Southern Food

I thought I could die happy when I was able to scratch Create the Perfect Chocolate Cake Recipe off my bucket list.  Then I kind of started feeling like a one-trick pony and wanted to be able to do the same for a super moist and tender vanilla cake.

This seemed easy enough.  I would just omit the cocoa, substitute the vegetable oil with butter, add a little more flour and vanilla and then voila.  So that’s what I did.  I took one look at the finished product and knew I’d failed.  It was greasy (almost like cornbread) and too porous.

Hmmm.  I searched my go-to baking websites and found a few recipes that promised light, moist results.  I tried several only to find that they were just not moist enough and didn’t really taste like much.  It seemed like everything I tried had been designed only to be a vehicle for frosting.

So I started researching.  I learned that box mixes achieve their super moist and light texture from a host of manufactured elements that most folks can’t get their hands on; the most significant being chemical emulsifiers that literally bind the liquids, fats and solids on a molecular level.  Stupid chemical emulsifier using box mix manufacturers.

Emulsifiers, you say?  I did more digging and learned that honey and egg yolks are excellent naturally occurring emulsifiers.  SCORE!

Then I watched Alton Brown discuss the benefits of using shortening instead of butter in cakes on an episode of Good Eats and learned that due to higher melting points and differing moisture contents, it makes for a more tender and moist cake. SCORE AGAIN!

Plus I did a whack of research on cake flour, liquid to solid ratios, cooking temperatures, etc.  Feeling like I was on the brink of discovering Atlantis I decided that I would nip this in the bud over the weekend.


5:45PM – Scribbled out a recipe based on the mountain of research I’d done.

6:50PM – Arrived home from the grocery store armed with $6,000 worth of baking supplies.

7:05PM – Burned the receipt.



7:35AM – Walked into the kitchen ready to kick ass. Realized I had to wait for the eggs and milk to come to room temperature. Dang it.

9:00AM – Walked back into the kitchen ready to kick ass. Mixed up the first batch of the day, popped it in the oven, blew off my nails and walked around feeling all kinds of smug.

9:22AM – Smelled something burning.  Cake batter had bubbled up and spilled over the sides of the pans. Super.

11:40AM – Batch #4 was too eggy.

12:55PM – Batch #5 wasn’t sweet enough.

2:35PM – Batch #6 fell apart.

3:50PM – Took Batch #7 out of the oven.

4:17PM – Tasted #7 and loved it.

4:19PM – Made Husband taste #7.  He said it tasted good (which means spectacularly superdedooper in Husband-speak).  Then he asked if it was wet. And flinched.

4:20PM – Kissed Husband passionately for asking the most perfect question imaginable. The cake is so moist you think I poured some sort of liquid on it?!  Get your sexy ass over here! No, I was kidding about that. Go cut the grass.

During all my research I stumbled across Swiss Meringue Buttercream and fell in love.  Things were starting to feel like cake destiny because the amount of egg yolks used in the final cake equals the exact number of egg whites used in the buttercream. Come on, that can NOT be total coincidence!  I love, love, love this frosting and will absolutely be experimenting with flavor variations soon.  In the meantime, allow me to introduce you to my latest labor of love…

‘Suck It, Betty Crocker’ Vanilla Cake with Swiss Meringue Buttercream Frosting

1 1/2 cups sugar

3/4 cup butter flavored shortening

2 1/2 cups all purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

5 large egg yolks

1/2 cup honey

1 cup whole milk

1 cup additional liquid*

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Allow all ingredients to come to room temperature.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour pans.

In a mixing bowl, sift together cake flour, baking powder and salt.  Set aside.

In a small pitcher, mix together milk, additional liquid and vanilla.  Set aside.

Using a mixer, cream shortening on medium speed until fluffy – about 1 minute.  Add sugar and continue to cream for 5 minutes.  Add eggs yolks one at a time, then honey. Beat well after each addition.

Add flour mixture and milk mixture to creamed mixture (alternating each, beginning and ending with flour mixture).

Pour batter evenly into three round cake pans.  Pick each pan up and drop it on the counter to release any air bubbles.  Bake for 25 – 30 minutes or until cakes no longer jiggle and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.  DO NOT OVER-BAKE.

Cool in pans for 5 – 10 minutes.  Remove from pans and cool completely before frosting.

*Use any sweetened clear liquid such as cream soda (my favorite), white wine, light-colored fruit juice, coconut milk, lemon-lime soda or sweat tea.

Swiss Meringue Buttercream Frosting

5 large egg whites

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 cups (4 sticks) salted butter at room temperature

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Combine egg whites and sugar in a double-boiler over simmering water.  Whisking continuously, heat until the mixture reaches 160 degrees and sugar is completely dissolved.  Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature, whisking occasionally.

Using the whisk attachment of an electric mixer, whip the egg white mixture on medium-high speed until stiff peaks form (about 8-10 minutes).

Reduce speed of mixer to medium and add the butter, two tablespoons at a time, to the egg white mixture, thoroughly incorporating after each addition. Continue to mix until the frosting is smooth and creamy.

If the mixture starts to look curdled or lumpy, just keep mixing.  It will come together smoothly.

Frost the cake then refrigerate it for a couple of hours.  Remove from the refrigerator and serve/store at room temperature.  I have no idea if this is necessary but I’ve always done it because I want everything to firm up a bit (there’s nothing worse than seeing those ripples on the side of the cake where frosting is oozing out of the layers.  Plus it’s usually about 3000 degrees here year-round so I don’t take chances)

Mandy Richburg Rivers

Mandy Richburg Rivers

Mandy lives in Lexington, South Carolina, is a contributing writer for the Food & Drink section and is currently working on her first cookbook. Mandy is an award winning recipe writer and judges regional cook-offs and other culinary contests.

“I'm just a gal that likes food. Of course I like to eat, but what I've discovered about myself over the years is that there are more ways for me to enjoy food than just eating it. I like to shop for it, read about it, cook it, entertain with it and write about it. And when it's really good, sometimes I'm tempted to throw it on the floor and roll in it."