We weren’t a cake family. We were a cookie family, a brownie family, an ice cream family, an ice cream cake family. But not a cake cake family. So it goes without saying that, as a child, cake fascinated me.
Sort of like how we weren’t a PB&J family and, one day, I insisted that is what I wanted for lunch. Or how we weren’t a meatloaf family and, one day, I insisted that is what I wanted for dinner.
Decades later, I could say that this was childish, but I think it’s just humanish. We always want what’s at our fingertips instead of what’s in our hands.
But cake. Every Sunday, my mom and I went to the supermarket, and I flocked to the boxed cake mixes and canned frostings. From where I stood—if I’m short now, I was very short then—they towered up, up, up, like skyscrapers: White cakes and chocolate cakes and red velvet cakes and yellow cakes. Fluffy, double-layered, and, according to Duncan Hines, “deliciously moist.”
A lot of premade food products struggle to compare with their homemade counterparts, but cake mixes stand out because they usually are deliciously moist. You bring the eggs, oil, and water. They bring everything else. Say, with Duncan’s classic yellow cake, this means:
Sugar, Enriched Bleached Wheat Flour (Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Emulsified Palm Shortening (Palm Oil, Propylene Glycol Mono- and Diesters of Fats and Fatty Acids, Mono- and Diglycerides, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate), Wheat Starch, Leavening ("Baking Soda, Dicalcium Phosphate, Monocalcium Phosphate Monohydrate). Contains 2% or Less of: Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Salt, Cellulose Gum, Xanthan Gum, Dextrose, Artificial Flavors, Yellow 5 Lake, Red 40 Lake.
Some big takeaways: Sugar, then flour. Which is to say, more sugar than flour. Next up: emulsified palm shortening. Which is to say, a shelf-stable fat. Which is to say, another fat—in addition to the BYO-oil—already incorporated into the dry ingredients.
In BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts, Stella Parks unpacks the history of this approach: "In 1944, Betty Crocker’s popular radio show, Cooking School of the Air introduced listeners to layer cakes and muffins made with the 'Double-Quick' method."
Basically, instead of creaming the butter with the sugar—you know, until it’s fluffy, then you add the eggs, then you add the dry ingredients and milk—you mix the butter and dry ingredients together at the start. Sort of like cutting butter into biscuit dough, but instead of leaving it in chunks, you keep going (and going and going) until the mixture becomes powdery.
“In retrospect, the Double-Quick method was a savvy precursor to boxed cake and muffin mixes,” Parks writes. “By downplaying the benefits of traditional creaming, General Mills acclimatized folks to a style of baking that made mixes feel intuitive.”
I recognized this method from somewhere else: my last job. Scratch, a bakery in Durham, North Carolina, is known for its flaky-as-heck pies. But the staff is just as just as obsessed with the yellow cake.
The recipe calls for butter and oil—and you add these at two separate times. Start with the dry ingredients, blend in the butter, and then add the wet ingredients, like buttermilk, eggs, egg yolks, and oil. This goes against almost every other cake recipe in Scratch’s repertoire. But it works!
When I set out to recreate the yellow cake that got away, I knew this approach would be key.
The only catch was, I couldn’t stop thinking about this other yellow cake—with a totally different approach—Jessie Sheehan’s Caramelized Banana Upside-Down Cake, a recent recipe contest winner.
So I combined the two. I took Jessie’s recipe as a foundation and adjusted it with a boxed-style layer cake in mind. I double the quantities to fit into two pans. I dropped some of the oil and replaced it with butter and blended that butter into the flour. I added a pinch of turmeric for color (don’t worry, you can’t taste it), just enough to give “Yellow 5 Lake” a run for its money. And I increased the vanilla.
THE OTHER YELLOW CAKE
Many, many cakes later, all of this added up to a yellow-as-ever cake that is buttery-rich and vanilla-forward and, above all, “deliciously moist.” Just like Duncan.
We just needed frosting—but this turned out to be a piece of cake. (Hehe.) Our Genius Creative Director Kristen Miglore recently introduced us to her family-famous Fudgy Cream Cheese Chocolate Cake. Her mom always used canned frosting on top, so Kristen set out to find a from-scratch doppelgänger:
“This one, adapted from Hershey’s Perfect Chocolate Cake, is excellent and the closest facsimile to canned frosting,” she discovered. (Thanks, Kristen!)
Because I can’t help it, I made a few little adjustments: I increased the quantities originally recommended for a double-layer cake because there’s nothing more stressful than worrying about running out of frosting. I swapped out the milk and called in coffee, which intensifies the chocolate flavor and balances all the sweetness. And, for the same reason, I added a little salt.
I can’t promise that it’s just like boxed cake, but I can promise that it’s just like I always thought boxed cake would be. And isn’t that better, anyway?
Yellowest Yellow Cake With Fudgy Chocolate Frosting
For the yellow cake
- 1/4 cup (57 grams) unsalted butter, cold, cubed, plus more for the pan
- 3 cups (384 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for the pan
- 2 cups (400 grams) granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 3/4 cup (145 grams) canola oil
- 4 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 2 large eggs
- 2 large egg yolks
- 2 cups (467 grams) buttermilk, room temperature
For the chocolate frosting
- 3/4 cup (170 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
- 1 cup (85 grams) natural cocoa powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 4 1/2 cups (513 grams) powdered sugar
- 1/2 cup strong, cold coffee, plus more as needed
What are your boxed cake memories? Share them in the comments below!