Plain & Simple Golden Cake: the boxed cake mix conundrum

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Why is it so difficult to make a plain-vanilla yellow cake?

Well, it shouldn’t be any more difficult than it is to make a chocolate cake, or most any other type of cake. After all, the steps are the same: mix ingredients, pour batter into pans, bake.

Chocolate cake always turns out pretty well; after all, it’s CHOCOLATE. But to make a GOOD vanilla cake – moist, tender, high-rising,and flavorful – well, that’s another story.

And I think I know why.

Most of us grew up enjoying cakes made from a mix. Starting in the 1950s and stretching right up to the present day, boxed cake mixes in the supermarket baking aisle have been as ubiquitous as oranges and bananas in the produce section. They’re a given.

Show me a grocery store – any store selling groceries, from Kroger to 7-Eleven® – without at least one box of Duncan Hines or Betty Crocker, and I’ll show you a store that’s missing the boat, demand-wise.

Birthdays. Potlucks. Bake sales. Team parties. Everyone needs to make a cake sometime, right? And for many, making a cake means heading right for the Pillsbury Funfetti®.

For those of us who actually enjoy the process of baking as much as its tasty end product, a boxed cake mix isn’t the answer. But neither is the dry, heavy, low-flavor cake a lot of the recipes out there on the Internet or in cookbooks yields.

The standard for a lot of us is the yellow cake Mom used to make. Which, judging by frequent discussions in the King Arthur Flour test kitchen among us test bakers, was made from a box – and was pretty darned good. Moist. Flavorful. Bright yellow.

So I set out to replicate that experience using a recipe, not a mix. I baked 13 cakes in four days, in hopes of hitting the exact right mix of ingredients that would yield yellow cake mecca: the flavorful cake of our collective memory.

At the end of the day, I don’t think I achieved that perfect childhood cake. But then, neither did Duncan, Betty, or the Doughboy – all of which I tested right alongside my recipe.

Here’s the story.

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To give myself a fighting chance at success, I figured I’d best start with our King Arthur Unbleached Cake Flour Blend.

Most cake flours (and the flours in boxed cake mixes) are bleached. The protein level of cake flour is low; you don’t want a lot of gluten toughening your tender cake. You do, however, need what gluten there is to be strong, in order to “carry” the high levels of sugar and fat in most cakes. Bleaching strengthens gluten.

So how does King Arthur Flour manage to produce a cake flour that works well without bleach? While the protein level of a typical cake flour is 6% to 8%, the protein level of King Arthur’s cake flour is 9.4% – just a bit higher. We’ve found this slightly elevated protein is sufficient to produce a cake that rises nicely, without adversely affecting its tender texture.

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Next, I decided to follow a typical cake recipe direction I usually ignore: have your ingredients at room temperature.

As it turns out, this DOES make a difference. I found that using eggs, butter, and milk straight from the fridge yielded a cake that didn’t rise as high, and wasn’t as fine-grained.

If you’re in a hurry, your microwave can be your best friend. Use it to take the chill off your milk; and to soften your butter. Thankfully, many microwave ovens these days have a “soften” setting, and it works well.

To warm cold eggs quickly, submerge them in hot water for 5 to 10 minutes.

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Next, use pans that are sufficiently deep to hold your cake. I like a 2″-deep cake pan; I never have to worry about the baking cake spilling over its edges.

Notice I’ve greased the pan, then lined it with parchment, then greased the parchment. Why hold your breath when turning your cake out onto a cooling rack, hoping like crazy it’ll pop out of the pan intact? Parchment guarantees a crumble-free cake.

OK, let’s get down to the recipe itself, shall we? While you’ll see me making two layers here, this Plain & Simple Golden Cake recipe actually make a single tall 9″ layer. The “extra” pans of batter you’ll see are tests – trust me, when you bake 13 cakes in 4 days, you don’t bake them one by one.

First, preheat the oven to 350°F. The batter for this cake goes together quickly, and you want to make sure your oven is fully up to temperature.

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Let’s start by whisking together the liquid ingredients:

1/2 cup milk
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract, optional

Next, whisk together the following:

1 1/2 cups (6 1/4 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached Cake Flour Blend
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt; your preference
2 tablespoons Cake Enhancer, optional; for improved texture and moistness

“Cake enhancer”? You probably don’t keep it in your pantry, it’s true. But those 13 cakes I baked made me a believer: this product, which we discovered in Europe, yields cake that’s taller, lighter , and more reliably moist than cake made without it.

And at a cost of about 40¢ per cake, I think it’s worth it.

And how about that range in the amount of salt? I tend to like my baked goods a bit saltier, so settled on 1/2 teaspoon salt. But I know others of you prefer to cut back on salt, so feel free to use just 1/4 teaspoon, if you’re in this camp.

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Take 6 tablespoons of your room-temperature butter, and plop it down into the middle of the bowl of dry ingredients. You can cut the butter into pats first, or not; if it’s truly at room temperature, it won’t really matter.

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Mix at low speed until the mixture is crumbly. Mix longer than you would for pie crust; you don’t want a lot of big chunks of butter remaining.

Add half the milk/egg mixture to the flour in the bowl. Beat just to combine, then add the remaining milk/egg mixture, beating just to combine.

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Add 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice,* if desired. Once everything is thoroughly combined, scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl, then beat the batter for 15 seconds at high speed; this will “fluff” it up a bit.

*Hey, I thought this was a vanilla cake – what’s with the almond extract and lemon juice? In trying to replicate the “box mix” we all seemed to love growing up, I found adding these elements, while they don’t contribute any identifiable lemon or almond flavor, do add to its “I don’t know what it is but I know I like it” flavor.

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Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing it to the edges.

Bake the cake on your oven’s middle rack for 35 to 38 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, and the center of the top springs back when pressed lightly with your finger.

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Here’s my first experiment: that’s a cake made with all-purpose flour on the left, cake flour on the right. The cake-flour cake rose higher, and showed a somewhat finer texture.

And here’s the next experiment:

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Could I bake a cake as tasty and moist as the Doughboy’s… without the polysorbate 60, DATEM, and TBHQ?

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The answer is yes. While the boxed mix cake is definitely bright yellow (probably thanks to the Red 40 and Yellow 5 in its ingredient list), its flavor, texture, and moistness aren’t superior to my own homemade-recipe cake.

In fact, I did a blind taste test over Easter, using my extended family as the judging panel. No one chose the boxed cake mix cake as their favorite; and while a couple did prefer the cake made with all-purpose flour, the majority picked the cake made with cake flour.

The remaining tests I did aren’t easily pictured, as they all involve shelf life. I tried baking cake with and without Cake Enhancer; and then compared adding dry instant vanilla pudding mix to adding Cake Enhancer, figuring all the claims of “there’s pudding in the mix” must hold some water.

The pudding-mix cakes, compared to the Cake Enhancer cakes, stayed comparably nice and moist; but they were also heavier and denser, as well.

Score another one for Cake Enhancer.

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At the end of the day, is this the best yellow/vanilla/golden cake you’ll ever bake?

Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on your own particular palate, and the “memory cake” you’re trying to match.

I’d love the cake to have more assertive vanilla flavor. And I tried to accomplish that by brushing it with a vanilla-water “glaze” 5 minutes before taking it out of the oven – an extra step that, surprisingly, made NO difference in taste. So, I’m still thinking about this angle.

But the light texture? The moistness? I think the cake passes muster in those departments. Surprisingly, letting the cake rest overnight (covered with a cake cover) enhances its texture; I found it a tiny bit dry the first day, nicer the second.

Eating this cake plain, you might think it’s a bit less sweet than it might be. I’ve deliberately made it that way, assuming most of you will be topping it with icing, or fruit and whipped cream, or a glaze of some sort – if only a blizzard of confectioners’ sugar.

And what if you want to bake a double-layer birthday cake? Simply double the recipe.

Finally, can you make this cake with all-purpose flour? Of course. It’ll simply be a bit heartier.

So, there you have it – a baker’s dozen experiments, all leading to a couple of simple tips.

Cake flour and Cake Enhancer make a soft and tender, fine-textured, moist cake. And a combination of simple flavors – vanilla, almond, lemon – add depth to the cake’s taste.

Are you ready to test this recipe against your own favorite-memory cake?

Please read, bake, and review our recipe for Plain & Simple Golden Cake.

Or print just the recipe.

 

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel was born in Wisconsin, grew up in New England, and graduated from Brown University. She was a journalist in Massachusetts and Maine before joining the King Arthur Flour Company in 1990, where she's been ever since. Author or co-author of three King Arthur ...

comments

  1. Maria

    Everybody in our extended family goes nuts over the Classic Yellow Cake from the Baker’s Companion. For my son’s birthday party every year, I make one of these and one devil’s food cake (both with chocolate frosting), and much to my surprise every year the yellow cake is gone first! I know one person who I’ m pretty sure comes to the party just to make sure he gets some of that cake.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Yes, that’s a lovely recipe, Maria – a real go-to for many of our readers. So glad you’ve discovered it and that’s it’s proved a birthday party must-have! PJH

  2. Patti

    I haven’t bought a boxed mix for years! All the added ingredients that I can’t pronounce are the reason why! I will be sure to try this recipe!

    Reply
  3. Roxlet

    I will definitely try this recipe. I the email I got, there was a photo of a square cake with vanilla icing. Was this made using two of this recipe or three? And which vanilla icing? Thanks. It’s a gorgeous cake.

    Reply
  4. Annie

    I am in search of the perfect gluten free yellow cake. None of the mixes come close. Any ideas?

    Reply
  5. Maureen

    I wonder if using vanilla sugar would ramp up the assertiveness of the vanilla flavor in this cake?

    Reply
  6. Carolyn

    The technique of mixing the butter into the dry ingredients is intriguing. Other than for coffee cake type cakes, I’ve only seen recipes with the typical butter and sugar creamed together. Just wondering if you experimented with the varied technique and how that affected texture.
    I love when you do all of these posts.

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins

      Hi Carolyn,
      A few of our cake recipes are this paste method, and many are the standard creaming method. We haven’t done a side by side for a blog but you could try both and see if you prefer one over the other. I’ve been a 2-stage method convert for years now. ~ MJ

    2. MaryJane Robbins

      hee hee, reminds me of “reverse engineering”, like we’re going to spy and make a race car! ;) ~ MJ

  7. Jennie garcia

    Hello PJ!
    Just wanted to say how much I enjoy your posts and the great information they provide ! They are inspiring and keep me trying in my efforts to bake.
    Many thanks!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      In my experience, for a layer cake recipe transformed to cupcakes the baking time is usually 20 to 25 minutes at 350°F. PJH

  8. Betsy

    The square cake at the top of today’s email ~ it looks luscious ! Which recipe is that one ?
    Thanks !

    Reply
  9. Robin H

    If you want the cake to be richer you can substitute all egg yolks for the whole eggs. I use a recipe that has 3 cups flour and 1 1/2 cups milk with 6 egg yolks. So maybe 3 yolks instead of the 2 eggs would work. It gives it a lovely yellow color and adds some extra moisture.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      That makes sense, Robin – I’ll have to try that sometime, thanks. PJH

  10. Donna LaVallee

    Try double strength vanilla from Penzey’s for more vanilla flavor

    And just be aware that many people are actually allergic to FD&C yellow #5 which is in many cake mixes and in most vanilla pudding mixes, so warn your eating audience if your cake or frosting has the food coloring on it!

    Reply
  11. Susan

    I have used vanilla sugar in my yellow cakes, but I like to use double strength vanilla for a strong vanilla flavor.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Susan, that’s a great idea, double-strength vanilla. Don’t know why I didn’t think of that! Thanks for the tip – PJH

  12. d

    I couldn’t wait to try this recipe. I made it immediately after reading the blog. It was wonderful even though I spilled in an extra dab of almond extract. The crumb was fine and moist. Baking is ‘hit or miss’ at altitude. I made an additional mistake of using a 9 inch square pan and it still still turned out great. This recipe is very forgiving. Exceptional favor and incredibly quick! Thank you for all your work on this recipe. It’s a winner!!!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Ah, Diane, thanks for making my Monday! It’s always great to hear real-time results on these recipes. I made a double batch of this cake last Wednesday, in a 9″ x 13″ pan; added pineapple topping and marshmallow frosting, and it’s still nice and moist. So I’m pleased with it so far. Cheers – PJH

  13. Barbara

    Ok, so that explains why my stuff doesn’t rise well! My habit is not letting stuff warm up before baking. In my recipe box is a cake-like muffin, the old Jordan Marsh blueberry muffin. Would the cake enhancer (and me remembering to take the stuff out of the frig) help them rise? Thanks

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Barbara, first of all, compare your Jordan Marsh muffin recipe to ours: Famous Department Store Blueberry Muffins. If it’s the same, I’m not sure why your muffins aren’t rising well – as these seem to rise nicely. You could definitely try bringing your ingredients to room temperature, and add a couple of tablespoons of the Cake Enhancer as well, to see if that helps. Good luck – PJH

  14. joanne

    I’m an odd duck when it comes to cakes and can’t find anything that is ‘the one’. I like the texture of the box, light and fluffy, vs the heavy, grainy of scratch. Question for you….l’ve added both sour cream and whole milk ricotta to box mixes hoping to enhance the flavor without success of flavor change. BUT what I have found is a change in texture. It lightens the box cake even more, actually too much making it almost impossible to eat. The result is so light and fluffy it almost doesn’t hold together. I realize baking is a science of ingredients but I’ve always just plopped a spoonful of the sour cream or ricotta in before mixing.

    I don’t like either box or scratch at this point which is sad, because I want to love cake!!….will give this a try and definitely get the enhancer before I do.

    Comments?

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Joanne, all I can think is that the acidity of the ricotta or sour cream is reacting with the leavening, and raising the cakes just a little bit higher. Other than that, I really don’t feel comfortable commenting on boxed cake mixes, since it’s hard to say what other kinds of chemicals they include. I think, if you follow our recipe here, you’ll get a cake that’s far better than “heavy and grainy.” Good luck – PJH

  15. Susan Liller

    I like the reverse creaming technique! Finally, someone showed the differences between all the flours and box mix! I brush on simple syrups after baking to add more flavor. Like the bottled coffee syrups in coffee aisle, or you can make your own. I will try adding lemon juice and almond extract and see how that plays out, thanks for your research and hard work :)

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Oooh, Susan, nice idea about brushing the cake with syrup! I’m not a frequent cake baker, so hadn’t thought of this… Thanks! PJH

  16. vee

    The reverse creaming method, always makes a superior cake, however, is not as sturdy. For home birthday cakes ( one layer or sheet cakes) ,I use reverse creaming for my cakes and get rave reviews.

    For cakes that need to be layered and filled, I use the regular creaming method. I also use canned evaporated milk in my cakes – I think that gives it a more “homemade flavor”

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Interesting, Vee, about the evaporated milk. It would certainly add flavor, since evaporated is more highly flavored than “straight” milk. Thanks for your tip about reverse creaming, too – really useful info.! PJH

  17. Ultimate Cake

    We always add the scraped seeds from a plump, good quality Tahitian vanilla pod to our vanilla cake with excellent results and a real, extra good boost of vanilla flavor (we don’t use extract). The bakery smells heavenly when we bake our vanilla bean cake, and customers always ask what smells so good!!

    I’ve always wonder why cake is called ‘yellow’ or ‘white’. Yellow and white aren’t flavors. Is chocolate called called ‘brown’ cake? Didn’t think so.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hmm, well both of these cakes are traditionally flavored with vanilla. I imagine the color was the next best option to distinguish the cakes, but who can say! Jon@KAF

  18. jo jo

    Yellow cake is yellow because of the egg yolks used-especially really good eggs with deep yellow yolks.
    White cake is white because of the egg whites that are used.

    Reply
  19. Julie D

    I feel the same way about making a white cake from scratch that is light and fluffy so, I developed a “cheaty” recipe for a moist, fluffy white cake that also taste like homemade. I use the Fluffy White cake recipe from The Cake Bible, and I also make the batter from a box of Duncan Hines white cake mix (it taste less like a cardboard box than “the other brand” at the grocery store. I make both batters according to their recipes and then when the batters are completed, I mix them together. I use this recipe when I need to make alot of white cupcakes for parties. I use my own homemade frosting and the cupcakes are always the hit of the party. I have only told you all my secret but everyone else thinks they are totally homemade….let’s keep it to ourselves!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      I love how we all have our little “secrets,” Julie. Trust me – my lips are sealed! My favorite “secret” is probably instant pudding mix, which I add to soft cookies or muffins for flavor (pistachio, butterscotch, etc.) Thanks, I’m going to try this sometime – PJH

  20. Marie Anderson

    I love the Sunday recipe roundup. When I saw the recipe for the Golden vanilla cake, I had to make it right away. It was wonderful, such a delicious taste with the added almond flavor. It is much better than any box mix. Since it is just my husband and me, the size is perfect for us, too.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      So good to hear you enjoyed the cake, Marie – I find myself downsizing a lot of traditional recipes these days, because none of us needs a lot of leftover calories sitting around tempting us, right? :) PJH

  21. Linda Jean

    Oh my, all I can think is so many cakes, so little time. There’s going to be cake in the house for weeks to come! Thanks for all of the tips and now I’m off to bake….

    Reply
  22. Sue C.

    Hi, P.J.!

    It’s been quite a while since I baked a cake!! I have recipes dating back to the 1960′s (Better Homes & Gardens cookbook) that used to turn out beautifully ~ not so anymore. Cake flour is called for, naturally, but back then it was Swans Down which even though it’s still made, seems to have been reformulated – like a number of “old-timey” products – and not in a good way! Our oldest daughter was married back in 1980, and I made her wedding cake using the BH&G yellow cake recipe ~ turned out deliciously, if I may say so! Seeing as how there was no such ingredient as “cake enhancer” back then, I wonder if my trusty recipe would work with KAF’s cake flour…….what do you think?

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins

      Hi Sue,
      I’ve made several other “classic” recipes with our cake flour and our cake flour blend, and haven’t had one fail (knock wood). I would definitely say go for it with your favorite trusty recipe. Perhaps not WEDDING cake sized to start with though, eh? :) ~ MJ

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Solid shortening will be your best bet, though make sure to follow the instructions on the package for replacing butter. Jon@KAF

  23. Lois

    I use an old recipe from my mother for yellow cake that requires the reverse creaming method. I have found that it turns out well if mixed with a wooden spoon rather than using an electric mixer, and that if made in a larger quantity for a crowd-sized cake, it turns out even better. Made from scratch cakes have so much more real flavor than box mixes. I cannot imagine why anyone would buy a mix when it is actually easy to bake a real cake. I also have always used almond extract as well as other flavorings such as lemon, orange, and lime oils and Fiori di Sicilia, and espresso powder to create an assortment of interesting flavors for a yellow cake. It really is fun to experiment even though the results aren’t always what you would expect.

    Reply
  24. Tina

    If I want a stronger vanilla taste I use vanilla paste. Works very well. I use this in French toast, pancakes, frostings. Have not tried it in a cake, cause my family are chocolate addicts. Love all the tips. It also helps to weigh your ingredients so that you do not over flour your cakes.

    Reply
  25. jojo

    Will it work if I don’t use a mixer? I only have a hand mixer, and I am afraid the dough is too thick.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Jojo, the batter should be just fine for a hand mixer – enjoy! PJH

  26. bonnie

    Sounds so easy that I want to try this soon–but am I reading the recipe correctly: no beating the batter for several minutes to lighten the butter, blend the butter & sugar, and incorporate air?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Bonnie- This is the only real lightening you will be doing in the recipe, towards the very end: “…then beat the batter for 15 seconds at high speed; this will “fluff” it up a bit.” Hope that helps! Happy Baking! Jocelyn@KAF

  27. Jennifer Jorgensen

    PJ– I have been a devoted fan for years and years. Oftentimes, your site is where I check first for info and recipes. Thank you many times over for your humor and hard work. Just a side note on your smart advice on de-chilling and softening for the disorganized baker in all of us: I also have great luck doing the eggs very quickly and easily that way: about 10 seconds in my microwave, and they’re good to go.
    Sincererly,
    Jennifer J

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Thanks for your kind words, Jennifer. Do you put the eggs in water, or just stick ‘em right in the microwave? I’ll have to try this! PJH

  28. Victoria Carr

    I am trying to replicate the Victoria Sponge Cake I ate in England as a child where it was made weekly in my grandfather’s house. It’s almost impossible to use English baking recipes as the flour they use, self-raising (not self-rising) is so different from ours, and none of the conversions I have tried work really well. Also, buying English flour is a pain – I have to travel downtown to get it, the packages are small, and it is expensive, and often doesn’t have a long shelf life as it has been sitting around for a long time. Your cake, which I made last night, has come the closest to anything I’ve made before. And it was delicious even though I used KA AP flour and did not have the cake enhancer. I served it with macerated strawberries and vanilla ice cream. I am going to order the unbleached cake flour you used as well as the cake enhancer today. I wonder if that flour would work in biscuit recipes too. My friends in Atlanta use White Lily, which is 9 per cent protein, for their biscuits, and I can’t get it in NYC. (I imagine but am not sure that White Lily is bleached.) Thanks for this delicious recipe. It is interesting that English self-raising flour does not have salt and American self-rising flour does. I guess it’s because the first is usuallyused for sweet cakes, and the second, for biscuits.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Victoria, so glad this cake worked well for you. And yes, the unbleached cake flour could certainly be used for biscuits; due to its lower protein content, it would more easily translate to tender biscuits than would a higher-protein flour. As for the salt – I suspect we salt-loving Americans simply use more salt in all of our cooking and baking, and thus expect it in our self-rising flour. Also, as you say, our SR flour is usually used for pancakes, biscuits, and the like, rather than cake. Thanks for connecting here – PJH

  29. Victoria Carr

    P J,

    I notice that there is a KA recipe for a Victoria Sandwich using KA self-rising flour to emulate the English recipe. It does look like most of the recipes; however, most of the English recipes add baking powder to their “self-raising” flour. I may mess around with this recipe too. Thanks.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Let us know how that comes out, Victoria – I’d assume it’ll be fine, but always good to have someone else’s eyes (and hands!) on a recipe. Thanks – PJH

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