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.