When you get the urge to bake a cake from scratch it’s easy to grab for mediocre ingredients and get mediocre results. My favorite thing to bring to parties has been Sour Cream Poundcake from the book Kwanzaa, An African American Celebration of Culture and Cooking by Eric V. Copage in which the recipe specifically calls for cake flour. Of course I initially just reached for the all-purpose flour in my cupboard and for years I made what I thought was an amazing cake and friends loved it at parties. Little did I know, there was much room for improvement in the texture and flavor by using cake flour, European butter and pure vanilla extract. My improved poundcakes are extremely light in texture, super moist and slightly more robust in shape.
The biggest challenge in looking for cake flour is due to the fact that it comes in a box unlike all the other flours. Make note that cake flour is not the same as bread flour – in fact they are opposites (due to their amount of protein). Similarly, finding European butter was just a matter of shifting my eyes a bit away from the standard butter I was accustomed to buying. Kerrygold and Plugra are some commonly found European butters; they contain a higher fat content and less water which helps eliminate the heavy grease-like texture in cakes baked with mainstream American butter.
As far as vanilla goes, I stopped using imitation vanilla 15 years ago and as long as the label says “pure vanilla extract” you are already ahead of the game. The world of pure vanilla extract is quite complex and I’ve known people who make it fresh from the vanilla bean at home, but as far as store bought brands are concerned this is one instance where paying a little more for a higher quality brands makes a huge difference. Nielsen Massey is quite a popular desired brand to look out for.
Once you have these 3 ingredients to work with it is essential to treat them right throughout the rest of the recipe. Plan ahead and be sure to take the eggs and butter out of the refrigerator the night before to bring them up to room temperature. Grease (and lightly flour) the pan with Crisco instead of spray cooking spray or butter, both of which create a strange-tasting burnt film. And if you’re making a square-shaped cake be sure to avoid a pan with rounded corners. Sharp angled corners distribute heat more evenly on the edges so they don’t burn.