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. 😉
- recipe testing – introduction
- recipe testing – babka
- recipe testing – bread pudding
- recipe testing – lemon meringue pie
- recipe testing – slice ‘n’ bake cookies, whole wheat rolls
- recipe testing – aka the dancing mixer escapade
- recipe testing – boston cream pie
- recipe testing – blueberry muffins, cinnamon swirl bread
- recipe testing – over-spreading cookies
- recipe testing – vertical cake
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!
The pictured yellow cake above was a recipe success! Before that, there was this:
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:
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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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:
- 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.
- Test Cupcakes 2: I added sour cream for moisture, but then the cupcakes were weighed down and still lacked… something.
- 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.
- 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.
- Test Cupcakes 5: Tested one more time. See cupcake below on the right. Perfect!
Worth all the recipe tests. Many of you tried these around St. Patrick’s Day!
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?