how to make really cake-y cake?
July 19, 2011 8:57 PM   Subscribe

really cake-y cake. I have had a few really good cakes in the last few years that were less spongy and a bit drier than the ordinary kinds of cake out there. What is the secret to making cake with this texture? Every recipe I try ends up with the softer, spongier cake that we are all used to (and that the box brands aspire to). This cake-y cake seems more old-fashioned--seems a bit more like bread. Can anyone help? I am wondering if it is a recipe issue, or whether it has something to do with time cooking, or how you prepare the ingredients, or oil vs. butter vs. ??? Let me know the secret!
posted by cmp4Meta to Food & Drink (45 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Ah. I think what you want is pound cake. The basic recipe is a pound each of eggs, butter, sugar, and flour, (and a pinch of salt and a dash of vanilla for good measure) but a more exacting recipe is here.
posted by Jon_Evil at 9:08 PM on July 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Loads of butter.
posted by GuyZero at 9:12 PM on July 19, 2011

Maybe what Smitten Kitchen calls everyday cakes?
posted by Iris Gambol at 9:18 PM on July 19, 2011

In general, I find that cakes with whipped, then folded-in, egg whites, will give you this old-fashioned, drier, less sweet texture. Joy of Cooking's "White Cake" is like this. (Can't find the recipe online easily, sorry.)

I disagree that pound cakes or cakes with a lot of fat will give you the texture you describe. They will be dense and moist, not light and dry. (If I'm reading your question correctly, that is.)

That said, there's a lot less room for error in cakes like these; a slight mismeasurement and your cake can be too dry. Weight-based measuring can be worth it here, for results like you'd find at a good bakery.
posted by palliser at 9:21 PM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

This recipe for chai spice cake (more or less the one dejah420 speaks of in this epic thread) is delicious. Every time I've made it, it's been cakey in the way that you're looking for. I'm not 100% sure what the "trick" is, but I suspect it's got something to do with the added spices contributing to a greater percentage of dry ingredient.

- 3 cups flour
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 0.5 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 cup of tea milk (make a cup of strong black tea, except use hot milk instead of boiling water)
- 4 eggs
- 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 6 tablespoons or more (I like mine really spicy) chai spice (cinnamon, clove, ginger, allspice, cardamom, nutmeg, and a little corriander)

1) Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

2) In a large bowl, mix the flour, 2 cups sugar, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Blend in tea milk, 1 cup of butter, 2 teaspoons of vanilla and 4 eggs. Beat for 3 minutes at medium speed. Add spices to taste, see above. Beat an additional minute to incorporate spices and a little air. Pour batter into prepared pan.

3) Bake 45-60 minutes in greased pan(s), or until a wooden skewer inserted into center of cake comes out clean. Cool on rack.
posted by phunniemee at 9:32 PM on July 19, 2011 [19 favorites]

try it with one less egg...IIRC, it's the eggs that make cakes fluffy and spongy...use whole eggs, not're looking for like the opposite of angel food cake, right? those have tons of egg whites.
posted by sexyrobot at 9:33 PM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

The King Arthur elegant white cake is meant to be a wedding cake. It's my all-purpose vanilla recipe because it's really delicious as well as sturdy (stackable). I think it has the texture you're describing... close to pound cake, but perhaps less buttery?
posted by jessicapierce at 9:43 PM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes, I agree with Neofelis that it could be European technique, specifically Genoise. That is a drier cake with less fat, although usually the cake is brushed or soaked with simple syrup for moisture. It might be too dry right out of the pan otherwise.
posted by cabingirl at 9:45 PM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

So far the egg comment by Sexyrobot is the most helpful answer to my specific question. I would love to hear from others if recipes will indeed work well still if you reduce by one egg. Sexyrobot has actually given a TECHNIQUE, which is what I'm looking for--something that applies across many different situations.

Sexyrobot seems to account for why cakes get spongy in the first place, saying that it is the egg that makes it spongy. I'm not sure if Sexyrobot is right, but it sure sounds convincing, and I will try it out as an experiment. I've always thought of baking as an Extreme Exact Science, where you had to follow the recipe to the letter or it totally flops, so won't subtracting an egg from a recipe spell disaster?

By the way, pound cake is precisely not what I'm talking about, so let's not bring that up anymore.

As for the more butter suggestion--does anyone have any comments on what that will do? What is the effect of butter in cake baking?
posted by cmp4Meta at 9:51 PM on July 19, 2011

Also palliser's comment about whipping in egg whites. It seems the secret here must be to do with the eggs.
posted by cmp4Meta at 9:55 PM on July 19, 2011

The Genoise recipe looks really promising as well--I swore at the time that one of the cakes I am talking about tasted a bit like cornstarch, and the Genoise recipe calls for cornstarch. What is the effect of cornstarch on baking in general?
posted by cmp4Meta at 10:00 PM on July 19, 2011

won't subtracting an egg from a recipe spell disaster?

Probably not, depending on the total number of eggs called for. Reducing 4 to 3 is probably fine. You'll get a different texture (probably a denser one), but it will work and taste fine. I wouldn't drop 2 eggs to 1 though.
posted by jessicapierce at 10:00 PM on July 19, 2011

You could also try overbeating a batter on purpose, to develop the gluten. You'd get a chewier result.
posted by jessicapierce at 10:02 PM on July 19, 2011

You can also get a similar texture with a yeast (or yeasted) cake recipe like this chocolate cake recipe. Yeast crumb cake and yeast coffee cake are also similar in texture. I've had coffee cake similar to this recipe and it's really good.
posted by fiercekitten at 10:06 PM on July 19, 2011

I am forgetting all the cake science I ever knew (I'm a pastry chef so I should be better at this) and my Harold McGee has nothing that helps... last thing I can think of to add is do NOT go with an oil-based cake, they tend to be on the wet side.
posted by jessicapierce at 10:07 PM on July 19, 2011

Avoid any recipes that call for oil. Chiffon cakes, pound cakes and some genoise should approximate this texture, though generally genoise is a bit moister than what I think you're describing.
posted by Lisitasan at 10:09 PM on July 19, 2011

Also, to help you on your quest, I think that a more descriptive baking term might be "fine crumb". I don't have it on hand to reference, but Rose Levy Berenbaum's Cake Bible would help you figure this out easily.
posted by Lisitasan at 10:11 PM on July 19, 2011

And just to pile on myself, the term "low ratio cake" should also help you. It describes a lower ratio of sugar, a lot of which makes for a much moister (and obviously sweeter) cake.
posted by Lisitasan at 10:14 PM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thanks Lisatasan! The vocabulary is essential here to pursuing this topic accurately! You've given me what I need to turn to the 'scriptures'--like the Cake Bible you mention, which I will certainly be examining, along with McGee (thanks to Jessicapierce).

This brings to mind that the cakes I had seemed to be composed of lots of little particles about the size of the chunks in GrapeNuts cereal (though certainly not crispy). Also, come to think of it, these were in a lot of wedding cakes. I don't know if that's specific to wedding cake, or that people just are buying more expensive or 'gourmet' cakes for their weddings.
posted by cmp4Meta at 10:20 PM on July 19, 2011

I've got the Cake Bible on hand here & will be glad to check and see if Berenbaum has pertinent remarks on crumb, texture, etc.... tomorrow. :)
posted by jessicapierce at 10:24 PM on July 19, 2011

What about fiercekitten's yeast suggestion? Is there any danger of it coming out too much like bread?
posted by cmp4Meta at 10:36 PM on July 19, 2011

If you are looking for a fine-crumbed (and not chewy), light cake that is not overly moist, there are a few different aspects to look at. I'm assuming you don't want a rich, dense cake, like a pound cake, which others are suggesting.

For one thing, if you aren't using pastry flour, you should be - all purpose flour can contain too much gluten, which makes a chewier crumb. Make sure not to mix the batter more than required, as this will develop the gluten and make the cake chewier. Look for recipes that use beaten eggs, often with sugar, or whipped egg whites, as this produces a lighter cake.

Moistness can come from fats, from egg yolks, or from sugar. Avoid recipes with lots of oil or butter (oil in particular gives that cake mix mouthfeel), many egg yolks, or a very large amount of sugar (angel food cake is moist even without fats or yolks because it has so much sugar in it).

Genoise is a good recipe starting point.

McGee is awesome and you certainly should own On Food and Cooking, but he, sadly, has little to say on this particular subject.
posted by ssg at 10:53 PM on July 19, 2011

there's a recipe in the joy of cooking (the old edition, not the hippy-dippy new one) that i think might be exactly what you're looking's called 'everyday cake' or 'simple cake' or some such...gimme a sec, i'll go look it up...
posted by sexyrobot at 1:02 AM on July 20, 2011

hmmm...i think this might be it (it's been forever since i've made it, but it's only got 2 eggs, so i'm pretty sure this is it)
quick cake:
sift into a mixer bowl:
1 3/4 cups cake flour (i think i substituted regular flour)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/2 cup + 2 1/2 teaspoons milk (?--seems awfully specific...)
1/2 cup butter (softened)
whip for 1 min at low speed, scrape the bowl and whip for 1 1/2 min at slightly higher speed
scrape the bowl again and fold in:
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
(1 teaspoon vanilla)
whip for 30 sec on low speed, pour into 2 greased 8in rounds and bake at 375F for 20 min

instead of frosting, it suggests sprinkling on top of the batter a mixture of:
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1/4 cup chopped pecans
...sort of like coffee cake, i guess... flipping through the cake section i'm noticing a trend...cakes with less eggs have more baking powder...(angel food cakes dont have any, one-egg cake has 2 1/2 teaspoons)... i believe that both make the cakes rise, but the baking powder makes for a drier/breadier cake...also most of the other cakes have more sugar as well...this is prob just what you're looking for...oh, for chocolate, substitute 1/4 cup of the cake flour with dutch cocoa...
posted by sexyrobot at 1:29 AM on July 20, 2011

The standard English sponge cake (here's a jam-filled Victoria sponge) may be what you are looking for. The are drier, lighter, and significantly less bouncy than US cakes.
posted by Cuppatea at 2:35 AM on July 20, 2011

(Those recipes call for self-raising flour... plain flour with baking powder added, about 1.5 tsps per cup.)
posted by Cuppatea at 2:39 AM on July 20, 2011

The secret is using more egg yolks than egg whites. Try this:

250g plain flour
250g butter
150g granulated sugar
3 eggs + 1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract or rum

You can mix in coco powder or cinnamon if you like.

Pour this batter into a 9" baking pan, top with fruit slices(apricots and plums are best, apples are quite good) and bake at 180C (~350F) for 45 minutes.
posted by copperbleu at 2:44 AM on July 20, 2011

As an alternative to McGee, you might find Shirley Corriher's Cookwise, which has 18 pages on cake, with discussions of the roles of various ingredients, troubleshooting charts, etc.

From Corriher, the rules for 'low ratio' cakes are:

1. The weight of the sugar should be equal to or less than the weight of the flour.
2. The weight of the eggs should be equal to or greater than the weight of the fat.
5. The weight of the liquids (eggs & milk) should equal the weight of the flour.

If you can spare $20, a 5kg/11# digital kitchen scale is a really nice thing to have around.
posted by jon1270 at 2:54 AM on July 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might look into muffin recipes, and just add a bit more sugar to sweeten them to taste. I find muffin recipes as a whole to be more bread-like than cake recipes -- just as you say, drier and less spongy. But still in the cake genus, so to speak.
posted by Andrhia at 5:40 AM on July 20, 2011

I immediately thought genoise when I read your description, I'll look for a recipe for you. It is the kind of dry sponge used in European baking, usually paired with flavored simple syrup to make it more moist and rich buttercream or custard fillings.
Reducing an egg won't wreck the cake but will take you further from the texture you're looking for.
posted by meringue at 6:06 AM on July 20, 2011

I'm surprised nobody's mentioned flour choice yet. Different types of flour have different protein content: bread flour has high protein (12-15%); all-purpose a moderate level (10-12%), and cake flour a very low level (as little as 6% in a few brands). The protein content has a big effect on the final dough: protein in contact with water forms gluten, the stringy, elastic structure that gives bread its distinctive chew. This is a good thing in a baguette, but in cakes not so much, so choosing a flour with the right protein content is important.

Now, the actual choice depends on the recipe: certain denser cakes will collapse if made with cake flour (there's not enough structure to hold them up), but in finer, spongier cakes cake flour can make a huge difference in the final structure. If the recipe I'm working from doesn't specify flour, I usually start with 50/50 AP and cake flour and then adjust the ratio up or down depending on how I like the result.

(Actually, though, if the recipe doesn't specify the kind of flour it's not a great recipe to bake from. Precision is important in baking, and if a recipe isn't written with that precision in mind it's probably not of much use.)
posted by jacobian at 6:12 AM on July 20, 2011

More butter and egg will make a cake richer and bouncier.

I would second the suggestion that you try a Victorian sponge cake, which is relatively dry.
posted by jb at 6:25 AM on July 20, 2011

Reduce the fat and the eggs. I think you might prefer quickbreads, which are I think are more like cake than bread, but certainly less cake-y.
posted by theora55 at 8:55 AM on July 20, 2011

So maybe this is the kind of texture you're looking for, I'm not toally sure:

It's quite dry but based on your comments I wonder whether you're looking for something more like an angel feed cake which is airer and dry.
posted by GuyZero at 9:16 AM on July 20, 2011

what jacobian said (prob why i got a 'breadier' result with all-purpose flour) gotta be careful with the substitutions when it comes to at a time. otherwise you end up with cookies, or something out of an 'i love lucy' episode...

also, the sponge cakes mentioned are higher baking powder/less eggs in general FWIW...
posted by sexyrobot at 9:47 AM on July 20, 2011

Let's drop sponge cake--that's definitely not what I'm after. And I wouldn't describe it as airy either. It was fairly dense, but not too moist, and not spongy. I've seen it in a lot of high end wedding cakes lately. It seems to be composed of a lot of small crumbs that hold together. It is also not pound cake.
posted by cmp4Meta at 12:41 PM on July 20, 2011

Def not a quickbread and def not the blueberry thing, although thanks for the suggestions. Def not a muffin either. The variety of people's suggestions is mind boggling.
posted by cmp4Meta at 12:43 PM on July 20, 2011

I think I know exactly what you're talking about, though I don't know what to call it other than "wedding cake." I suspect that most recipes intended specifically to be used for 3-layer cakes will be closer to your goal than, say, single-layer crumb cakes, or sheet cakes. (though obviously there is a lot of overlap here, and one can mostly all sub in for another in a pinch, just with less optimal results sometimes)

I totally understand that you do NOT mean pound cake. But just in terms of density and firmness, not moistness or anything else, pound cake is pretty close, right?
posted by jessicapierce at 1:01 PM on July 20, 2011

Poring through Berenbaum, this may be helpful: the opposite of what you want is "open crumb."
posted by jessicapierce at 1:03 PM on July 20, 2011

Cake flour contains 2 gluten-forming proteins, gliadin and glutenin. When liquid is added, the connect to form the resilient strands that provide a small part of the cake's structure. The most important structural component, however, is starch, which absorbs water and swells (gelatinizes) to set the structure.

Cake flour is made from finely milled soft winter wheat which is high in starch and low in gluten-forming protein. Because of its finer granulation, it absorbs fat and moisture more quickly than hard spring wheat which contains more protein.

The size of the gas cells in a cake determines the quality of the grain of the finished cake and is directly dependent upon how much the batter expands during baking before the cells rupture. This is influenced partly by the size of the flour particles, partly by the batter's pH, and partly by by the type of shortening used. Cake flour, due to bleaching by chorination, has a lower pH (more acid) than other flours. This produces a sweeter flavor and a finer, more velvety crumb because the greater acidity lowers the temperature at which the proteins coagulate. This also makes it possible for the cake structure to support more sugar, butter, and heavier particles such as chopped nuts or chocolate.
posted by jessicapierce at 1:07 PM on July 20, 2011 far as i can tell, what you're looking for sounds very similar to the texure/consistency of like a red velvet cake, no? maybe a little less sweet and a tad less moist? then def. try the quick cake recipe i posted using all-purpose flour, tell me if that does the's nice and dense and crumby...the sponge cakes in the joy of cooking all use even more baking powder and cake flour to make them all airy...
posted by sexyrobot at 1:56 PM on July 20, 2011

I did NOT mean an angel food cake, which uses ONLY the whites and NO fat at all. I meant a cake where you separate the whites from the yolks, so that after creaming butter and sugar, you add the yolks and flavorings and beat, then add dry ingredients and combine more gently, and finally whip the whites separately and fold them in.

Okay, I have become indignant enough about some of the wronger answers here to transcribe Joy of Cooking's recipe for 1-2-3-4 cake, which if done right* has a classic fine wedding-cake texture:

Sift together twice:
2 2/3 c sifted cake flour
2 1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

1 c milk
1 1/2 tsp vanilla

In large bowl, beat until creamy:
1/2 lb unsalted butter

Gradually add and beat 3-5 mins:
1 1/2 c sugar

Beat in one at a time:
4 large egg yolks

Add flour mixture in 3 parts, alternating with milk mixture.

In another bowl, beat 4 large egg whites + 1/4 tsp cream of tartar, and then gradually add 1/4 c sugar, and beat until stiff but not dry.

Use rubber spatula to fold 1/4 of egg whites into egg yolk mixture, then fold in remaining whites. Spread batter among 3 8x2" round pans and bake at 350 until toothpick comes out clean.

*Keep in mind that one of the reasons for the popularity of the moist, mix-cake type cake is that it is foolproof. When there's that much sugar and fat creating moisture, you can afford a few little hiccups here and there. You'll be treading a finer line with the kind of cake you're after.
posted by palliser at 9:16 PM on July 20, 2011

@sexyrobot--you know, one of the cakes I am thinking of WAS a red velvet. i tried a bunch of recipes for it, but they did not produce a similar result. do you know a red velvet recipe in particular that you are thinking of?
posted by cmp4Meta at 7:03 PM on July 21, 2011

the only time i made red velvet cake i used a store-bought mix (because 1 box of mix:$1.50...1/4 cup of red food coloring as required by my recipe: $24.00) wasn't bad.
posted by sexyrobot at 9:36 AM on July 22, 2011

Traditionally, the red color of red velvet cake was caused by a chemical reaction between the buttermilk and (small amount of) cocoa, not food coloring. I wonder if you made one like that (without all the extra food coloring liquid) it would produce a cakier product?
posted by phunniemee at 9:55 AM on July 22, 2011

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