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A Tale of Two Vanilla Bean Cakes

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The cakes you see above have exactly the same ingredients, in exactly the same ratios.  They were both baked in 6 in. round pans at 325 degrees in my convection oven.  I prepped both pans the same.  I mixed both in the same mixer (though separately).   They are both frosted with a simple American buttercream using the same batch of icing.  So why do they look different?   Why is one taller than the other?

(Once again, please excuse the heinous photography.   It’s obviously not my strong suit.)

The secret lies in the mixing METHOD, which was different for each cake, rather than the ingredients.

 Cake A (with the sprinkles on top) was mixed using a traditional creaming method.  This is the mixing method many home bakers are most familiar with, as it is commonly used for butter cakes.

      First, room temperature butter and sugar are beaten until light, fluffy and creamy.  This provides aeration to the cake by creating tiiiiiiny bubbles that will then expand with the heat of the oven. Next, eggs (which provide further lift) are incorporated, one at a time, until completely combined.  Flavorings are usually added at this time, too.  In a separate bowl,  the dry ingredients are sifted together (usually flour, leavening agents and salt).  The dry ingredients are then added into the butter/sugar/egg mixture, alternatively with the remaining wet ingredients (usually dairy products), in two or three addtions.  This method creates a fluffy cake with a nice, tight crumb, making it a little shorter and denser than cakes made with the other method (explained below).

Cake B (with robin’s egg blue frosting), was mixed using a method called the “Two-Stage Method,” made popular by renowned cake expert, Rose Levy Berenbaum.

     In a nutshell, the baker simply combines the dry ingredients with fat, then mixes in a portion of the remaining liquid ingredients.  This mixture is whipped into a frenzy of fluffy deliciousness before the rest of the ingredients are added.  The batter is then scooped into prepared pans and baked, resulting in a cake with a very tender crumb.  It is the method you want to use if you prefer cakes that are very light and fluffy, rather than a little denser and more buttery.

    Initially, if you are used to hearing the “DON’T OVERBEAT” mantra known by bakers across the world, the two-stage method can feel a bit unnerving.  BEAT the BATTER mercilessly?!!??!?   Won’t this develop gluten and make my cake TOUGH???  The short answer is no.

The long answer?  When the butter is mixed with the dry ingredients in the first mixing step, the fat gets cut into eensy-weensy pieces and begins to coat the flour particles.  This layer of fat surrounds each spec of flour and works as a little protector, allowing the baker to beat the heck out of the batter (thereby aerating the batter) without activating the gluten.

For another (READ: better) explanation of this method, check out Ms. Berenbaum’s book, THE CAKE BIBLE or click over to this awesome tutorial: http://pastrychefonline.com/blog/2009/01/06/the-two-stage-mixing-method/

Now the choice is yours.  Do you want a rich, buttery cake that will stand up to even the most assertive  fillings and frosting?  Then follow the directions for Vanilla Cake A, The Creaming Method.  Do you prefer a very light, fluffy cake with a melt-in-your-mouth crumb (my favorite for coconut cake)?  Follow Vanilla Cake B, The Two-Stage Method.

The good news is that there are no wrong answers.  Either way you’ll end up with a delicious, moist cake, perfect for any celebration!

NOTE: I spent many months of trial and error developing this recipe.  Please be respectful of sharing it with others and link back if you post on your own blog.  Thank you! :)

Sarah’s “SweetCakes” Vanilla Cake Recipe  (The Creaming Method)

Yield: 2-8 in. or 9 in. round cakes or 24 cupcakes

Preheat oven to 350F and prepare pans by generously buttering, lining with parchment, buttering again and flouring.  For the highest cake, make sure all ingredients below are at room temperature.

1. Cream:
2 sticks butter
1 2/3 cup sugar

2. Beat in, one at a time:
4 eggs

3. Beat in: 3 tsp tsp vanilla bean paste (or pure vanilla extract)

4. Sift together in separate bowl:
2 cups cake flour
1 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt

5. Add dry ingredients to butter mixture in 3 installments,beginning and ending with dry, alternating with milk.

6. Divide evenly into prepared pans.
7. Bake at 350 for approx. 30-40 min. or until top springs back when lightly pressed and toothpick inserted in the center of each cake comes out clean.   Check cakes as soon as you see the sides of the cake pull away from the pan.
8. Let cool completely before frosting with your favorite buttercream. 

Sarah’s “SweetCakes” Vanilla Cake Recipe  (The Two-Stage Method)

Yield: 2-8 in. or 9 in. round cakes or 24 cupcakes

Ingredients:
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature, cut into small pieces
2 cups cake flour
1 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
3 tsp vanilla bean paste (or pure vanilla extract)
4 large eggs, room temp
1 1/4 cup whole milk
-Preheat oven to 350 and prepare 2, 9 in pans by greasing and flouring or line 24 cupcake tins with paper liners.
-Sift dry ingredients together in a large bowl or stand mixer bowl fitted with the paddle attachment.
-In a separate bowl, whisk together 4 eggs, vanilla and milk.
-With mixer on low, drop in small pieces of butter, a little at a time, until all of the butter has been added.  Increase speed to medium-low and beat, scraping down the sides as needed, until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.  Mixture should hold together when pinched and all butter should be completely incorporated (this isn’t pastry crust, people!). 
- On low speed, pour in 1 cup milk mixture and beat on low until combined.  Increase mixer to med-high speed and beat for 1 1/2- 2 min until batter is extremely fluffy, stopping mixer to scrape sides at least once or as needed.  
-Reduce mixer to low and slowly pour in the rest of the milk mixture.  Increase speed and mix until completely incorporated.  
-Pour batter, which should still be very light and fluffy, evenly into prepared pans
-Bake at 350 for approx. 30-40 min. or until top springs back when lightly pressed and toothpick inserted in the center of each cake comes out clean.   (Check cakes as soon as you see the sides of the cake begin to pull away from the pan.)
 -Let cool completely before frosting with your favorite buttercream.
I’d love to hear how either of these methods work for you!  Which do you prefer for cupcakes?  Which one for layer cakes?

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8 responses »

  1. Sarah, this post is AMAZING!!!!!

    Reply
  2. Thank you for taking your precious time to do this – it helps me immensely. I am going to try to bake this week-end for the family! I now understand.Thank you for your beautiful, informative blog!
    Happy baking!

    Reply
  3. Where’s the sugar in the 2 step method?

    Reply
    • The amount of sugar for the two-step method is the same as with the creaming method (1 2/3 cups) and is combined with the rest of the dry ingredients. And the recipe is fixed now. Thank you so much for bringing this to my attention! :)

      Reply
  4. Glad you found my blog post useful to you! I was mentor to a high schools student who wanted to become a pastry chef, and in one of our sessions, we baked two cakes, each using a different method–creaming and two-stage, just like you did. What I found amazing–and what I didn’t expect–was that the texture and flavor of the batters would be so different. Also, the cakes tasted completely different. I have no explanation of the science behind that. I actually prefer the taste of a creamed cake but like the texture of a two-stage cake. Guess I need to alternate between the two methods! lol

    Reply
  5. Pingback: Spice up your Valentine’s Day {Snickerdoodle Cake with Gooey Cinnamon Filling} « Lovely Layer Cakes

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