Several months ago for the Daring Bakers, I made Dorie Greenspan’s Perfect Party Cake. Most of the group members, including myself, had very positive things to say about this cake. However, many of us, again including myself, found that the cake didn’t rise much. Granted, the copy of the recipe I used had a typo in it regarding the amount of flour, but that wasn’t the case with everyone who had problems.
So a few weeks ago when I made white cupcakes, I used a different recipe, by Nick Malgieri. The recipe calls for 2 cups all-purpose flour, but I was pretty sure I’d like it better with cake flour, so I used 2¼ cups cake flour instead. The cupcakes were definitely good, but just the slightest bit dry.
Now I was on a mission. Is it just a characteristic of white cake that it’s dry? Would Dorie’s recipe be perfect if I used the correct amount of flour, or would Nick’s be better if I followed it exactly? And why not throw a third recipe into the mix, and try one from my old favorite, Cooks Illustrated?
I pared the recipes down so that they each used 2 eggs, and I made cupcakes. I made them all in one afternoon, leaving the oven on between batches and not adjusting the dial, to make sure oven temperature wasn’t a factor in any differences. I left out any flavorings besides vanilla, used the same amount of vanilla in each, and used whole milk in all three recipes.
You can see that the three look very different. Left to right, the photos show Dorie’s, Nick’s, and CI’s. Nick’s looks drastically different, which I can attest is due to the all-purpose flour. The photo below shows the result of Nick’s recipe when made with cake flour. It more closely resembles the other two.
The difference in taste and texture mirrors the difference in looks. Nick’s cupcakes are far drier than Dorie’s and CI’s. You can see that their texture looks more muffin-like with a coarser crumb. Dorie and CI’s are more similar. They’re both fluffy and light with a nice resiliency. Dorie’s cupcakes rose nicely, in contrast to when I made the layer cake in March.
At first, Dave and I agreed that CI’s beat out Dorie’s by a hair. They seemed moister and more flavorful. But later on, I did a comparison of just those two, unfrosted, and I was able to spot some subtle differences. CI’s cupcakes are undeniably moister. They are also sweeter. Dorie’s cupcakes aren’t as sweet, but I do like their flavor. Without the sweetness, some of the other flavors in the cupcake are noticeable.
The question then arises – what causes these differences? I’ve laid out the points of the recipe that I think would have the most significant impact on the outcome. I’ve entered Malgieri’s recipe as using 9 ounces (2¼ cups) cake flour instead of 10 ounces (2 cups) flour, since it seems pretty clear that all-purpose flour in a cake as light as white cake is a bad idea. I’m guessing Malgieri’s cupcakes are drier because they use less milk. Obviously CI’s are sweeter because they have more sugar. Dorie’s and CI’s recipes, which produced similar results, are actually pretty different. Dorie’s uses less butter and sugar, which I’m assuming is balanced by more milk and less egg whites so the cupcakes aren’t dry. I think the coarser, more muffin-like texture of Malgieri’s cupcakes might arise from the lack of a final beating step after all the ingredients are added.
I wonder if I can tweak the recipes to get my favorite aspects of each. It’s not as simple as just reducing the sugar in CI’s recipe, because sugar contributes moistness. But maybe I should reduce the sugar by 2 tablespoons and increase the milk by 2 tablespoons. It’s worth trying, but to be honest, after this experiment, I think it’s going to be a while before I feel the urge to make white cake again!
Classic White Layer Cake (from Cooks Illustrated)
CI note: If you have forgotten to bring the milk and egg white mixture to room temperature, set the bottom of the glass measure containing it in a sink of hot water and stir until the mixture feels cool rather than cold, around 65 degrees. Cake layers can be wrapped and stored for one day.
Nonstick cooking spray
2¼ cups cake flour (9 ounces), plus more for dusting the pans
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
6 large egg whites (¾ cup), at room temperature
2 teaspoons almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1¾ cups granulated sugar (12¼ ounces)
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon table salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1½ sticks), softened but still cool
1. For the Cake: Set oven rack in middle position. (If oven is too small to cook both layers on a single rack, set racks in upper-middle and lower-middle positions.) Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray two 9-inch round cake pans with nonstick cooking spray; line the bottoms with parchment or waxed paper rounds. Spray the paper rounds, dust the pans with flour, and invert pans and rap sharply to remove excess flour.
2. Pour milk, egg whites, and extracts into 2-cup glass measure, and mix with fork until blended.
3. Mix cake flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in bowl of electric mixer at slow speed. Add butter; continue beating at slow speed until mixture resembles moist crumbs, with no powdery streaks remaining.
4. Add all but ½ cup of milk mixture to crumbs and beat at medium speed (or high speed if using handheld mixer) for 1½ minutes. Add remaining ½ cup of milk mixture and beat 30 seconds more. Stop mixer and scrape sides of bowl. Return mixer to medium (or high) speed and beat 20 seconds longer.
5. Divide batter evenly between two prepared cake pans; using rubber spatula, spread batter to pan walls and smooth tops. Arrange pans at least 3 inches from the oven walls and 3 inches apart. (If oven is small, place pans on separate racks in staggered fashion to allow for air circulation.) Bake until thin skewer or toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 23 to 25 minutes.
6. Let cakes rest in pans for 3 minutes. Loosen from sides of pans with a knife, if necessary, and invert onto wire racks. Reinvert onto additional wire racks. Let cool completely, about 1½ hours.
Dorie Greenspan’s Perfect Party Cake recipe can be found here.
Classic White Cake (from Nick Malgieri)
12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1½ cups sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
6 large egg whites (¾ cup)
¾ cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 (9-inch) diameter by 1 ½ -inch deep layer pans or 1 (13 by 9 by 2-inch) pan, buttered and bottoms lined with parchment or waxed paper
Set a rack at the middle level of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar for about 5 minutes, until light and fluffy. Stir together flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside. Combine egg whites, milk and vanilla extract. Add ⅓ of the flour mixture to butter mixture then add half the milk mixture. Continue to alternate beginning and ending with flour mixture. Scrape bowl and beater often. Pour batter into prepared pan(s) and smooth top with a metal spatula. Bake cake(s) about 25 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center emerges clean. Cool in pan on a rack for 5 minutes, then turn out onto a rack, remove paper and let cool completely.
*To make cupcakes from any of these recipes, line a standard-sized muffin pan with baking-cup liners. Fill cups just over ½ full with batter. Bake at 350 degrees for 18-21 minutes.