Lotta Yellow Cake Questions

Regarding yellow cake, reader Sandra submits a flurry of interesting questions:

What about the fat used? Oil or butter? Cake method or muffin method? In this times, when healthy rules, what do you think to use oil for a cake? In your opinion which are the main differences in the crumb using oil instead of butter? Baking powder appears at the end of 1800 right? Do you know how Careme use to do his fluffy cakes for Maria Antoniette?

Hey Sandra! Butter is undoubtedly the preferred fat for an American-style layer cake. The flavor of butter is, at least to my way of seeing things, a crucial component of the overall flavor profile. That’s not to say that layer cakes can’t be made with oil. Oil cakes are generally quite moist and tender because the fat remains liquid even after the cake has cooled. However they can be tender to the point of being wet inside depending on how much oil is used. They can also weep oil, which I find rather unappealing. In general I’m not a fan of oil cakes, though I confess I have a soft spot for Italian olive oil cakes, which have a very unusual flavor.

Regarding mixing, I tend to like the one bowl method, which I used when I was first taught to make cake layers, and I still think creates a superior texture.

Baking powder has been around since the very early 1800’s in America, but didn’t become a common commercial ingredient until about 1850. It was used on the Continent in those days, but not so much among pastry chefs. Rather it was considered an ingredient of last resort, useful in military applications (i.e. baking up quick breads in the field) but not much else. More than a few Continentals still feel this way.

Regarding Antonin Carême, I’m honestly not sure what sort of mixing methods he preferred, but then it’s important to remember that cake as we think of it now and cake as it was known then are very different things. In those days “cake” was what we moderns would call “bread”: fine, white fluffy bread which would have differed markedly from the dense, dark loaves that average people ate. Sometimes that fluffy white bread was enriched with butter and/or egg yolks (brioche), and maybe sweetened with a little honey. Cakes as we know them know didn’t become common until the late 1800’s.

Unfortuntely brioche is probably as close as Marie Antoinette ever got to cake as we think of it. Worse still she never got to taste one of Carême’s, since she was beheaded when he was just nine years old! 😉

7 thoughts on “Lotta Yellow Cake Questions”

  1. I wouldn’t worry too much about the health aspect of oil v. butter in your cakes. Both are just as fattening as each other, and using oil instead of butter isn’t going to make a huge difference to your saturated fat intake. If you want to be healthy, don’t eat cake.

    But on the subject of “yellow cake” Joe, it’s almost completely unknown here, but I once had an American acquaintance who made “yellow cake with chocolate icing”. The icing was gorgeous, and I know it contained sweetened condensed milk and chocolate. Any clues as to the whole recipe?

    1. Hey Bronwyn! Something very like that cake is on the site under “Cake Layers” in the Components menu. As for the frosting, I’ll have to cast about a bit. I’ve tasted something similar but never made it.

      – Joe

  2. Hey Joe – I just wanted to weigh in on this topic because it is in the relm of my current search for a delicious yellow or white cake recipe myself. As a baker I agree with everything you have already said (as I usually do – LOL) and I think that Rose Levy has a delicious yellow cake recipe with a moist small crumb that is delicious. I also have one that I LOVE from Toba Garrett that is a buttermilk birthday cake that is my all-time favorite as it is not too sweet but is moist and delicious. My curret dilemma however centers on a pretty big heart event that I had in Dec. While I am doing really well and feel great I now need to cut out – or down on the butter!!! Telling a baker to do that is like hell-on-earth especially because I have always believed in the purity of baking with real butter and quality ingredients and my business was based on that. However now I am looking to substitute it with oil, a mixture of the two, or a substitute like Earth Balance for a healthier approach. I am also looking to bring a butter flavor to the cake if possible (a butter emulsion, extract, or oil maybe). Normally I wouldnt even dream of doing this but now I am on the other side of the issue and I just need to pursue the possibilities as far as I can. Although there is no such thing as a “healthy” cake, your body does process some things better than others and some ingredients are just a better choice. If eaten within the confines of the right calorie load for the day it seems that I should be able to have some cake and eat it too!! At least I hope so. I will indulge on special occassions with the real deal but it is good to have an alternative when you just have to have a piece of cake (a feeling that I do admit to having). Do you have any ideas on how to achieve this or a recipe for a yellow or white cake that substitutes butter with oil or Earth Balance? Would appreciate your input.

    1. Hey Andy!

      First thanks for the kind words! I definitely see where you’re coming from with this. Having had health issues myself un the past, I understand what it means to have to make accommodations. Regarding a yellow cake that uses oil, I don’t think that would be very difficult. I know I’ve seen several recipes that call for oil instead of butter, not out of a desire to make them healthier but because oil creates a very moist crumb. I’d think a simple google search would bring up all kinds of options. Other than that I’d just start experimenting. RLB’s one-bowl method cakes should work at least reasonably well with oil. Let me know how it goes!

      – Joe

  3. Thank you Joe for you answer and dedicate the post to my question! always learn many things with your posts!
    Do you recommend one book at amazon can I buy to learn about chemistry of the components of bakery and pastry ? I appreciate your help. Best regards, Sandra

    1. Of the books that are currently out there I think Bakewise by Shirley Corriher is the best single baking-focused book. Alton Brown’s I’m just Here for More Food is well-intentioned, but it’s rather thin on content. I disagree with Shirley on many aesthetic points, but there’s no question that when it comes to the science she knows her stuff!

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