Reader Jack writes:
Joe (actual name?),
I live in Chicago and want to reproduce the Jewel grocery store plain old yellow cake. They sell it by the piece and I want to reproduce the texture and taste. It has a very fine crumb, it is very firm, almost sponge like. It has tiny uniform holes, and would be perfect for a few baking “projects” I have in mind. I have tried a dozen yellow cake recipes from the net and they taste fine, but the crumb is soft, and does not have the sponge-like pores of the Jewel cake. I read your article regarding creaming, but that alone does not convert the existing recipes I have into what I am looking for. I tried separating the eggs, beating the whites, folding in…nope. I deconstructed the Jewel recipe using their ingredients list, but that list flies in the face of all cake science (no yolks, no butter). I am getting fat with all the experimentation!!! Do you have a recipe/technique that will help me achieve the desired results?
Hey Jack (if that IS your real name)! Interesting you should mention this since I get regular requests for cakes of this type. I know exactly the sort of cake that you mean. It’s firm with a very tight crumb (small holes). It’s slightly dry, very sweet and above all holds its shape under most forms of cake duress. It leaves only one or two crumbs when you take a forkful.
Cake layers in this style are popular with big commercial shops for their long shelf life and sheer durability. They’re also favored by some cake decorators, especially those that specialize in elaborately carved, extremely vertical cake “sculptures.” The cake is very resilient, rises high and can carry a heavy load of frosting, fondant and other decorations.
These are what are called “high ratio” cakes in the baking industry. What’s “high” in the ratio? Unsurprisingly it’s the sugar in the recipe. High ratio cakes have at least as much, if not more, sugar than flour by weight. The label of your Jewel cake will probably reflect this, since all those labels are required to display ingredients in descending order by weight.
The thing about high ratio cakes is that they’re best with high ratio flour, something most stores don’t sell. What makes this type of flour special is that it’s ground very finely and treated with either heat or chlorine. What does that do? It allows the flour to disperse very, very evenly through the mix. That’s important because small, evenly dispersed flour granules gelate (“come apart”) more readily during baking, then tangle up with the egg proteins to create a very fine, tight mesh. This mesh is extremely strong and able to hold the cake up despite all the sugar, which usually weighs a cake down.
Another hallmark of a high ratio cake is that it employs shortening instead of butter. The shortening is good for shelf life, but more importantly it contains emulsifiers that help the fat disperse evenly, just like the flour and the sugar. This is also important for that strong, tight crumb we’re talking about. Typically the shortening accounts for 15% – 20% of the total weight of the recipe, and again is often of a special type.
And while we’re talking fat we need to talk eggs, because in a high ratio cake the amount of fat and eggs are also equal. So there’s that.
Liquid-wise, high ratio cakes have quite a lot since sugar is hygroscopic and tends to hold on to it. A typical high ratio cake will have as much liquid as flour by weight, but before you start pouring remember that eggs count as liquid as well. You want to make up the difference between the egg weight and the flour weight with milk.
Confused? So am I a little. So let’s just start applying all these rules to see what a sample recipe would look like. Assuming we’re making a batter with, say, 100 grams of flour (a very small cake), the recipe would look something like this (yes folks I’m using grams believe it or not, since it’s easier to get the point across!):
100 grams high ratio cake flour
100 grams granulated sugar
50 grams shortening (ideally emulsified)
50 grams eggs
50 grams milk
In terms of leavening the general rule is that you want half a teaspoon per 100 grams of flour. So we’ll add that plus an 1/8 teaspoon of salt and maybe a half a teaspoon or so of vanilla extract and we’ll have a perfectly good high ratio yellow cake recipe going. You didn’t see milk or eggs on the Jewel label, Jack, because they use mixes and mixes contain dry milk and egg powders instead of actual dairy for convenience and food safety reasons. They mostly just add water!
All this make sense? Now then, about substitutions. Since high ratio flour and emulsified shortening aren’t available to most home bakers, you can use cake flour and regular shortening. If you hate shortening you can use butter, just make sure it’s thoroughly creamed with the sugar. You might might consider splitting it between butter and olive oil since olive oil is packed with emulsifiers. If you’ve ever made olive oil cakes you may recall how tight the crumb is on those things.
So that’s it! Keep using the creaming method to get the best incorporation of the ingredients. Pro cake bakers use the one-bowl or two-stage method for this, but you’d need emulsified shortening to really make that work. This basic formula alone should help you on your way to getting the cake you want without so much cake intake! Let me know when you achieve perfection and send the recipe if you will. Other readers will want to know!