Building a better butter cake: ingredients + technique = success

We welcome guest blogger En-Ming Hsu, an award-winning pastry chef whose work has been featured in a number of publications, including Gourmet and Pastry Art & Design. Captain of the gold medal-winning Team USA at Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie 2001, and a chef instructor at the French Pastry School in Chicago, she’s also a frequent instructor at our King Arthur Flour Baking Education Center – where she taught the class detailed below.

EnMing Butter Cake-3

A few months ago, I spent some time with Amber Eisler, one of King Arthur Flour’s Baking Education Center instructors. We discussed the challenges of making a good, basic layer cake.

Why does it seem like the simplest cakes are the most difficult to make well? Comments go along the lines of “It’s too dry,” “It’s too wet,” “It’s too dense,” “It’s not fluffy enough,” or “Where’s the butter flavor?”

It’s the curse of The Box Cake Mix.

Amber had a recipe she liked, but thought it could use some improvement; she felt it was a little dry and lacking in flavor. So we got to work on it.

As excited as we both were to take on a challenge, jobs and family kept us busy. We sporadically worked on the recipe, though, and eventually, we were happy with the final cake. Moist, tender, and buttery – just like you-know-what (or close to it).

Sometimes it’s easier to find a new recipe, versus “fixing” an unsuccessful one. But if you’re looking simply to improve an existing recipe, it may be worth the time. I’m not a food scientist, but I understand the fundamentals of baking and the role of ingredients. After we tried Amber’s recipe, I made some adjustments.

We used whole eggs instead of egg yolks, and whipped cream instead of milk. A butter cake isn’t the same as a pound cake (which uses basically the same amounts, by weight, of each of the key ingredients). A butter cake has a higher proportion of sugar and liquids, which help make the cake more moist and tender. I’ll explain more as we go through the method.

EnMing Butter Cake-8

A few tips for success before you start baking:
•Use the freshest, best-tasting ingredients;
•Have all the ingredients (except the heavy cream) at room temperature (68-70℉);
•Gather all the equipment and tools that you’ll be using ahead of time;
•Ensure that the measurements are accurate.

For that last, I like to weigh the ingredients, even the eggs. Crack the eggs and whisk them before weighing, so that you have the proper ratio of egg white and yolk in whatever you weigh out.

Are you wondering about using whipped cream? Some of you may remember whipped cream cakes that were popular years ago. Using whipped cream puts more air into the batter, which gives a fine texture to the cake and adds richness.

EnMing Butter Cake-12

One note about the cream – try to find pasteurized (rather than ultra-pasteurized) heavy or whipping cream. I know, not easy, so don’t worry if you can’t. Ultra-pasteurized cream doesn’t whip as well, and doesn’t have the same fresh flavor.

Tip: A lower-fat cream (about 5g fat per tablespoon, as in whipping cream) lowers the fat just enough that the finished cake doesn’t seem greasy.

EnMing Butter Cake-26

Let’s make this cake. Butter or spray with pan spray two 8″ round cake pans. Line the bottoms with parchment, and butter the paper. Dust with flour and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350°F, with a rack in the center position.

Ed. note: En-Ming gives all her recipe ingredients in metric weight; we’ve translated them to their approximate American weight and volume measurements, for those of you without a scale.

Here are the ingredients you’ll be using:

240g heavy or whipping cream, 35% fat (1 cup + 1 tablespoon or 8 1/2 ounces)
150g unsalted butter (10 tablespoons or 5 ounces)
280g sugar (1 cup + 6 tablespoons or 9 7/8 ounces)
4g fine sea salt (1/2 teaspoon)
12g vanilla bean paste, for best flavor (1 tablespoon or 1/2 ounce); or vanilla extract
270g King Arthur Unbleached Cake Flour Blend (2 1/4 cups or 9 1/2 ounces)
10g baking powder (2 teaspoons)
220g large eggs (contents of 4 large eggs + ¾ ounce; about 4 1/2 large eggs)

EnMing Butter Cake-13

In a 5-quart stand mixer, or using the mixing method of your choice, whip the cold heavy or whipping cream on medium-high speed until it holds it shape. Transfer the whipped cream to a bowl and set it aside.

Tip: Save yourself some washing, and use the whipped cream bowl for the cake batter.

EnMing Butter Cake-14

The cake batter is made using the creaming method, which beats butter and sugar together (and in this case, salt and vanilla as well) until they’re light and fluffy. Start by beating the butter on medium speed with the paddle attachment until the texture is smooth.

Tip: If your butter is cold, it will take too long to mix. If it’s too soft, it won’t be able to trap as much air once the sugar is added. Cool room temperature butter (68°F-70°F) is just right.

EnMing Butter Cake-17

Gradually stream in the sugar, salt, and vanilla. Once all the ingredients are added, beat (“cream”) on medium-high speed for 5 minutes. Notice how the mixture has lightened in color considerably.

Tip: Because the amount of sugar is almost double that of the butter, it won’t be as light and fluffy as you might expect. But you’re still aerating, which is the goal; air bubbles lighten the batter. 

EnMing Butter Cake-18

Sift your flour and baking powder together. I like to whisk the baking powder into the flour before sifting, to disperse it thoroughly. Sifting will get rid of any lumps and fluff up the flour slightly; do it onto a piece of parchment paper, so you can easily direct the flour into the mixing bowl when the time comes.

Tip: King Arthur Unbleached Cake Flour Blend is higher in protein (9.4%) than the bleached cake flour you find at the supermarket. It gives more structure to the cake, which is rich in fats and liquids.

EnMing Butter Cake-20

Crack the eggs, and whisk to combine. Slowly add them to the creamed butter.

EnMing Butter Cake-23

If the mixture separates (develops a curdled appearance) while you’re beating in the eggs, your cake will have a coarser texture.

Tip: To help prevent curdling, make sure the eggs are at room temperature, and don’t add them too quickly. If you see the batter starting to curdle anyway, warm the bowl very briefly in hot water before continuing. If it happens towards the end, add 3 to 4 tablespoons of the flour mixture to help bind some of the liquid; stop mixing when the batter looks smooth.

EnMing Butter Cake-24

Next, blend in the remaining flour mixture at low speed. Scrape the bowl, and mix well. The batter will be creamy and smooth.

EnMing Butter Cake-25

Remove the mixing bowl from the mixer and fold in the whipped cream by hand, using a rubber spatula. Stir until you don’t see any streaks of cream.

EnMing Butter Cake-28

Divide the batter between the prepared pans and smooth the surface.

Tip: Tap the pans 3 or 4 times on the table to expel any large bubbles. Don’t worry, there’ll be plenty of bubbles left in the batter to raise your cake.

Place the cakes in the preheated oven, and bake them for about 24 to 26 minutes, probably a bit less if you’re using a convection oven.

Tip: I like to bake this cake in a convection oven; it bakes evenly, and sets the cake a little faster. But don’t worry if you don’t have one, a regular oven will work just fine.

EnMing Butter Cake-32

Test the cakes in the center with a bamboo skewer or toothpick when you think they’re done. A few moist crumbs may cling to the tester.

EnMing Butter Cake-33

You may also see the cakes have shrunk a little from the sides of the pans.

Take the cakes out of the oven and let them rest for about 5 minutes before you turn them out onto a rack. This gives them a chance to firm a little, reducing the risk of breaking when you unmold. Let them cool completely on the rack.

The cakes are best finished and eaten on the same day, but they hold up very well for up to 2 days at room temperature (thanks to all that sugar).

Tip: Want to bake these cakes ahead, then freeze? Wrap the cooled cakes in plastic wrap, then place in a zip-top bag. Remember to date; the cakes freeze well for up to a month. When you’re ready to serve, thaw the cakes, still wrapped, at room temperature.

EnMing Butter Cake-36

This is a simple cake that doesn’t need much to finish. Try splitting a single layer in half and filling it with a thin layer of marmalade. Cover it with buttercream, and serve it at room temperature.

Or, treat it as you would any layer cake: spread and stack the layers with your favorite filling/icing. Our Super-Simple Chocolate Frosting is wonderful with this cake.

Please bake, rate, and review En-Ming’s recipe for Golden Butter Cake.

Print just the recipe.


    1. Susan Reid

      Hi, Linda. I found that my cake baking at altitude (my brother lives at 8300 feet) benefited from the following: use extra large eggs instead of large, decrease leavening as per our altitude chart, and add a tablespoon of Instant Clearjel to the dry ingredients (it holds on to the water in the cake batter). Also bake 15°F higher for a shorter time. Good luck! Susan

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      A cake that calls for 2 8″ cake pans should yield 20 – 24 cupcakes. Happy Baking! Irene@KAF

  1. Francis

    What a great recipe. I guess I have to do the baker’s percentage to adjust for 9 inch pie pans. We don’t have any 8 inch round pie pans. I’m going to make this for my wife’s birthday as a surprise.

    1. PJ Hamel

      Francis, the recipe calls for an 8″ round cake pan; if you don’t have one, I think the cake could fit OK in a 9″ pie pan, with perhaps a slight adjustment in the baking time. Good luck – PJH

  2. Jan

    It’s nice to see a cake recipe that’s formulated for an 8 inch pan instead of one that needs to be adjusted. I’m a full-time RVer and when I downsized my bricks and sticks kitchen, I chose to keep my 8″ round and square pans instead of the larger ones so I always have to adjust the cooking time.

    The recipe says 350 degree oven and that she prefers a convection oven (which is great because I have an over the range microwave/convection oven as my only option) but convection oven instructions say to decrease the temp by 25 degrees. Which one would be my better option?

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      I contacted the Baking Education Center, and they responded: ” In class we baked cakes at 350°F convection. The temp may need to be reduced depending on the oven for home convection, but I would start with 350°.” As always, your home oven may vary from ours,so you’ll need to keep a close eye on it and use your good baking judgment. Laurie@KAF

    1. PJ Hamel

      Sue, layer cakes doming has to do more with the oven than the cake formula. Doming happens when the edge sets before the center; cake strips will prevent this from happening. I’ve tasted this cake, and it’s very good indeed; so don’t worry about its appearance reflecting on its tastiness, OK? 🙂 PJH

    1. PJ Hamel

      Hi, Sara – bet you’re craving that cake, eh? 🙂 I believe it’s a simple buttercream, probably scented/flavored with orange oil or a touch of OJ. That’s what En-Ming suggested, anyway – hope you get a chance to make it, it’s pretty good! PJH

  3. Angela

    I have to use the “store” brand cake flour due to my husband’s corn allergy. How should I adjust the amount of flour I have to use to compensate for the lower protein content? Thanks!

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      You may need to use more flour, Angela. We haven’t made this cake with a bleached, lower protein flour so it is hard to say the quantity you may need to increase your flour by. Jon@KAF

  4. Jenn

    Thanks for the terrific tips (especially about combatting curdling!). Do you recommend sifting the flour before measuring it or after? Since you say to combine the baking powder and flour *before* sifting, it seems like the latter; but many cake recipes say to sift before measuring. Would you clarify?

    1. Susan Reid

      Jenn, the clue for this is in the sequence of the wording in the ingredients list. If a recipe calls for 1 cup of sifted flour, that’s flour that’s sifted into a measuring cup and leveled off. If the recipe calls for flour, sifted, that means the flour is measured as usual (fluff, sprinkle, sweep off excess), then combined with other ingredients. Susan

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Judy, if you click on the link for the golden butter cake here: you will see that the recipe features a side view of what the cake looks like in a 1-layer format and drizzled with chocolate glaze! Golden and a beautiful crumb. Happy baking! –Kye@KAF

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *