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yellow birthday cake

Welcome back to my recipe testing series! I launched this series back in 2018 because I know many of you are equally passionate about learning the hows and whys of baking. This is where I show you all my baking blunders before I land on a recipe success.

Today is Latest Recipe Testing post #11. 😉

For the sake of conserving ingredients (and not being able to find some), I haven’t been testing as many recipes the past 2 months. So everything you see in this post was from the winter. We’ll mostly focus on all my yellow cake recipe flops because there were… many. Before I started working on yellow cake, I worked on many others including my Guinness cupcakes. I review that recipe testing process in this post, too!

Yellow Cake

The pictured yellow cake above was a recipe success! Before that, there was this:

overcooked yellow cake in a 9 inch cake pan
overcooked yellow cake

And 6 other fails. Let me walk you through each of the cakes I made before landing on perfection. To me, perfect yellow cake is buttery, moist, rich, and– of course– yellow. Here’s how I did it:

  1. Test Cake 1: I took my yellow sheet cake and baked it into a 2 layer cake. This was the easiest route, but it was beyond flat, like two yellow pancakes. (This actually inspired me to rework THAT recipe and add baking powder to the cake batter while also reducing the baking soda. See #3, #4, and #5 below. You can also read more about that recipe update in the yellow sheet cake post.)
  2. Test Cake 2: I switched directions. I took my zebra cake recipe and left out the chocolate batter. It was delicious, but it wasn’t a true yellow cake. It was like a dense vanilla cake.
  3. Test Cake 3: I went back to my yellow sheet cake. I added baking powder for extra lift. That’s the cake pictured above. There was way too much leavener so the cake rose up very high, over-browned on top, then deflated when it came out of the oven.
  4. Test Cake 4: Using yellow sheet cake as the base again, I reduced the baking powder from #3 (by too much) and reduced the baking soda as well. Still a little heavy and reminded me of cornbread. More on that next.
  5. Test Cake 5: Frustrated at this point, but determined. I added a little more baking powder and kept the baking soda the same (and these are the perfect amounts you see in yellow sheet cake and yellow cake— yellow sheet cake has a *touch* more baking powder for a little extra lift), switched to cake flour, and swapped out the milk and sour cream for 1 and 1/2 cups of buttermilk. I use buttermilk in my vanilla cake and love it. It was tasty, but not a perfect yellow cake. I’m getting close!
  6. Test Cake 6: I reduced the buttermilk and added a couple more egg yolks so we’re getting a truer, richer yellow cake flavor and color. Still a little dense though.
  7. Test Cake 7: Taking a hint from red velvet cake, I whipped the egg whites separately before gently folding them into the batter. I also added a bit of cream of tartar so the egg whites *really* hold that lifted structure. It was perfect.
  8. Again: Tested it one more time to be sure I had it right. All the edible recipe tests are actually still in my freezer!

Why Does my Cake Taste Like Cornbread?

I often run into this problem when I’m testing cake recipes. Cakes can take on the texture (and even the flavor) of cornbread if the ratio of ingredients are off. Additionally, pay close attention to your mixing methods as well as the types of ingredients you’re using. Here are all of my tips to prevent your cakes from tasting like cornbread:

  1. Measure your baking ingredients properly. This includes spooning and leveling (or weighing) your flour. Shake up your baking powder and give your baking soda a stir before measuring. Use dry measuring cups for dry ingredients and liquid measuring cups for liquid ingredients. See How to Measure Your Baking Ingredients Properly for details, a video, and more information.
  2. Use cake flour when a recipe calls for it. This makes a huge difference. Using all-purpose flour in a cake recipe that calls for cake flour could leave you with a cake that tastes like bread. Though I have a helpful DIY homemade cake flour substitute— for absolute BEST results, use real cake flour.
  3. Make sure your baking powder and baking soda are fresh. I find both begin losing strength after just 3 months and definitely after 6 months. For more information, plus how to test their effectiveness, see baking powder vs baking soda.
  4. Purchase the right ingredients. Use baking powder that is labeled as aluminum free. Use unbleached flour and, if you can find it, unbleached cake flour. (I like King Arthur Flour Unbleached Unenriched Cake Flour.) Use large eggs when a recipe calls for it. Use only egg whites or only egg yolks when a recipe calls for it.
  5. Don’t reduce the sugar in a cake recipe. Reducing the sugar will obviously change how the cake tastes, but it also changes the ratio of dry to wet ingredients in the cake batter. Similarly, it gives the butter less substance to cream with (if the cake recipe calls for creaming), which means there’s less air worked into the butter and less air in the cake batter. Dense.
  6. Do not over-mix the cake batter. If a cake recipe calls for creaming butter and sugar together, you can cream these two ingredients for a couple minutes without any issue. Once you add the eggs, be watchful of the amount of time you’re mixing. Only mix until your wet ingredients come together. And as you mix the wet and dry ingredients together, be EXTRA careful. Only mix until all of the ingredients come together. Gently whisk to rid any large lumps, if needed. Handle cake batter with care, otherwise you’ll deflate all the air.
  7. See How to Prevent a Dry or Dense Cake for even more troubleshooting help.

Baking a Perfect Cake

If you haven’t seen it, here are my 10 Baking Tips for Perfect Cakes.

slice of yellow birthday cake

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Guinness Cupcakes

My Guinness cupcakes didn’t take me quite as many tries to perfect, but I ran into similar problems. Lacking flavor, tasting too dense, etc. Here’s how my process worked:

  1. Test Cupcakes 1: I started with using my chocolate cupcakes as the base recipe, using reduced Guinness (as I do in my Guinness brownies) to replace the buttermilk. The cupcakes were nothing to write home about.
  2. Test Cupcakes 2: I added sour cream for moisture, but then the cupcakes were weighed down and still lacked… something.
  3. Test Cupcakes 3: Then I added more all-purpose flour, plus a little espresso powder for flavor, and switched to using just brown sugar (instead of white granulated and brown sugar). The cupcakes were a little more flavorful, but pretty dry. I felt I had to change the baking soda and powder to just baking soda, since we’re now using all brown sugar (acid), cocoa powder (acid), beer (acid), and sour cream (acid). Remember baking powder vs baking soda? See cupcake below on the left. Domed in the center because the leaveners were a bit off. There also wasn’t enough wet ingredients.
  4. Test Cupcakes 4: I added *a touch* more oil (1 Tablespoon), left out the baking powder, and added 1/4 extra teaspoon of baking soda.
  5. Test Cupcakes 5: Tested one more time. See cupcake below on the right. Perfect!
two chocolate cupcakes

Worth all the recipe tests. Many of you tried these around St. Patrick’s Day!

Guinness chocolate cupcakes

And coming soon! A new twist on my homemade glazed doughnuts. I cannot wait to share these in a couple weeks! What’s your favorite doughnut flavor?

donuts dough

Reader Questions and Reviews

  1. Thank you so much for the tips. I have often had the corn bread tasting problem!

  2. I loved these results! I myself was using a liquid pyrex measuring cup for dry ingredients and I caught myself! The war between Baking Soda and Powder was interesting and I learned about adding to a cake with acidic values ! So cool did not know that thanks so much Sally. Cant wait for the glazed donut update.!!

  3. One good thing about flops… you can always use strawberries and whipped topping and call it shortcake. Ice cream will cover a lot of messed up recipes also. HAHA!! I had a flop today a new recipe I tried. So disappointed but my husband ate it as shortcake. It works!

    Thank you for all your hard work on testing so many recipes.

  4. I love these posts, so much useful and interesting info as to how you bring us the fabulous recipes you do! I appreciate all the hard work you put into each and every recipe, to make them as amazing as possible; you push the limits and deliver terrific results each time, so THANK YOU, Sally! And in answer to your question…I have to say that my favorite donut flavor is probably anything with chocolate, cinnamon, or maple, or chocolate glazed donuts with a custard center. Or red velvet donuts (which I’d love to see a recipe for, if you’ve ever considered it…) 🙂

  5. I love reading about the science of baking and why this works but that doesn’t. America’s Test Kitchen and Rose Levy Baum are both very good at explaining the science of baking as well. I know it’s frustrating, but reading about the “flops” is usually fun and interesting.

  6. My favorite doughnut is maple glaze instead of plain on a glazed doughnut. The Guinness cupcakes and brownies were both hits!

  7. Glad you found yellow cake perfection, even if it took more than a few tries 🙂 I hope you got to enjoy that beautiful cake as your birthday cake. I am a big yellow, white, vanilla cake fan. Your white cake is one of the best cakes I have ever made, thank you for taking the time to share your recipe process. I love reading about it.

  8. Hi Sally!
    I made this yellow cake on Monday (it’s my birthday week, too) and it turned out amazing! All your test failures led to a perfectly moist, light, tasty yellow cake. It’s the only recipe I’ll use from now on. Thank you for making me a better baker. Take care and stay safe!

  9. I appreciate all your hard work and dedication to creating a recipe that will turn out perfect for us the first time (depending on if we follow your directions). Thank you so much. I could not do what you do…I have no patience. Thank you and hope you had a great birthday!

  10. Thank you for sharing posts like this! It is so fascinating to learn about your creative process. You are such a great resource for bakers!!

  11. Thank you so much for these posts. Over the years I’ve had had many of these mishaps. Yellow cake that was really good, was always illusive. Dense or cornbread tasting. Been there. I can always trust your recipes. Thanks again.

  12. Thanks for the baking tips especially for cakes. I find it challenging to make a cake with the right texture and taste. I appreciate all your trials to get it right!

  13. Hi Sally, my comment has nothing to do with your post, which is great and informative as always. Instead, I wanted to let you know that as I was looking at this post on my phone, I was served an overtly political ad. I tried to turn it off (or at least report it), but the buttons in the upper right corner weren’t working. I was served different ads on my laptop, so I can’t tell if the buttons would have worked there. I don’t know if you approve of these type of ads, and if you do please forgive me. But as I fellow blogger I wouldn’t want those ads on my site, so I just to make you aware that this is happening.

    Stay safe, and happy belated birthday!

    1. Oh Tammy! Thank you so much for letting me know– I had no idea. We take this very seriously and will be contacting our ad network. I profusely apologize and, as you can imagine, we do not allow ads of this sort on the website. Thank you again and I’m so sorry for the trouble.

  14. I made the recipe for glazed donuts for Mother’s day, but instead of adding vanilla to the icing I mixed raspberries with sugar and let it sit for a few minutes to get the juices out, then strained the juice into the icing. I made a double batch and the donuts were gone before dinner. : ) I have also tried it with other berries and it’s worked.

  15. Hi Sally- I love these posts that show the trial and error of baking. It’s not always perfect results and I appreciate that you show the process that goes into creating your delish content. As a newbie to recipe creation, how do you keep track of what you change/do for each recipe? Do you keep a pen and paper in the kitchen with you to write down your steps? I feel like I’m a pretty successful baker/cook but I’m terrible about keeping track of what I changed so that I can learn to be more consistent. And have consistent results when others try my recipes. Thanks for the insight!

    1. Thank you so much Tierney! I wish I had a glamorous method to share, but I just use a notebook. My desk is full of old ones with scribbles of recipes. Usually one recipe has several scribbled pages. I detail the notes as I go along writing down the exact ingredients and the results, so I know what I may need to change on the next test. If it’s for a recipe I know I definitely want to publish on my blog, sometimes I write my notes in the draft mode of a recipe blog post instead.

  16. Hi Sally! No need to reply to this–just a quick comment to say that I l-o-o-o-o-o-v-e your Guinness brownies and would probably never make the cupcakes because, well, cupcakes can never be brownies. But your experimenting with the cupcakes highlights the problems I had with a couple of recipes for similar cupcakes on other sites–very little flavor and kind of dry. So if I ever think I do need cupcakes instead of brownies (can’t imagine why that would happen, but someone might specifically ask for cupcakes, I guess), then I’ll give your recipe a try. Love your site!

  17. Hi Sally,
    Thank you for sending met this article on Cake Fails! My cake looked just like the picture of the brown top with the sunken center (except as a 9×13). I was having oven issues and now have that figured out. I did not sift my flour, I also may have mixed the wet and dry ingredients just a bit too much. Not a lot, but a bit. So, my next try I am hoping to make your Lemon Cake again and have it turn out like a cake and not a heavy, dense cornbread type cake that I ended up with. The lemon frosting was a winner and helped the failed cake get eaten very, very easily though!

  18. Thank you so much for posting the cornbread cake problems. Alas, I have had that far to often. I do intend to write on the baking powder and soda packages the date I bought them and when to replace.

  19. I have used your doughnut recipe for a few different variations! I have done them stuffed, with your lemon curd and a meringue topping. And stuffed with the your coconut cream pie filling, and toasted coconut on top although the filling was a bit heavy for the doughnut.

  20. My 12yr old daughter loves to bake. Your’s is her go to site as well as mine! She made the yellow cake Sunday. She wanted an ombre cake, her colors didn’t turn out perfect but it worked and the cake was beautiful and tasted awesome!

  21. Hi Sally
    Do you have a reliable baked version if your donuts?

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