This old-fashioned recipe for classic vanilla cake makes a velvety smooth, delicious classic vanilla cake. Top it with whipped cream and fruit and it’s the perfect summer dessert!
*Lots of cake science in this post!*
The one thing that I am a sucker for is cake fresh out of the oven. Especially if it’s a sheet cake. Then you can nibble at the edges and take tiny slices while it’s cooling and nobody will notice. And that’s just what I did. This cake was so fantastic right out of the oven.
It was even more delicious after it cooled and I topped it with a generous portion of homemade whipping cream. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the science!
This cake is a science nerd’s dream! Why? Because of mixing methods, of course! What is a mixing method? A mixing method is how you mix your cake, and depending on how do that can really affect that texture and final product of your cake. There are three major mixing methods that I’ve experimented with:
- The traditional creaming method. You cream together the butter and the sugar for as long as seven minutes in order to produce lots of air bubbles. Because baking soda and baking powder do not create their own air bubbles but rather expand already existing bubbles, lots of creaming of the butter and sugar can yield a really fluffy cake.
- My preferred mixing method is the reverse creaming method. Rather than creaming the butter and sugar together, you add all of the dry ingredients and then mix in the fat. The fat (cubed butter or oil) coats the flour particles and prevent it from forming lots of gluten networks. This results in a more dense, velvety crumb.
- The final method is the muffin method. This is rarely used in cakes because it yields a large crumb and lots of open holes. You mix all of the dry ingredients in one bowl and all of the wet ingredients in the other. Then you combine them only until they’re just incorporated. Because you’re directly incorporating all of the wet ingredients into the flour, over mixing will result in formation of gluten networks. The longer you mix flour exposed to a liquid, the more gluten will form and that leads to tough, icky baked goods.
But this cake used an entirely different mixing method. And it is beautiful and science-y. Instead of creaming the butter and sugar, you cream the eggs and sugar. Then you add the dry ingredients and finally, you add the melted butter and hot milk. Normally in a cake recipe, you add the fat early on during the mixing process. Here it is quite the opposite. What makes this cake fluffy if you’re not creaming the butter and sugar? It all begins in step one when you beat the eggs. You must beat the eggs for at least five minutes. At this point, you are incorporating tons of air bubbles into the eggs, which the baking powder will act on while the cake is baking. Once again, baking powder does not create its own air bubbles, but rather expands pre-existing air bubbles. The more air bubbles you beat in, the lighter your cake will be. When you add the sugar, continue beating until light and fluffy. Once again, you’re incorporating more air bubbles.
Why did I use cake flour instead of all-purpose flour? Cake flour has lower protein content, which is ideal in a cake recipe in which you could over mix. Flour forms gluten networks when water (or any liquid for that matter) is added to it. Because you add the majority of the wet ingredients last to the flour, which has already been mixed with the eggs and sugar, there is a chance that you could over mix and start forming gluten networks, which you don’t want in tender cakes. Because cake flour has lower protein content, it reduces that risk. Thus, when you add the hot milk and melted butter, mix it in slowly and a little at a time and only mix until the melted butter and hot milk are just incorporated. How does melting the butter affect the cake? When you melt butter, you break the bonds in the butter and leads to the loss of the emulsion. Even if you put the butter back in the fridge, you cannot repair the broken bonds. In some situations, that’s really bad. For example, in the traditional creaming method, the lift comes from beating the sugar and butter together. If the butter has been melted, it can form the same type of lift. Thankfully, in this recipe, you use the eggs to create lift. The melted butter efficiently coats all of the flour molecules when it’s added to the mixture and will leads to a soft, velvety, evenly-crumbed cake. Just make sure you don’t over mix! My tips in an abbreviated list:
- Make sure to beat the eggs for five minutes!
- When you add the milk and butter to the mixture, only mix until just incorporated.
- Use cake flour instead of all-purpose flour to prevent gluten formation; however, you certainly can use all-purpose flour!
- If you’d like to halve the recipe, you’re welcome to do so! Simply halve the recipe and use an 8 by 8 pan rather than a 9 by 13 pan.
- 4 eggs, room temperature
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 cups cake flour
- 2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 and 1/4 cups whole milk (or any kind of milk)
- 10 Tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9 by 13 pan and set aside. I also lined the pan with parchment paper for easy removal.
- In a large bowl, beat the eggs for five minutes or until they are lemon yellow and very thick.
- Gradually add the sugar one cup at a time and beat until the mixture is light and fluffy.
- In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder and salt. Slowly add to the egg/sugar mixture on low speed and until just smooth. Do not over mix.
- In a small saucepan, heat the milk and butter just until the butter is melted. Gradually add to the batter. Beat until just combined. Do NOT over mix.
- Pour the batter into the prepared 9 by 13 pan. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick in the center of the cake comes out clean.