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I do love a good challenge. So I knew what I was in for (sort of) when I suggested the perfect yellow cake for F&W's June Tasting & Testing column.
In this column, I get to deconstruct and reconstruct a basic , classic recipe, hopefully finding the best possible variation. Last month it was salad dressings, the month before wine-braised chicken, before that, pizza...etc. It's a wonderfully fun project and I wind up learning tons, even after all these years in a kitchen.
Here's a not-so-quick recap of the yellow-cake-testing process (sorry!):
To establish a baseline, I tested two cake recipes from very reputable sources. The first uses a method that I don't readily embrace. It has you mix the dry ingredients with softened butter, then add the eggs and milk at the end—a bit counterintuitive to my way of thinking. Though the flavor was exquisite, the texture was like the inside of a down pillow and just about as sturdy.
The second recipe was based on the classic 1-2-3-4 cake—1 cup butter (& milk), 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour, 4 eggs—where you cream the butter and sugar, add the eggs, then the dry ingredients and milk in three alternating additions. The texture was great, but the flavor was eggy and way too greasy.
The final batches were attempts to combine the best qualities of both cakes, but use the simpler, creamed-butter method. I played with the amounts of butter, sugar, eggs, milk and vanilla. I tried cake flour and all-purpose flour, finally settling on all-purpose. Cake flour yields terrifically light cakes, but is a pain to keep on hand and I HATE those silly boxes. (mine inevitably is crawling with critters...)
Other test kitchens do stories like this and many have the luxury of much more time to finesse. Think "Name That Tune," only it's "Bake That Cake." Occasionally, I'm lucky enough to nail a recipe on the first or second attempt. Well, I made that cake in eight tries, which for me was quickly approaching tedious. I definitely don't have the stomach for all that baking, though after all that tasting, I now have a belly....Great! Just in time for the beach.