When a food critic turns the poison pen on herself

The Perfect Butter Cake July 13, 2008

Filed under: All-occasion cakes — crummb @ 9:27 pm
Tags: ,

Ladies and gentlemen, I believe I’ve reached another career milestone. I have perfected the butter cake.

It’s probably the most basic of all cakes. But for the life of me, I could never get it right.

Blame it on these three words: Light and fluffy.

Almost all butter cake recipes call for the creaming method, which means – according to Secondary One home economics – beating the crap out of butter and sugar. (There were no electric beaters way back in Marymount Convent School, so creaming involved using a wooden spoon and beating the crap out of butter, sugar and sweat.)

But here’s the catch. The instructions always say cream until “light and fluffy”. So my question is, what the hell does “light and fluffy” mean? Does “light” refer to the colour, or the texture? And as for “fluffy”, how can this word ever be applied to cooking?

So I had never succeeded in making a cake that required creaming-till-light-and-fluffy. Either I didn’t beat it enough, or I beat it too much, because the cake always turned out dense and heavy. It had gotten so bad that I developed an aversion to recipes that required creaming-till-light-and-fluffy. And, believe me, that’s about half the global population of cake recipes.

But a twist of fate came in the form of that cookbook review I was writing for the newspaper. Like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, I culled various tips for butter cakes from different sources, and it resulted in a stupendous cake I made a few days ago – so light, buttery and meltingly soft that it was almost out of this world.

So for the sake of posterity (and opening my million-dollar-raking, award-winning bakery, ahem), here are the magic steps to creaming-till-light-and-fluffy. It’s for the classic recipe that requires equal parts butter, sugar and flour:

1. Beat butter (softened) till smooth before adding sugar.

2. Add sugar bit by bit, so that the butter is not “choked” by it. When “light and fluffy” enough, the mixture has the colour of cream cheese. Also, your electric beater lifts off easily from the batter when you raise it, and it leaves feather-like peaks on the surface.

3. Add beaten eggs (at room temperature!) bit by bit, beating all the time. Stop the moment it is combined.

4. Fold in flour gently.

5. Add enough milk (at room temperature!) until the batter drops from a spoon by the count of three.

The final step is, I think, the crucial one. So many times in the past, I’d followed strictly the amount of milk dictated in the recipe, but the cakes always turned out stodgy and dense. But this time, when I added enough milk that the batter drops off the spoon by the count of three, its consistency is like a thick custard – resulting in a cake that’s beautifully light. So the problem all these years had been a simple lack of moisture! Ah-so!

I cannot wait to make another one.


22 Responses to “The Perfect Butter Cake”

  1. zann Says:

    Your “light and fluffy” so reminds me of Julian Barnes’ The Pedant In The Kitchen (and I’m such a pedant I actually went to google to check if there is a “The” in the title), in which he complains about cookbooks that are imprecise and use terms like handful of berries. The hand of a midget or a giant?

    I’m so glad Mama is back in da kitchen!

  2. clara Says:

    may i know what should be the baking temperature and the duration? just to clarify something about the recipe, if i use 1 cup of flour, i should be using 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of butter is it? Any recommended amounts of eggs, vanilla extract, salt, and baking powder to use? Thanks so much for the guidance! your post is really insightful! 🙂

  3. Tempted to try baking one for myself.

    May I ask, is the proportions equal parts, by volume, or weight? And how many eggs would that translate to?


  4. Daphne Says:

    I cannot wait to try one !

  5. clare Says:

    My goodness. “…until the batter drops from the spoon by a count of three”. Such insane precision. I don’t think I can ever make it as a baker, masak-masak cook that I am… so I’ll just have to keep sponging off your cakes (pun unintended).

    And pay you occasionally, of course 🙂 To be discussed.

  6. crummb Says:

    hi all, no one is happier to be back than ME! i missed my kitchen so much during the renovation!

    clare: wait till you see my two candy thermometers which i bought in pursuit of heating sugar to the “soft ball” stage!

    skinny epicurean and clara: here is the recipe i used. try it out and tell me if it works for you too! 🙂

    225g unsalted butter
    225g castor sugar (i actually reduce it to 210g cos i don’t like it too sweet)
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    4 large eggs (about 60g each with shells on, or 5 small eggs at 50g each), lightly beaten
    225 self-raising flour
    about half cup of milk (but add only until batter drops off spoon at count of three)

    1) Beat butter until smooth, then add sugar bit by bit.
    2) Stir in vanilla, then beat in eggs bit by bit (important: don’t beat too long! Stop when eggs are just mixed in).
    3) Fold in flour by hand using spoon.
    4) Add milk until batter drops off spoon by count of three.

    oven temperature: I’ve found that this recipe produces the best results when batter is split into two pans, i.e. each layer is thinner, so heat is conducted through more quickly and evenly. In this case, temperature should be 170 deg C. (For this reason, this recipe is PERFECT for cupcakes!)

    if you put the batter all into one pan, put oven temperature at 150 deg C. I put it at 170 deg C once and the surface peaked and cracked, and the cake texture was denser and not as good. my guess is that at a lower temperature, heat is able to penetrate through the batter more evenly. it also wouldn’t cause the surface to peak.

    to be honest, i find splitting the batter into two pans a real pain in the butt cos i have only one oven shelf, so i gotta bake twice. so i’m still on a hunt for a butter cake recipe that yields one, nice, tall cake. anyone out there got one i can try? 🙂

  7. clara Says:

    yays! you’re so kind! haha thanks for the recipe. shall try it out sometime soon, but i doubt my clumsy hands can produce one butter cake that taste as good as u! Thanks again 🙂

  8. Sooch Says:

    That looks like a cake to die for!!!! Thanks for sharing it! And your photographer did a real good job too. 🙂

  9. Louise Says:

    Just came by this site. This post is amazing and thank you for revealing the science about “white & fluffy” I have thought about this soo many times.

  10. Faith Says:

    Wat size of one pan i should use if i don’t want to divide it into two?
    And also if i would use this receipi into cupcake size, what temperature and time i should use?
    Thanks alot..

  11. crummb Says:

    hi faith,
    you can use an 8-inch cake pan. as for cupcakes, temperature should be 170 deg C, and bake for about 25-30 minutes. hope this helps! 🙂

  12. […] Moist, tender and amazingly fluffy, it’s even better than The Perfect Butter Cake I wrote about here. […]

  13. May I share this on my FB wall? Thanks!

  14. Sheda Says:

    Thanks for your sharing recipe and tips. I want to try today.

  15. cook Says:

    i generally bake cakes in microwave by keeping it for 4-5 microwave is also basic one. is it possible to bake this cake with the given recipe in my setting.

  16. Joey Sim Says:

    Yes I tried it today and it turn out perfectly yummy. thank you for sharing! much appreciated.

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  18. gleefuldream Says:

    hi crummb

    i tried and follow closely with your instruction given above, but… my outcome has failed and the middle part of my buttercake sunken when i took out n let it cool. i had been doing buttercake for the 4th time n still din get the perfect one. i really do not know where it goes wrong.. how i wish i can do it as shown in ur pic. its a pretty nice cake

    • Chew Sims Says:

      The reason for a sunken cake is not enough. Another reason is too much baking powder. Try using 150gm of self raising flour, 50gm of plain flour and 20gm of corn flour. If you are using hand beater instead of the powerful bench top beater, seperate the egg yolk and the egg white. Beat the egg white with half the amount of sugar and leave it aisde. After beating the butter, sugar and egg yolk until light anf fluffy, beat in the egg white a few spoonful at a time. Then fold in the combined flours. This method should should work. Good luck and let us know the result.

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  20. Sharon Says:

    I see you used a cake Bundt instead of the round cake pan. Can I see the Bundt too?

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