I’ve had it on my list for years, along with printing pictures of my kids, to work on a really good vanilla cake. A simple yet delicious vanilla cake that comes together easily with a tight sturdy crumb, maybe even skirting the line of dense. A vanilla cake that comes together from the humble remnants of the pantry yet yields something memorable and flavorful. This vanilla cake is that, thanks to the simple reverse creaming method. It’s reliably good every time, even when you run out of all-purpose flour and have to swap in a little whole wheat pastry flour. I can attest.
Simple Vanilla Cake
This simple vanilla cake is made with all the usual suspects: flour, sugar, butter, cream, milk, eggs, and vanilla. I’ve snuck in a little vinegar, too, to add a touch of tang. You know, the same kind of tang buttermilk or sour cream provides, which I never keep stocked in the fridge. Before you scrunch up your nose, let me explain. In the same way that salt has a way of making sweet things taste sweeter, vinegar has a way of making things taste more pronounced, more like themselves. And, in this case, it takes this vanilla cake from dull to perfection. I tested it every which way.
While we’re at it, let’s talk about texture, too. Because just as the flavor of the cake is important, so is the texture, the mouth-feel. When I eat cake, I want each bite to wow. No fluffy cakes for me, unless we’re talking about Angel Food Cake. But between the eggs and the leavening and the beating, cakes tend towards fluffy. Enter the reverse creaming method. I first learned this method from Sarah Kieffer. It went against everything I knew, beating the butter directly into the flour. This can’t be right, I thought. But it made for a tender, tight-crumbed cake packed with flavor. A very memorable cake. So I grabbed her method and my favorite old cake recipe and came up with this.
Reverse Creaming Method
With the reverse creaming method, you cream the butter directly into the flour/sugar mixture and mix until you’re left with a sandy, coarse meal (see above). Then you add in the liquids, beating on low to incorporate until just combined. It’s a bit like making a scone or a biscuit, with a higher liquid ratio and much tinier specks of butter.
Mixing, whipping, and creaming—they all add air. The goal of the reverse creaming method is to reduce air, yielding a tight crumb. This also helps to create flat cakes. Domed cakes often take longer to cook, as the tall, airy center needs extra time to finish, yielding an overcooked, dry rim of the cake. Not so with this method.
Maybe you’ve seen it in recipes: don’t overbeat or mix until just combined. This is typically an effort to prohibit or stall gluten formation. When making bread, we want lots of gluten formation and stringy webs, requiring a good amount of mixing and kneading to create. There’s always a rest time incorporated, too, to let the gluten relax and stretch back out after a workout. When making pastries and cakes, however, we want just enough gluten formation to hold things together. And, with no rest time before baking, an overmixed batter will yield everything from a tough, chewy, overly airy, or dense result. Once again, the reverse creaming method helps prevent this common baking mistake, allowing you to take as long as you want to combine the butter before adding in the liquids, thus activating the gluten.
Have I convinced you to give this method a whirl yet?
I’m still working on a good old-fashioned vanilla buttercream that isn’t cloyingly sweet. I got really close the other day when I wasn’t measuring. Of course. I’ll report back on that front soonish. Until then, here’s to making a really good and really simple vanilla cake. And trying new things, like the reverse creaming method. Amen.
This simple vanilla cake is made from pantry staples and packed with flavor using the reverse creaming method, creaming the butter into the flour. It yields a tight crumb, flat top, and flavorful cake. Take this recipe slow, literally. As usual, I’ve taken this recipe down to the lowest sugar amount possible for it to still taste like cake and remain moist. Like most baked goods, this is best made a day in advance.
1/2 c. whole milk
1/2 c. heavy cream
2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 tsp. white vinegar
4 large eggs, room temperature
1 3/4 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/3 c. pure cane sugar
1 1/2 tsp. aluminum-free baking powder
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/8 tsp. baking soda
3/4 c. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line two 8-inch cake pans along the bottom with parchment paper. To do so, fold a sheet of parchment paper in half, the same width as the cake pan. Trace and cut inside the line. Place both sheets inside the cake pan. Set aside.
Combine the wet ingredients. In a liquid measuring cup, add all the wet ingredients except for the eggs. Set aside. (Note: to bring eggs to room temperature more quickly, place in a small bowl covered with warm water.)
Meanwhile, mix the dry ingredients. In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, add all the dry ingredients into the bowl, except for the butter, and mix on low speed to incorporate. Cut the butter into tablespoon-sized slices and add one at a time to the mixer while on low speed. Mix until a sandy, coarse meal forms, about 3-4 minutes. (See picture above for reference.)
Once the flour mixture looks like a coarse meal, whisk the eggs into the wet ingredients (the liquid measuring cup) until evenly combined.
Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients in 3-4 increments over low speed. Stay low here so as not to add too much air to the batter. Scrape down the sides of the bowl between each addition. Continue mixing on low until you achieve a smooth batter.
Now, mix once more on medium-high speed for 2-3 seconds, no more, just to combine everything. Reminder: the goal of this method is to beat in as little additional air as possible while creaming together.
Evenly distribute the batter between the two cake pans and rap (a short drop) on the counter a couple of times to remove any large air bubbles.
Bake for 24-28 minutes. The cake is done when golden and slightly domed at the top. A light tap on the top to check for doneness will feel springier than you may be used to. It’s ready to come out. Remove from the oven to cool. As the cake cools, the dome will level out and flatten.
Remove from the pan after about 10 minutes, sliding a thin knife around the edges to loosen. Carefully remove layers and place on a cooling rack to cool completely before icing.
Store cake in an airtight container for up to 4 days. The cake is best after an overnight rest.
Prep Time:15 min.
Cook Time:24 min.
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