Golden Vanilla Cake Redux: A Peek into our Testing Process

Here at King Arthur Flour’s Baker’s Hotline, we notice when a particular recipe starts to garner attention – good or not so good. “Did you see that review on [recipe X]?” “I just had my second call about [recipe X].”

Over the last year, we noticed something was brewing with our Golden Vanilla Cake recipe.

We carefully recorded customer feedback from phone calls and emails, and forwarded the feedback along to our test kitchen team. Bakers from the hotline tested the recipe to see if they could mimic customers’ results. We chatted in the break room, at our desks, and via email. Our research and development team was brought in as well.

The two issues readers had noted were dryness in the crumb, and lack of a strong vanilla flavor. Enter R & D team member Jonathan, and his eye for detail.

Golden Vanilla Cake via @kingarthurflour

And so it begins: Testing, testing, testing

Jon tested the Golden Vanilla Cake recipe as originally written and submitted it to our tasting panel. The panel decided that yes, we could make it better.

More milk? Maybe. Beef up the butter? Will sour cream be a spoiler? Cookbook author and high altitude baking expert Susan Purdy has a saying, “You can only change a pie so much before you end up with pizza.”  Were we looking to modify – or start fresh, from the ground up?

Jon baked cake after cake, keeping careful notes on the adjustments. As much as we all love to bake, believe me, the fifth, sixth, and seventh rounds of cake really did begin to lose their charm. Who knew you could grow weary of the scent of baking cake?

Not everything tested in the kitchen makes it past the cooling rack. Some experiments go straight to our compost bins. Others make it farther, going to a small group of initial testers for a thumbs-up or down. Eventually, we’ll have a version we’re ready to move to the next stage… group tastings.

Golden Vanilla Cake via @kingarthurflour (3)

Moving forward: Time for tasting

Once a batch is baked, the finished cakes are sent out for blind taste-testing. One cake will be the standard recipe, the other the modified version.

Did you know there’s actually a science to labeling test samples? I didn’t either, for a long time. But we are wired to prefer certain numbers and letters. You’ll hardly ever see us test A against B. Why? Well, who doesn’t like getting an A rather than a B? A is better in our minds. A+, A #1, A for effort.

For testing purposes, three-digit numbers are the way to go, beginning with at least a 4. The lowest numbers – 1, 2 and 3 – are just like A & B: everyone likes #1, no matter what.

Today’s test subjects are #793 and #427. Again, one is the control and one has been modified. Side by side before cutting, they look nearly identical. Good browning, good height, no sinking.

They’ve both passed the appearance test, but what about flavor and texture?

Perfect for slicing and layering, our goal is butter cake just like what Nana used to make. Forget insipid and flimsy boxed mixes, we want a cake with both flavor and substance. So a Golden Vanilla Cake that’s golden without enough vanilla flavor just won’t make the cut; nor will one whose texture is off: too dense, “sawdust-y,” or dry.

Golden Vanilla Cake via @kingarthurflour (4)

No free snacking: If you bite, you must write!

When we send out samples for a “Bite and Write,” they’re cut the same and arranged the same way on the tray. We eat with our eyes first, so any differences in appearance may change the way tasters view the product before they even pick it up.

In the olden days (you know, 5 years ago or so), we were a lot more casual about feedback. We’d put a product out and take any comments that came our way. These days we’re much more sophisticated, and ask our testers to indicate a clear preference with supporting reasons for the choice. “Soooo yummy” might make the recipe writer feel terrific, but it doesn’t go a long way towards aiding in research.

Did you notice the “too close to call?” Yes, sometimes the two samples will be the exact same product, no changes; and sometimes we’re hoping a replacement ingredient will so closely match the original that testers will consider them impossible to tell apart.

Golden Vanilla Cake via @kingarthurflour (6)

Almost there: Assessing feedback

So, how did our tasters perceive these cakes? Overall, they both had good flavor and texture. #427 emerged as the moister of the two cakes, with the flavor being just about too close to call. A few tasters preferred #793, but after all the comments were in, #427 emerged as the preferred cake.

Golden Vanilla Cake, perfected!

In the end, two small changes were made to the recipe: the milk was increased by 1/4 cup to create a moister crumb, and the vanilla was increased by 1 teaspoon to bump up the flavor. This cake proves the adage, “A little goes a long way.”

We hope you’ve enjoyed this peek into our testing process. Have you ever made our Golden Vanilla Cake? Let us know about your cake-baking adventures in the comments below.

MaryJane Robbins
About

MaryJane Robbins grew up in Massachusetts and moved to Vermont 20 years ago. After teaching young children for 15 years, she changed careers and joined King Arthur Flour in 2005. MaryJane began working on King Arthur Flour's baker’s hotline in 2006, and the blog team ...

comments

  1. Lorraine Fina Stevenski

    I do love to experiment in the kitchen too. Sometimes something simple is more difficult to get just right. This paste or high ratio mixing method is easy and always turns out perfect for me. The key is to make sure the butter is completely mixed into the flour and sugar before adding the wet ingredients. I think this is a perfectly sturdy cake and have made it many times in the past into cakes and cupcakes. Before you revised the recipe I already knew it needed more vanilla flavor and a bit more moisture. But that is what is great about making a recipe your own by experimenting. That said it is also important to use the best ingredients to achieve the best taste.

    Reply
  2. Monica

    Hmm! This is an interesting post, but I am wondering why no one thought to address the issue that many reviewers (myself included) had with the original recipe. Many of us had the experience of having the layers fall while they cooled even though they were baked the requisite amount of time, and a toothpick came out clean. This happened when I baked 9 inch layers. I baked the recipe again in three 8 inch layers, and had better success, though I still thought that the flavor was somewhat lacking. I have been using the Moist Yellow Cake recipe instead (with additional vanilla), and find it to be very reliable. My experience leads me to believe that there is just too much batter in the Golden Vanilla recipe for two 9 inch layers. Any thoughts?

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins , post author

      Hi Monica,
      I chatted with Jon about his tests and findings and while he and I didn’t have trouble with the sinking, he did note that the shorter baking times in the original recipe could lead to some under baking, depending on the oven. The slightly longer baking times in the new version seem to have eliminated that issue for us. We hope you find the same, feel free to keep us posted. ~ MJ

    2. Frances

      I too had the issue with the sinking, but not on 9″ layers, 6″ layers. I’ve since adjusted the baking powder, depending on the size pans. Rose Beranbaum (Cake Bible) says if cakes dome, increase the leavening to weaken the structure of the cake. So if the cake sinks, decrease the leavening. Here’s the link to the blog post on this subject: http://www.realbakingwithrose.com/2006/06/why_cakes_dome.html

      I use the time as a guide and bake until a toothpick comes out clean.

  3. Paul from Ohio

    Way to go Jon and for all the baking baking baking and to the lucky testers, and to MJ for this insight into the change.
    Since this is a favorite cake of mine, along with the chocolate frosting in the photo, you’d better believe I’ll be trying the new small changes and do my own taste testing on a classic.

    Reply
  4. Sue

    Thanks for the insider insight, MJ! Permit me a geeky question: do you guys ever use formal sensory testing techniques, too, or do you find that the less reductionist, more holistically preference-focused approach does a consistently better job of answering your questions?

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins , post author

      Hi Sue,
      We do have a formal sensory program here, I’ve been on the team for a couple of years now. I think we’ve got a good system, with a blend of both formal and crowd-sourced feedback depending on what we want and need to test. Thanks for asking, fellow food geek! ~ MJ

  5. Keri

    I’m glad you explained difference between #793 and #427 at the end. I was dying to know! I would love to see more results shared here – it’s like a glimpse into the glamorous life of a recipe developer. 🙂

    Reply
  6. Mary Hooke

    I always have the golden vanilla cake mix on hand for that quick cake. It is my husband’s favorite. I make it with the two sticks of butter and always add an extra teaspoon of vanilla since the vanilla flavor isn’t that strong in the mix. I use the KAF chocolate frosting or make my own. I just made the cake for Father’s Day and it is always a hit.
    Also, I didn’t have 10x sugar or the KAF chocolate frosting but I did have the vanilla frosting. To the mix I added 1/4 cup cocoa (I moistened it with hot water) one teaspoon KAF espresso powder and the frosting was delicious.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Tricia,
      If you’re looking to top this Golden Vanilla Cake with the frosting that’s shown in the photos here, use our Super-Simple Chocolate Frosting recipe. It’s velvety smooth and incredibly chocolately… the perfect complement to this vanilla cake. Enjoy! Kye@KAF

  7. Van

    Neat to see the test kitchen at King Arthur. So much effort into making sure these recipes work well – even down to the “how to name the samples” and avoid bias. You guys are a treasure.

    Reply
  8. Frances

    I, too, have used the original recipe and have made cakes, cupcakes and bundt cakes. Before I read the tweaks, I knew the change would be added vanilla – I add an additional 1-2 tsp. For moistness, instead of milk, I use the equivalent amount of lemon/vanilla greek yogurt, sour cream and/or a combination of both. I adjust my baking powder for the different size cakes/cupcakes. It’s great to know that you’ve made the original recipe even better tasting.

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins , post author

      Thanks, Frances. I like the idea of the Greek yogurt in different flavors. I’ve never met a cupcake that I didn’t like. 🙂 ~ MJ

  9. Sandy Dayhoff

    When I go to the recipe, does it reflect the changes? Or do I need to add the additional milk and vanilla. Thank you!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Sandy, the recipe already includes the changes, so you’re good to go! Barb@KAF

  10. Kristian

    So glad that you guys improved the yellow cake recipe. I was using the Hot Milk Cake as my standard yellow cake per other reviewers’ reco’s after trying the old yellow cake recipe myself. I can’t wait to try the new recipe.

    Now, please develop an awesome cooked flour frosting to go with it. (Since it is so delicious, many folks don’t love buttercream, and you are in the flour business after all ; )

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Kristian, I’ll pass along your recommendation that we develop a cooked flour frosting recipe. Thanks for the suggestions! Barb@KAF

    2. Lauren Katz

      I am also a huge fan of “cooked flour” icing, which is also called Ermine icing or Roux icing. Though there are plenty of recipes online already and they are all pretty much the same. I add vanilla bean paste to mine and it is fabulous!

  11. Tom

    Perhaps some silly questions: 1. Are your ‘other’ ingredients standardized? eg. All dairy products from Canot, all sugar from C&H, etc..? 2. Do you test your recipes with other brands of flour? 3. Are all your ovens the same? Commercial or residential? 4. Who does the washing up?
    Thanks!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Tom, We generally utilize KAF ingredients whenever possible. For our other ingredients we try to use ingredients that are easily available at the grocery store, although we are big Cabot Creamery fans! We don’t test our recipes with other types of flour. We have 12 ovens in the test kitchen–all different varieties of home ovens, some with convection and some without. We all do our own washing up! Barb@KAF

  12. Timaree

    I feel like vanilla is something people are getting so used to in everything they need to add more and more as many people do with salt. The same with sugar. More, more and more. The biggest culprits to this satiation is mixes and baked goods coming from the store where we then wonder at the blandness in our own cooking. When you get away from all that for a while you gain back the appreciation for the lighter touch on all of these things. Not a wrong way or a right way but I just notice this need for more and more.

    Reply
    1. Lana

      I absolutely agree! And the same with garlic. I swear everyone puts a ton of garlic in everything…I’m surprised we don’t see garlic desserts (and very happy we do not!)

    2. Great Lakes Lady

      I agree. When my middle schooler wanted a yellow cake for his bday, I made one out of scratch. He tasted it, then grabbed a box of yellow cake mix from the pantry and stated, “This is what I meant by yellow cake.” The kids are so used to store bought, highly sweetened, highly flavored decorated cakes.

  13. Mary Loring

    Sorry to be dense, but are the links to the NEW cake?? And you’ve taken the old cake offline so as to not confuse us??

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Mary, the original cake recipe has been changed to reflect the improvements, and the link will take you to the improved recipe. Barb@KAF

  14. Sonia V

    Thank-you for the “peek behind the curtain”. I love learning about how processes like this are carried out (it’s my industrial engineering nature/training). You make me wish I could have a job like this, or the money (and tasting team) to be able to experiment with recipes to this extent at home. Thanks for letting us live vicariously through you!

    Reply
  15. Brittany

    Hi, I always separate the egg yokes from the whites. I add the yokes after I cream my butter and sugar together. Then after all other ingredients are mixed in I whipp my whites and fold then in.

    Reply
  16. Ruth Kahn

    Does your study-cum-revision pertain to Gluten Free Cake as well? and if so, and I have an unrevised box/instructions, how do I obtain the revisions? Thank you.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Ruth, this revision only pertains to this particular cake recipe and the revisions have already been added to the original recipe. Barb@KAF

  17. Nel

    I confess I was most interested in the information about how you label products you’re testing. It never occurred to me that people would gravitate toward A rather than B; or 1 rather than 2. And yet I should know this. As a teacher who made multiple-choice tests for years, I used to tell my students (who were trainee teachers themselves) that when they had no idea what the answer was on a multiple-choice test, they should always choose C. The reasoning was simple, and borne out by the experience of every teacher I ever discussed it with: the teacher doesn’t want you to read the first answer and not the other options (because they you feel like you wasted your time writing four choices), so the teacher won’t make A the correct answer – certainly not on question 1, anyway. The teacher thinks that B is also ‘too soon’ for the correct answer, but that if you read C and think it’s right, you’ll probably take the extra second to read D and make sure it’s wrong, and thus the teacher’s time spent writing four options is not wasted. So C is the answer that teachers will most often make the correct answer on an exam.

    Of course, our student-teachers were trained how to write false answers: one that’s wildly, obviously wrong; one that’s wrong in a detail; one that’s tricky-wrong, and then the right answer. And it’s easier to write absolutely, definitely wrong answers than right answers (that cannot possibly be questioned, for example, on a grammar test). So again, the teacher is likely to write three wrong answers with the correct answer prepared last – and then swap wrong-answer D to the C position, because having the wrong answer last becomes ‘too obvious’ after you’ve done that once or twice already.

    We were always having to sort of psych ourselves out of choosing C as the default position for correct answers.

    I’m going to keep thinking about your system of numbering samples with three-digit numbers that begin with at least the number 4. I’d love to know more about the science behind that.

    Reply
  18. Debbie

    I was just wondering why cake flour wasn’t used? If I used that what would the difference be? Should I also adjust the other ingredients?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      For a tender and fine-grained crumb, cake flour is best. Usually the recipes will be high in fat, sugar and liquids and for best results, require a cake flour. You may try it, Debbie. See how it goes. Elisabeth@KAF

  19. Roberta L., from Ontario, Canada

    I really enjoyed reading about your testing process and reasoning of using three-digit numbers. I just discovered the KAF site this spring while searching for a recipe. I must say that it is one of the most interesting and informative sites. Every recipe I have baked so far has had excellent results and I have a long list of ones I want to try. The recipe comment section is very helpful along with the KAF replies. With this dedication to perfecting recipies it’s no wonder the recipies I have tried work so well.
    Keep up the great work KAF!

    Reply
  20. Kristian

    Has this recipe been updated on your website? The date published still shows a 2010 date. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins , post author

      Hi Kristian,
      Yes, the 2010 date is the original publication. If you check out the notes, you’ll see where we mention the update. ~ MJ

  21. MS. M

    PERFECT TIMINIG FOR SUNDAY CAKE!! I was thinking out looking up a “yellow cake” recipe, because after Church I began to crave a chocolate cake with yellow cake, using my favorite chocolate frosting recipe. When I looked at my emails BAM! there was this recipe and it was so basic!! I used “REGULAR” All Purpose flour, because in the past UNBLEACHED has yielded a DRY cake for me. I think I made a mistake and used only 1 TEASPOON of Vanilla instead of 1 tablespoon, but whatever this is my GO-TO yellow cake recipe now — it was moist. As with homemade cake it is DENSE, but ooooh sooo goooood! Tell the readers to cut small pieces about 1″ or less to really enjoy this cake and to make it last. OR JUST EAT THE BIG CHUNK OF CAKE– IT IS GOOD! GOOD WORK KING ARTHUR TESTERS!!!

    Reply
  22. Mary Gentle

    SO THANKFUL you fixed that recipe! All the years that I have used your recipes I think that was the only recipe at K.A.F. that failed my expectations every… single… time… and no matter how I tweaked it! So thanks again! I did not see the link you mentioned on another’s post, can you please provide or highlight it?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We love your enthusiasm Mary, and we’d love to help. What link are you looking for? Kye@KAF

  23. Lynda

    I baked this cake over the weekend. I live at 5280, so did the recommended adjustments for altitude. I chose to bake in the 9″ X 13″ pan. I had my ingredients on the counter several hours so all were certainly room temp. The batter flowed like velvet into the pan. It was amazing! I did end up reducing the temp another 10-15 degrees after 30 minutes as it was browning nicely but not done in the middle. I baked it another 15 minutes.
    I then made the chocolate ganache – perfect icing! For the 9″ X 13″, in the future, I will reduce the volume by 1/3. I saved the excess for a topping for ice cream or a dip for strawberries, etc.
    It was a crowd pleaser! Nice crumb for a somewhat dense texture. All in all, a do-over!

    Reply
  24. Lyn McCarthy

    Please don’t mess with your GF yellow cake. It is moist with the best flavor! No one can tell it’s GF. 🙂

    Reply
  25. MS. M

    In my “PERFECT TIMING FOR SUNDAY CAKE” Post–I forgot to mention that I SIFTED the “All Purpose Flour I used” and I also had to bake one of the layers about 5 minutes longer because the center needed additional cooking time.

    I always sift my flour for a cake like this. But this cake is good and even good for a beginner.

    Reply
  26. Barbara Rossell

    Thank you for giving us a behind the scenes peek at how you adjust recipes. I tried this a while back, flavouring it with Fiori Di Sicilia, and an Italian meringue buttercream icing. It tasted lovely but I was disappointed in the dryness and crumb. It’s the only KA recipe that I felt I wouldn’t bother with again…. but now I look forward to giving the update a try!

    Today, though I’m making an old fashioned German’s Sweet Chocolate cake (new baby congratulation gift), oatmeal chocolate chip cookies for the husband, and venison dog biscuits for the….dogs. It’s an old fashioned baking day here.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Barbara, sounds like you’re going to make this young family (including their dog) very happy! What a lovely way to greet a new baby! Barb@KAF

  27. Lesley Neiman

    Where is the updated version of the cake? I’m still seeing…thanks
    Golden Vanilla Cake
    Published: 01/01/2010 in guaranteed classic

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins , post author

      The recipe as written now is the updated version. You can see in the italics where we note what changes were made. Sorry for any confusion. ~ MJ

  28. Jessica Nuttall

    Love to see the process you guys go through when producing great recipes for us to bake! I love how you considered the feedback from bakers and did something about it–I can’t wait to try the revised version of this cake!

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins , post author

      Awww, thanks Viv! Stay tuned for the annual Halloween blog, I’ll be making an appearance there for sure!

      <3,
      MJ

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