On Yellow Cake Layers

Reader Rosemarie writes in with an interesting question:

Of all the cakes, including Sponge, Chiffon, Genoise… which type do you think is the CLOSEST in light consistency and texture to a boxed yellow cake mix for a layer cake? I tried a Sponge, which although spongy, the air holes are bigger and the crumb is more coarse. My jelly roll is most like it but I can tell that it wouldn’t have the strength to bear up under frosting and other layers. I think it has to have some fat content.

Watching the Ace of Cakes on Food Network, I watch how they trim the cake with a “chain saw” LOL, and imagine it to be a sturdy cake probably not as delicate as a yellow box cake mix. Any thoughts as to which recipe I can try. My Mom had a basic yellow cake but I still think it is not light like bakery birthday cake. Bakery birthday cake is what I am trying to achieve.

Very interesting question, Rosemarie! Thick American cake layers are really their own animal, not related to European sponges, chiffons or génoise(s?). All those cakes are leavened by egg white foam. None could attain either the height or crumb of an American layer cake, which is leavened with baking powder.

The reason for baking powder: no egg foam could lift a rich cake batter more than about an inch off the ground. You see there are several forces at work in a cake layer. Egg white, leavening and flour are all the “up” forces. Fat, sugar and flavoring are all the “down” forces (the load the structure has to carry). Almost all cakes (save for cakes like Angel food and chiffon) are heavy in fat (yolks and butter) and sugar. Without chemical leavening, getting height means sacrificing richness/sweetness, which is why Europeans, who like richness and sweetness but not chemicals in their cakes, content themselves with skinny layers.

Americans, characteristically, want it all: thick, fluffy layers that are also very sweet and rich. So we bring in the big leavening gun of baking powder, which pushes our layers up to two inches, plus gives them a quite light and fluffy crumb. That said, there all sorts of different formulas for American yellow cakes. Some are very rich, buttery and tender (Rose Levy Beranbaum’s cake recipes are in this category). Others are lighter and sweeter, but also, usually, tougher (because they contain less fat).

I’ll bet you can guess which is used on those cake shows, no? For sure the tougher, sweeter layers, which you can stack to heaven and cut with a chainsaw. They’re fun to look at but less fun to eat. In fact when you’re at a wedding or a party you can generally tell what sort of cake-eating experience you’re in for by the overall shape of the cake. If it’s wide and low, you can probably look forward to a buttery and velvety slice. A tall, thick, sculpted cake probably means you’re in for something sweet and a little more resistant to the bite.

I try to split the difference a bit with my yellow cake layer recipe. It definitely belongs in the richer category, but in response to reader requests, I tried to make it a little more “box cake”-like. That’s led some people to call it “a little dry.” I dunno, I guess I just can’t win! But the truth is, it’s very, very difficult to achieve true box cake consistency at home. I’d encourage you to try a couple of different formulas and see what you think is the best.

19 thoughts on “On Yellow Cake Layers”

  1. If anyone finds this recipe too dry, they can always paint a simple syrup (alcoholized or not) on the layers.

  2. How do different types of gluten in North America and Europe affect cake baking?

  3. Can’t you just take a couple of softly whipped egg whites and just fold them in the batter before pouring it into the cake pans?

    1. I’ve never tried that, but I’d be curious to know the results! What I will say is that whites will tend to give you a more open crumb (bigger holes) because they start out large compared to the bubbles created by baking powder, which are teeny tiny, at least at first. As they heat they get quite a bit bigger. Egg white foam also has a tendency to increase the impression of dryness…but maybe they wouldn’t in a cake with that much fat in it. Clearly, this needs to be tried. If you do, cut back on the chemical leavening by about a third lest it right too high and collapse under its own weight.

      – Joe

      1. I first tried this http://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/berry-blitz-torte-recipe
        which was very dry cake but the meringue was perfect. Then I attempted it with your yellow cake recipe with meringue baked on top. The meringue was a cooked italian then spooned on to the batter. The stratification between layers was lost as the cake baked into the meringue. Perhaps convection currents mixed the cake batter into the bottom of the meringue. The base had traditional yellow cake crumb and gradually changed to sponge/angel cake towards the top. Other fairy cakes have a distinct layering between the cake and meringue, cakey and crispy meringue.

  4. Joe,
    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?
    Thank you for your answer… Te mando un abrazo ( send you a hug)

  5. Hi Joe,
    The following recipe uses no baking powder but rises superbly and is so moist. How come?

    6 eggs, room temperature
    220 gm sugar, granulated
    120 gm flour
    100 gm butter, softened
    1 tsp vanilla

    Beat the eggs and sugar on top on water that has been boiled. After 5 mns place that bowl on top of cold water and beat again for 3 mns. Fold in the flour and then the butter and vanilla. Place in a preheated oven at 180 C for 30-35 mns till done.

    1. Hello Kamal!

      The answer is because of the egg and sugar foam. All that beating creates lots of air bubbles, which expand when the cake bakes to keep it light. It very similar to what happens with baking powder, you’re just making the bubbles by hand instead of letting the chemicals do it.

      Thanks for the question!

      – Joe

  6. Hello Joe!!!

    Can I make swiss roll out of orange chiffon cake? My worries is that, will I be able to roll the orange chiffon cake without cracking or even worst breaking? Can I turn an orange chiffon cake (meant for 8 inch cake pan) and turn it into orange swiss roll?
    I have tried your roll cakes neo classic n genoise cake both of which i was able to roll with ease, without cracking and breaking 🙂 So this time I would like to add flavor to the swiss roll. I dont have an orange swiss roll recipe but I do have orange chiffon cake recipe. I would like to make orange swiss roll and fill it up with chocolate buttercream. Thank you!!! Kelp

    1. Hey Kelp!

      You can indeed make a swiss roll out of chiffon cake. It is more prone to cracking as you observe, but if you roll it while the sheet is still hot you can minimize the damage. Follow the instructions for a jelly roll and you should be OK!


      Cheers and let me know how it goes!

      – Joe

      1. the orange swiss roll cracked and broke as I was rolling the cake. I lost my interest on it and threw it out. In the end, I used your genoise recipe. I was able to roll it with ease, without cracking and breaking. After I cut the cake, the cake takes the shape of a nice professional looking swirl. So pretty to look and tastes good too. Soft, moist n fluffy.
        I wish you had more variations on swiss roll, that are easy to roll without breaking n cracking. Such as an orange swiss roll, filbert swiss roll and chocolate swiss roll. If I try to make different flavored swiss roll, i end up breading n cracking.
        Thank you!!! Kelp

        1. That’s a great idea, Kelp, for there are a lot of great roll types out there. Hmm…should I do an orange Swiss roll first do you think?

          – Joe

          1. :)!!!! oh! variations on Swiss rolls!!! that would be great!!! But NO please do not do the orange Swiss roll first but rather a Hazelnut Swiss roll first. I have baked that orange Swiss roll three times, using the same recipe and all three time i ended up breaking it. Now, I have lost my interest on the orange Swiss roll. I liked the texture and the taste of the orange chiffon cake recipe that i was following, it had strong orange flavor to it. Its good for orange layer cake but not good for Swiss roll. Please do Hazelnut Swiss roll first because it would go great with coffee butter, that you put as a filling in the buche de Noel recipe. Then a chocolate swiss roll and then an orange swiss roll or any variations that you please. Other then chocolate, vanilla, hazelnut an orange swiss roll, I don’t know any other roll cakes. Thank You!!! Kelp.

          2. I’ll need to do a little research, Kelp, but these are all good ideas. There’s a whole world in rolls as you know. I need to do some exploring!


            – Joe

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