a pinch, you can use 2 cups plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour mixed with 5 tablespoons cornstarch.
  • If you don’t have buttermilk, mix 1 cup regular milk with 1 tablespoon lemon juice and use this “clabbered” milk instead.
  • The frosting may be made with milk, semisweet, or bittersweet chocolate; we prefer milk chocolate for this recipe.
  • The frosted cake can be refrigerated for up to one day; bring to room temperature before serving.

Bring all the ingredients to room temperature before beginning this recipe. Cool the chocolate to between 85 and 100 degrees before adding it to the butter mixture.

CAKE

  • 2½ cups (10 ounces) cake flour
  • 1¾ cups (12¼ ounces) granulated sugar
  • 1¼ teaspoons baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup buttermilk, room temperature
  • 3 large eggs, separated, plus 3 large yolks, room temperature
  • 10   tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • Pinch cream of tartar

FROSTING

  • 20   tablespoons (2½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup (4 ounces) confectioners’ sugar
  • ¾ cup (2¼ ounces) Dutch-processed cocoa powder
  • Pinch salt
  • ¾ cup light corn syrup
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 8 ounces chocolate, melted and cooled
  1. For the Cake : Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 9-inch round cake pans, line with parchment paper, grease parchment, and flour pans. Whisk flour, 1½ cups sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in large bowl. In medium bowl, whisk together buttermilk, egg yolks, melted butter, oil, and vanilla.
  2. Using stand mixer fitted with whisk, whip egg whites and cream of tartar on medium-low speed until foamy, about 1 minute. Increase speed to medium-high and whip whites to soft billowy mounds, about 1 minute. Gradually add remaining ¼ cup sugar and whip until glossy, stiff peaks form, 2 to 3 minutes; transfer to bowl.
  3. Add flour mixture to now-empty bowl. With mixer on low speed, gradually pour in buttermilk mixture and mix until almost incorporated (a few streaks of dry flour will remain), about 15 seconds. Scrape down bowl, then beat on medium-low speed until smooth and fully incorporated, 10 to 15 seconds.
  4. Using rubber spatula, stir one-third of whites into batter, then add remaining two-thirds whites and gently fold into batter until no white streaks remain. Divide batter evenly between prepared pans, smooth tops with rubber spatula, and gently tap pans on counter to release air bubbles.
  5. Bake cakes until toothpick inserted in centers comes out clean, 20 to 22 minutes, switching and rotating pans halfway through baking. Let cakes cool in pans on wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove cakes from pans, discard parchment, and let cool completely, about 2 hours, before frosting. (Cooled cakes can be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and kept at room temperature for up to 1 day. Cakes can also be wrapped tightly in plastic, then aluminum foil, and frozen for up to 1 month; defrost cakes at room temperature before unwrapping and frosting.)
  6. For the Frosting: Process butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt in food processor until smooth, about 30 seconds, scraping down bowl as needed. Add corn syrup and vanilla and process until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Scrape down bowl, then add chocolate and process until smooth and creamy, 10 to 15 seconds.
  7. To Assemble the Cake: Line edges of cake platter with 4 strips of parchment paper to keep platter clean. Place 1 small dab of frosting in center of platter, then place cake layer on prepared platter. Place generous 1 cup frosting in center of cake layer and, using large offset spatula, spread in even layer right to edge of cake. Place second cake layer on top, making sure layers are aligned, then frost top in same manner as first layer, this time spreading frosting until slightly over edge. Gather more frosting on tip of spatula and gently spread frosting onto side of cake. Smooth frosting by gently running edge of spatula around cake and leveling ridge that forms around top edge, or create billows by pressing back of spoon into frosting and twirling spoon as you lift away. Carefully pull out pieces of parchment from beneath cake before serving.

A Better Way to Frost a Cake

Many cooks make a mess of the frosting process. They either try to move the cake to a serving platter after it’s been frosted (a big mistake) or they frost the cake on the serving platter without protecting it. Before you start, make sure the cake layers are level. (Flat layers are essential for a well-constructed cake that doesn’t lean.) If necessary, use a serrated knife to saw off the domed top.

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1). Line flat platter or cake stand with 4 strips of parchment paper. Place small dab of frosting in center of platter, then set first cake layer on frosting to anchor it in place.

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2). Place generous 1 cup frosting in center of cake layer and use large offset spatula to spread frosting up to edge of cake.

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3). Align second cake layer on top. Frost top, this time spreading frosting until slightly over edge. Gather more frosting on tip of spatula and gently spread frosting onto side of cake, using gentle up and down motion.

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4). Gently run edge of spatula around sides to smooth out bumps and tidy area where frosting on top and sides merge. Remove parchment strips and serve.

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