Perfectly Vanilla Cake, The Right Way
Scratch vanilla cake. Sounds delightful. Sounds amazing. The aromatic smell of vanilla wafting through the house is one that brings the fondest of childhood memories and comfort. And the second you take a bite of that wonderful slice of heaven, you are disappointed as the cake tastes remarkably…unremarkable.
A good scratch vanilla cake is hard to come by. It is probably one of the most hated scratch cakes out there as so many people claim they have the perfect recipe and once bakers try it, they are disappointed in the results. A good scratch vanilla cake is like the mythical unicorn, we all hear stories about it but it just doesn’t exist. Or…does it?
I spent years trying to find the perfect recipe. I cannot stand boxed cake mixes. There is nothing inherently wrong with box mixes, I just happen to be a cake snob and a super taster, which means box cakes taste very chemically to me. I spent hundreds of dollars on the finest, freshest vanilla beans. Went through dozens of recipes. Had cakes turn out tasting like flour or doughy egg or have the texture of cornbread. I cried real tears over every fail as vanilla is my most treasured flavor and I could not seem to make it happen. I knew, if I could find a good recipe, I would be able to rule the world as that being my base cake. Well, not really. But at least my kitchen world.
A few years ago, I stumbled upon a method called reverse creaming. It broke my head. Everyone knows you cream your eggs and sugar and fats and vanilla first. Then you alternate your dry and wet ingredients, ending with dry, to produce a cake that is not chewy. I won’t even tell you how long it took me to learn that, which tells you all you need to know about how dense I can sometimes be. So when I heard of reverse creaming, I thought someone had absolutely gone crazy. What is reverse creaming you may ask? It is where you take all your dry ingredients, sugar included, and dump it in the bowl. And then add your fats (I primarily use butter) and mix it all together! THEN you add your liquids, a little at a time. And make sure you get it good and mixed up, beating well past the point of “until blended.”
WHAT?! All that went through my head was overmixing the flour! The gluten that would produce! That will be the chewiest cake! WHO thought THIS was a good idea!?
And I was crazy enough to try it. That was, by far, the most tender cake I have ever had. A nice tight crumb, perfectly moist, and the texture was simply amazing. My biggest issue with scratch vanilla cakes is it ALWAYS ended up being of cornbread like texture. This completely reversed that. Obviously, it was a fluke. Had to be. So I tried it again. Multiple times. Not a fluke.
But it was the darndest thing. Here I had incredible texture but a cake that tasted like…flour. Or sweetened egg bread. How do I get it to taste like vanilla?
I tried vanilla bean paste. I tried homemade vanilla. I tried the expensive stuff, the cheap stuff, the real stuff, the fake stuff. The only one that tasted vanilla-y was the imitation vanilla, and being a super taster, I was not hip on that. Plus, vanilla beans have a much more robust and complex flavor than vanillin. My buttercream, it held up wonderfully. But my baked goods? Not so much. Which was a huge disappointment. It was obvious I was doing something wrong. And it obviously had something to do with the vanilla. What was I doing that was not producing the results I wanted?
It hit me one day when I was once more lamenting on another failed vanilla cake. I bake it. My mother used to tell me “add vanilla at the end so it does not bake out.” I never listened to my mother, what can I say. It was the heat! So on went my detective hat to find a work around, because frankly, I am not adding vanilla to the cake once it is cooked. I mean, I can, via simple syrup. But I don’t want to. I like to make things easy and while simple syrup is not hard, it is more dishes and more time.
In my research I found that vanilla bean is super fragile. It does not do well in heat. So, I started experimenting. 300 degrees Farenheit seemed to be the make or break point for real vanilla. I suddenly could TASTE the vanilla. I was over the moon excited! But it still did not provide the full robust flavor I was craving, and lowering my oven temperature anymore and my cakes just were not baking properly. What more could I do? Time to research some more.
The natural vanillin is the flavor that breaks down first when heated. The other aromatic flavors still linger, but without vanillin, are harder to detect. Once the compounds of the vanillin flavor is damaged beyond repair, you will not get any real flavor. However, if it is not damaged beyond repair, there is hope. Vanilla is different from a lot of other flavors in that is “sweats” after heated. Sweat too much, and it is gone. Sweat just right, you get the flavor. It takes vanilla 24-72 for the enzymatic change that produces vanillin to take place.
Wait. WHAT? I had to wait 24-72 hours to eat my cake?! FINE! I’ll try it. I will admit, I was super skeptical. I waited only 24 hours.
Oh. My. GOD! There it was! The flavor I had been praying for! Robust, full, complex, and pure! I was in pure vanilla heaven bliss. Turns out, if you eat a scratch vanilla cake the same day you make it, it will not have that rich vanilla flavor you want. It is just not possible. You have to wait. I mean, my mother did always tell me, “good things come to those you wait.” I really ought to start listening to her. Especially since my vanilla cake is my most requested item from my clients now.
So, what is my recipe? This one that smacks of vanilla-y awesomeness? Prepare yourselves!
16 oz all purpose flour 2.5 tsp Baking powder 22 oz granulated sugar 3/4 tsp salt 8 oz unsalted butter (1 cup or 2 sticks) room temp 2 Tbsp vanilla (I use homemade, but you can also use vanilla bean paste or any other high quality vanilla) 3 eggs large, room temp 1 egg white, room temp 12 oz buttermilk whole, room temp 1 oz Vegetable oil (No, I do not know the cup measurements and highly recommend against using cups. Weigh your ingredients, it makes a much more uniform cake every time.)
*Pre-heat your oven to 300. Do not pass 300. Make sure your oven is properly calibrated and stop at 300. Have I mentioned 300? EDIT: Since I first wrote this, I was reminded of different humidities and elevations. Try 325F or a upside down flower nail in the center of your pans if you find it is taking much longer than 60 minutes to bake. Even at 325F, you will still have a vanilla flavor. It just won't be as rich.
* Add all dry ingredients to a stand mixer bowl and mix with a paddle to combine well. * In a separate bowl, combine all wet ingredients (vanilla, eggs, milk, and vegetable oil) and whisk to combine. Set aside. * Turn mixer to low and add chunks of butter slowly to the dry mix. Continue to beat on slow until there are no chunks of butter. You kinda want it to look like beach sand. * On low speed, add 1/3 of the liquid ingredients to the dry/butter ingredients and then turn to medium. Mix until a light paste forms. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. * Add half of the remaining wet ingredients and beat on medium high speed for a few minutes. Scrape the bowl. * Add the remaining wet ingredients and beat on medium speed for a few minutes. No need to worry about over mixing, the fat adheres to the flour and limits how much gluten can be produced. *Divide evenly in your pre-greased pans (I use goop and weigh them on my scale, I get two 8” out of this.) *Pop those babies in your oven and set your timer for 60 minutes. They tend to take 57 minutes in my oven, but make sure you are checking so they do not over bake…and for the love of all things, just carefully and slightly jiggle to see if it is still jiggly before you stick it so you do not end up with a deflated cake. NEVER stick a cake tester in a jiggly cake, set your timer for a few more minutes and then check again. A lot of the time needed depends on type of pan, size of pan, and how full the pan is, so time is very much an estimate. PAY ATTENTION! No coming back from an over baked cake. (For the record, another baker had this take almost 90 minutes, in this case, raise your temp to 325 next time.) *Cool for 10 minutes in the pan before removing those perfectly flat beauties, then tightly wrap in plastic wrap and wait a day. Do not go past 10 minutes. That pan will keep cooking those cakes. I actually throw mine in the freeze and it works perfectly. *Frost and enjoy (after you wait at least 24 hours.) (This cake will form a sugar crust. Shave it off, let it cool, and enjoy the trimmings. You may or may not have minor sinkage. I don't know what causes it, I suspect relative humidity, but it is fine, promise. And very hit or miss. Once you shave the sugar crust off, you will never know as the sinkage is so minor it will not play a part in the cake being usable or not.)