I will never forget a certain Smitten Kitchen post when soon-to-be-mom Deb confesses, upon discovery of her current "condition," that her first moment of panic was not because she had yet to make her first million or travel the world, but in fact, because she hadn't yet found the perfect from-scratch birthday cake to carry into motherhood.
I must admit that maternal fears thoughts like these regularly pass through my brain. (Side note: babies are not on my current horizon, I swear!) It's just that certain recipes are going to be your kids' benchmark for comparison for the rest of their hungry little lives. As their mother, it is imperative you set them up knowing that you and only you make the very best of everything. I mean, it's the least you can do. Or so that's how I feel. For now.
There are a number of foods I'm confident I have mastered, much to the benefit of my unborn children—fluffy biscuits, chocolate chip cookies, buttermilk pancakes, and roast chicken to name a few. The elusive celebration cake, however, has remained an unsolved mystery. I have baked my way through countless recipes over the years, from the classic 1-2-3-4 on the Swans Down box, to the Cook's Illustrated tried-and-true, and even Deb's eventually-declared favorite. Unfortunately they all left something to be desired. I didn't just want good yellow cake. I wanted perfect yellow cake.
Well kids, I finally found it: the holy grail of yellow cakes. To quote a text to Walt upon first bite (please pardon my French), "It's f*#@in' perfect!" And there's not much more to say other than that. If you are looking for a recipe that is soft, moist, flavorful, and slices like a dream, here it is. The cake itself is so divine that it doesn't even need frosting, although once topped with vanilla bean-spiked buttercream it transcends all worldy dimensions. I look forward to a long and delicious future with this recipe, from best friends' engagements to children's birthday parties. The best part about this cake, though? It doesn't even need an excuse. Heck, I'd make it again tomorrow.
(P.S. Just to give you one last example of how fantastic it is, I realized after my first slice that it is the ultimate wedding cake! If I was a crazier person I would just make it myself, but instead I will pass the recipe along to our baker in hopes she won't be offended that I no longer want hers. April 20th can't get here soon enough!)
Yields: 2 (9-inch) round cake layers
This cake recipe comes from the CakeLove cookbook, purchased upon high recommendation from Jonathan Kallini, the very best pastry chef I know. It calls for the increasingly-common ingredient potato starch, found in the specialty flour section of well-stocked grocery stores. (Look for Bob's Red Mill brand.) Even if you are not familiar with potato starch, buy it and use it often—it will become your "chef's secret" in no time.
This recipe calls for weighing the dry ingredients. It took me a few years to jump on the grams-and-ounces bandwagon, but I am now a full-fledged believer. If you don't own a kitchen scale, here's a link to the adapted recipe using cups, although I cannot attest to the same end results.
UPDATE: according to one commenter, this recipe as written will not work in high altitudes. A modified recipe for high altitude baking is included in the CakeLove cookbokk for those interested.
7 ounces all-purpose flour
2 ounces potato starch
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon table salt
1 cup half and half (or half milk, half heavy cream)
2 tablespoons brandy*
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
14 ounces extra-fine granulated sugar**
6 ounces (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 large eggs
Preheat oven to 350°F and arrange a rack in the middle of the oven.
Set out the ingredients and equipment: Sift flour directly into a bowl on the scale. Measure the remaining dry ingredients into another bowl; add the flour and whisk together. Measure the liquid ingredients into a separate bowl and set aside. Place sugar and butter in bowl of standing mixer. Crack eggs into a separate bowl and set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar on the lowest speed for 3-5 minutes. With the mixer still on the lowest speed, add the eggs one at a time, fully incorporating after each addition. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Alternate adding the dry ingredients with the liquid ingredients, beginning and ending with the dry mixture. (Move swiftly through the step to avoid overworking the batter. Don’t wait for the dry or liquid mixtures to be fully incorporated before adding the next. This step should take a total of about 60 seconds.) Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Mix on medium speed for an additional 15 to 20 seconds to develop the batter’s structure.
Generously coat the bottom of 2 (9-inch) round cake pans with shortening, then toss with flour, discarding the excess. Do not coat the sides of the pan, in order to prevent the cake from doming. (I highly recommend using Baker’s Joy, a shortening spray with flour added.) Evenly distribute the batter into the cake pans and smooth with a rubber spatula.
Bake the cakes for approximately 27-30 minutes, or until a toothpick pricked into the middle comes out clean. The center should be an even blonde color and the edges should be just beginning to pull away from the pan. (I usually take mine out just a smidge before I think they are ready. I am terrified of overcooking baked goods.)
Remove pans to a wire rack and cool to room temperature, 25-30 minutes. Cut around the edges with a pairing knife and invert the cakes to wire racks. Cool completely before moving forward with the recipe. (Wrap the layers in plastic and refrigerate overnight or up to 3 days if making in advance.) Assemble the cake with the buttercream recipe below.
Kitchen notes: *I substituted butter extract for the brandy, which is an (unnatural) flavoring that I have been playing around with lately. Additional vanilla extract would be fine, too.
**If you can't find extra fine sugar, regular granulated sugar can be processed in a food processor for a few seconds.
VANILLA BEAN ITALIAN MERINGUE BUTTERCREAM
Yields: 4-5 cups
5 egg whites
1-1/4 cups extra-fine sugar, divided
1/4 cup cold water
1 pound (4 sticks) cubed, unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Set out ingredients and equipment: Separate the egg whites into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Add 1 cup sugar and the water into a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan and gently stir to combine. Hold remaining 1/4 cup sugar in a separate bowl.
For the sugar syrup, place a candy thermometer in the sauce pan and heat the mixture over medium-high heat. Dip a pastry brush in water and brush down the sides to remove any excess sugar. Partially cover with a lid to capture the steam (this helps to moisten the sides of the saucepan to prevent sugar crystals from forming).
For the meringue, beat the egg whites on high speed until stiff peaks form. Keep the mixer running and pour the remaining 1/4 cup sugar into the meringue.
Raise the heat under the sugar syrup to bring the syrup to 245° if it’s not already there. When it has reached 245°, remove the thermometer and slowly pour the syrup into the meringue with the mixer running. Continue beating at high speed for 1-2 minutes.
Reduce the speed of the mixer to medium and beat for 6-10 minutes until the meringue has cooled. Add the butter 1 tablespoon at a time. Add the vanilla bean paste and extract and increase the mixer speed to high for 2 to 4 minutes or until the butter is fully incorporated. Immediately frost cooled cake halves.
Store the frosted cake under a cake dome or in an airtight container at room temperature for 3 days, or in the refrigerator for up to one week. If chilled, bring the cake back to room temperature before serving.