I’ve had a best chocolate cake recipe forever – easy and reliably fantastic – but it took years of trying before I finally found the perfect yellow cake. When we lived in Ohio with my husband’s side of the family, chocolate was the only cake we ever needed. But in California, my Chinese family likes anything but chocolate. And what they like most is plain yellow cake.
My mom is a butter lover, so for her birthday I’ve often made a yellow butter cake, dusted with powdered sugar. But for other birthdays, especially kids’, I feel like a frosted cake is more celebratory, and a butter cake seems like overkill when you’re going to slather a layer of butter and powdered sugar on top.
This yellow cake is a keeper – moist and springy, rich taste but not overly sweet, still soft and delicious a day or two later. It has enough butter for flavor, plus my favorite baking ingredient for extra moisture: plain yogurt (or sour cream, or buttermilk). And in the ultimate compliment, kids who are normally frosting-lickers actually eat this cake too.
My brother Ray, an adventurous eater but a plain-Jane cake guy, loved the birthday cake we made him recently. We threw it together last minute, leaving it in the pan for easier transport, with a quick chocolate-chip arrangement on top as a festive nod. We made it again for my daughter’s birthday party, with chocolate chips, M&Ms and two gummy peach rings to form the number 8.
And today I’m celebrating two special birthdays: my forever friend Grace, soulmate since we met freshman year of high school, and my dad, who would have been 79 years old today.
My dad, an engineer always in search of creative solutions to problems, would have liked this cake and the novel technique, from master baker Rose Levy Beranbaum, used to make it. Instead of starting by creaming butter and sugar, soft butter is mixed with dry ingredients before wet ingredients are added. I don’t know why, but it works beautifully.
Prepping wet ingredients: eggs, oil, yogurt, milk, vanilla.
I had an eager little helper to mix the butter into the dry ingredients.
Pour in the wet ingredients.
Baking isn’t as scary as you might think. I didn’t even think about my lumpy batter until I looked at this picture. And honestly the cake was just fine.
All you need for a quick frosting is some soft butter (I like half cream cheese if I have it), plus powdered sugar and a few drops of milk.
Just a touch of vanilla. More makes the color off.
Leaving the cake in the pan is easier for transport, and less hassle for frosting.
A quick chocolate chip spelling exercise (start with the middle letter for better spacing). Plus an exclamation point for good measure. M&Ms are great for color too.
I forgot to bring candles to the house, but Ray couldn’t have cared less about using a used number 3 candle instead.
We cut around the RAY!, just to enjoy the goofiness of it longer.
And served pieces up with some strawberries on the side.
Happy birthday to Grace, and to my dad, and to the babies of 2016.
My dad would have loved this year. He blossomed in his last decade of retirement with the birth of each of my four kids. Social time with non-family adults exhausted him, but he had limitless love and energy for children. Babies were his specialty, and he would have had three newborns to hold this year, a girl from Ray, and twin boys from our younger brother Vic. He would have blissed out cuddling those soft warm bodies.
The twin boys were born in early July, dangerously prematurely, and just came home last week. Cheers to birthdays, for big people and small, and for beloved spirits that are always with us.
The Best Yellow Birthday Cake
The Chinese side of the family likes a plain vanilla cake, so I’m excited to have finally found one that my chocolate lovers love too. This is an upsized version of the ultimate vanilla cake from The Cupcake Project, which makes one 13″x9″ cake or two 9″ rounds.
Note that this cake uses the method used by master baker Rose Levy Beranbaum in The Cake Bible, in which butter is mixed with flour and dry ingredients first (instead of creaming butter with sugar). I don’t know why, but it works beautifully.
- 2 2/3 cups cake flour (or 2 1/3 cup all-purpose flour plus 1/3 cup cornstarch)
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 2 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 6 tablespoons butter, softened at room temperature
- 1 cup milk
- 1/2 cup plain yogurt (or sour cream, or buttermilk)
- 1/3 cup neutral-flavored oil
- 3 eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 2 tablespoons butter, softened at room temperature
- 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) cream cheese, softened at room temperature (or just use more butter if you don’t have cream cheese)
- 2 cups powdered sugar, more if necessary to thicken
- 1 tablespoon milk
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease two 9″ cake pans or one 9″x13″ baking pan. (You could also make a half-sheet pan, which makes big, thinner cake good for kids’ birthday parties; or 3 8″ cake pans for a triple-layer; or about 24 cupcakes.)
- In a mixing bowl, mix together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
- Cut butter into cubes and add to bowl. Use mixer to blend butter into dry ingredients until mixture looks like dry crumbs with no lumps of butter left.
- In a separate bowl, mix together milk, eggs, sour cream, oil and vanilla. Add to dry ingredients and mix until just combined (use a rubber spatula to make sure flour underneath gets fully combined).
- Fill cake pan(s) and bake until center is no longer jiggly and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Check cupcakes at 14 minutes, thinner layers at 18 minutes. Thicker cakes may take 25-30 minutes. Cool before frosting.
- To make frosting, mix together softened cream cheese and butter. Add powdered sugar until fully blended in. Add just a tiny bit of milk at a time, then mix and see if you need more. Frosting should be creamy but not runny. Finish with vanilla extract. Add more powdered sugar to thicken if necessary. We like to decorate with chocolate chips and/or M&Ms to write the name of the birthday boy or girl.
- Another favorite is fresh strawberry cake using this recipe as a base.
- If you need a chocolate birthday cake, I love this one.
Here’s the link to a printable version.