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. 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

  1. 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
  2. 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

  3. 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

  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. 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
  7. 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

  8. 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
  9. 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

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