Genius Recipes

The Simplest Stir-and-Bake Vanilla Cake

This week’s Genius Recipe is a speedy comfort you can jazz up with whatever you've got.

April 15, 2020

Every week in Genius Recipes—often with your help!—Food52 Creative Director and lifelong Genius-hunter Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that will change the way you cook.

Though this cake was designed by a pastry chef, you can stir it together with a couple bowls and a spatula, and, less than an hour later, be forking up soft vanilla crumb-clouds warm from the oven. (Whipped cream melting into the top is optional, but recommended.)

In fact, when we were shooting the video above, I managed to make the cake, plus the elective strawberry compote and butterscotch whipped cream, while narrating every step out loud (you probably won’t do that, but you can!), all within a single naptime for my 1-year-old.

Strawberry shortcake, but make it butterscotch. Photo by Rocky Luten. Prop & Food Styling by Alexis Anthony.

The recipe comes from pastry chef Jami Curl’s new cookbook, Baking Gold, a guide to mix-and-matching three doughs, two batters (this is one!), and one magic baking mix into more than 75 spectacularly creative treats. In writing the book, Jami brought the efficiencies of her pastry chef days—where a single dough could morph into dozens of distinct glazed and crumbled and bedazzled baked goods—to her home kitchen, where she didn’t have a team of trained chefs to make every component (let me guess, you neither?). The result: bakery-fancy desserts magically appearing in the space of one good nap.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I baked the original recipe cake in a smaller pan than the recommended size, and the cake came out very nice. It stays nicely moist, and the sour cream gives it a lovely tang. Thanks for this great recipe, it's in my collection now. ”
— FS

“For most of the recipes in Baking Gold I tried to make things as easy as possible,” Jami told me. “Yes, there's a yeast dough and yes, there's cake—instead of getting super serious or super fancy, the dough kind of makes itself and the cakes are all baked in 9x13-inch pan (most people have one) and there's no mixer involved.”

Not pictured: mixer (because you don't need one!).

So, how did she make the cake so good, so fast? By saying goodbye (just for now) to butter.

Oil-based batters mean cakes anyone can bake at a moment’s notice—without waiting for butter to soften or pulling out any sort of electric mixer to cream. Oil is always ready, and only needs only a stir. (Our most popular Genius dessert ever, Maialino’s Olive Oil Cake, is another rewarding example of this.)

In handy baking science news, it also makes extra-tender cakes that keep well for days. Why? Oil coats flour better than butter, getting in the way of flour linking up with water and forming extra gluten, which squeezes out moisture and can lead to dryer, tougher cakes (especially if you over-mix, like so many recipes tell you not to do—this is why!).

You will need (brace yourselves): a fork.

But oil will never have the cozy flavor of butter, so Jami turned to another reliable team player and coffee-cake standby: sour cream. (If you don’t have sour cream on hand, Jami says that full-fat yogurt—Greek or regular—or coconut cream would be good swaps, though they might take a bit longer to bake.) As Jami writes, “This batter makes the vanilla cake that changed me from an all-chocolate-cake-all-the-time kind of cake person to someone who genuinely enjoys vanilla cake.”

In Jami’s book, this base batter spurs all sorts of spinoffs, from blueberry with citrus-cream glaze to cinnamon crumble-topped to a crunchy-creamy coconut, among others. In the same spirit, you can take this batter anywhere you like. Sprinkle fruit on top or stir it through. Top it with toasted coconut or spiced nuts or buttercream and sprinkles. Or just eat it plain, soon.

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Perhaps something perfect for beginners? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

This post contains products independently chosen (and loved) by our editors and writers. As an Amazon Associate, Food52 earns an affiliate commission on qualifying purchases of the products we link to.
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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • sharon
  • Sinamen78
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    Maria I Arana
  • FS
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


sharon June 29, 2020
Kristin, first, your home videos are THE BEST! Please keep doing them. I think I over baked this cake as it was on the dry side. The strawberry confit was amazing though and I have never done strawberries this way but will again for sure.
Sinamen78 June 29, 2020
Fantastic cake. Perfect for shortcake. And freezes well ! Can throw any kind of shortcake together last minute by keeping cut pieces wrapped in heavy duty foil In the freezer. (Throw a little flour on your face so your guests will think you spent the afternoon baking)
Tucker &. June 30, 2020
Great idea! How did you thaw? Counter, oven? Planning on doing this for the 4th, but want to get ahead of the game.
Diana June 2, 2020
I look forward to your videos from home! Your little baby is adorable. I will give this recipe a try.
Maria I. May 13, 2020
What other kind of oil can I substitute for the canola oil?
Kristen M. May 15, 2020
Any neutral oil—grapeseed, vegetable oil, safflower, you name it.
FS April 29, 2020
This is a good cake with a fairly dense texture. A cinnamon/sugar mixture swirled through the batter would be a good addition. Since the cake is very sweet I'd cut the sugar by a 1/4 cup. I baked the original recipe cake in a smaller pan than the recommended size, and the cake came out very nice. It stays nicely moist, and the sour cream gives it a lovely tang. Thanks for this great recipe, it's in my collection now.
Roro April 23, 2020
Easy and delicious! Making for my 2 yr old granddaughter. Will definitely make again however I’ll cut the sugar. It was too sweet for my taste.
bookjunky April 22, 2020
This looks kind of stodgy, and kind of a lot of steps. In comparison, I can get Alice Medrich's One Bowl Vanilla Cake in the oven in less than three minutes. It bakes (in a 9" pan) in 24. I don't faff around with the food processor, just dump the dry ingredients in a bowl, add the wet, and give it a good stir until smooth.
Ghulam M. April 22, 2020
Good to know that works too! I learn so much from you as well! Keep it up great post.
margaret S. April 21, 2020
I made this today with what I had. No sour cream so used half whole milk yogurt and half ricotta left over from baked pasta. We also had a box of blueberries lingering around, which I added. It is delicious, might have been even better if I'd followed my impulse to grate lemon rind into it, as blueberries and lemons are old friends. We had vanilla ice cream with it.
I used a whole small box of berries, it could have taken 50% to maybe even 100% more. I also baked in 2 8 by 8 square pans, to share with a family member. It took less time to cook but not a whole lot less.
Sharon April 21, 2020
I only had white whole wheat flour and still put in the 3.5 cups into the dry ingredients. It was really too thick so I put more hot water in, probably 2/3 cup. Even so, it didn’t thin out too much but I did manage to spread the batter into the pan.

Next time how much white whole wheat should I put in (assuming I can’t get AP)?
margaret S. April 21, 2020
I sub whole wheat flour a lot as my husband is diabetic. I believe the usual conversion is 25% less flour if subbing whole wheat for white.
Sharon April 21, 2020
Thanks for that tip! The white whole wheat, by the way, came from Frog Hollow. Definitely it was more dense than fluffy and the final product reminded me of a scone that didn’t melt in my mouth.
Janice W. April 21, 2020
The cakes was awesome. Great easy base with lots of possibilities.

But the strawberry compote was way, way, way too sweet!
SuzanneETC April 19, 2020
Looking forward to making this and thanks for the video. But I was puzzled that you said your only options were your stand mixer (in this case, unduly cumbersome overkill) and beating by hand.
What about the hand mixer? It takes up very little room, it’s a versatile solid workhouse (mine’s lasted a decade +) — and will only set you back around $30.
Jeanne W. April 18, 2020
I messed up the recipe (I know - simple!!). Since my 1 Cup cup was not all the way to the rim, but below, I ended up with about 1/5 too much flour per cup. Needless to say my "cake" was more like a scone loaf and it was STILL AMAZING!!! I might need to remember my "mistake" recipe. LOL!!
Kristen M. April 18, 2020
Jeanne, I'm so glad to hear it was still good this way—thanks for reporting back! (Also, sneaky cup...)
Archana P. April 18, 2020
hey Kristen!
I tried this cake as you made it seem so good and Easy. However, I don’t know why my cake was tougher on the outside. I am wondering if I should check my oven temperature too??
I also felt like the cake was On the drier side. Is it ok to add more than 1/3 cup hot water?
Kristen M. April 18, 2020
Hi Archana, it sounds like maybe it got a little overbaked—I did this once and it was a little tougher and drier than the other times I've pulled it out a little earlier, right when the toothpick test worked. If you'd like to revive the leftovers, I like toasting slices in a pan with butter until golden—it crisps up the outside and softens the inside. And eating with fruit or something creamy will always help, too.
GigiR April 26, 2020
Hi! Its a good idea to post a pan size for a cake. If you pour batter for an 8”pan into a 9”pan, because the batter is spread out more, it can dry out a bit. I had this happen with a banana loaf. I poured the batter into a slightly larger loaf pan and I baked it for the same time. The outer layer was a deeper, darker bake. Not great. The inside was okay. Maybe monitor the baking more often with the toothpick test
rox L. May 11, 2022
13 x 9 pan is called for per mentioned in article. All her recipes are using a 13 x 9
tim P. April 18, 2020
I cant bake to save my life or anyone else's but this was so easy and so delicious! seriously, your video tutorials and changing my life and my weight! thank you and your hubby as well for my quarantine 15! ;-]
Kristen M. April 18, 2020
I'm so glad it worked well for you!
shelby April 18, 2020
how about substituting coconut milk or coconut cream for the sour cream. Is that just crazy, or would it work?
Kristen M. April 18, 2020
Yes, Jami said coconut cream would work well! It will just change the texture a bit and might take a little longer to bake.
Zab B. April 18, 2020
Hi! Will nonfat plain Greek work? Thanks!
Kristen M. April 18, 2020
Yes, I think it will work but won't have the same richness, so it might dry out a little faster—so I would watch it closely and pull it out as soon as a toothpick comes out with just crumbs clinging (no wet batter).
Charlotte M. April 18, 2020
Great cake. I went straight to a variant: shredded coconut in the batter, then a lemon juice Glaze (Juice and zest of 4 lemons, bit of icing sugar, bit of boiling water) poured over while cake still hot - delicious. Lemon zest in the batter too next time. No sour cream so I used half creme fraiche and half Greek yoghurt. Worked well - like, cake half gone!
Kristen M. April 18, 2020
Linda L. April 18, 2020
My strawberry compote has foam in the top. Should I try to scrape it off? Why did this happen?
Linda L. April 18, 2020
I think I solved my own problem. I placed a paper towel on the top of the compote and lifted the foam off. Kristen, I have enjoyed every one of your blogs and videos on Food52. Thank you for your simple and fun approach to cooking and baking. This evening I’m taking the cake with compote and whip cream to two of my sweet neighbors that are confined to their homes.
Thank you for your inspiration.
Kristen M. April 18, 2020
Thank you for reporting back, Linda! Mine had a bit of foam on top, too, but I just stirred it back in and it didn't hurt the flavor—and your solution works, too. Thank you for your note and for sharing this cake with others—such a lovely idea.
Carrie S. April 18, 2020
This looks so good. I'm not a vinegar fan and I'm afraid if I detect the slightest hint of vinegar in the compote it will gross me out. Has anyone used citrus in place of the vinegar?
Kristen M. April 18, 2020
I don't think you'll detect it, but citrus would be delicious!