It’s a Cake, Not Rocket Science (Or is it?)

Mod Monkey Cake for 1st Birthday

Is this too much to ask for???

Ok, so I knew I was no Martha Stewart when I decided I wanted to bake a monkey cake for Jasper’s party. But it’s not like I’ve NEVER baked in my whole life. I mean I vaguely know my way around the kitchen, I have a stand mixer (Thank you scott and Sara!) and other accouterments of baking – even if I DID have to buy a rolling pin, sifter and borrow the cake pans from my mom.  But c’mon, mothers have been baking cakes for their children’s birthday parties for decades, even BEFORE “from scratch” became more of a novelty than say Duncan Hines or Betty Crocker.

How hard could it possibly be?

Honestly, the fact that I couldn’t bake a proper cake didn’t even cross my mind – it was the decorating of said cake and making fondant for the first time that I focused my attention on.  Having an actual cake to decorate was something I had just assumed was a matter of just baking the damn thing.

But that was BEFORE I tried on two separate occasions to make a simple two layer 9″ round cake, the first time a yellow cake, the second time a white cake (having switched recipes in a panic after the first failure. ) But both suffered from “failure to rise”  (att least I think they did,  I’m not even sure how to properly diagnose what happened to my cakes!)

My first effort yielded two layers approximately .75 inches high.. essentially two very large pancakes.

Could it have been my baking powder (it was new though)? Or that my eggs weren’t warm enough? Or was it that I mixed the butter with the eggs instead of sugar? Was it because I combined my baking powder with flour the night before? Or was it just a faulty recipe?

Not wanting to take any chances, I switched up recipes, made sure my butter and eggs were fully room temperature, mixed everything according to instructions and tried again.  My second try yielded two more (albeit slightly taller 1″) pancakes.

Or maybe each layer is supposed to be that flat? I really have no idea, I searched google to no avail for the proper height of a nine inch layer cake and came up with nothing. I do know that the designs I wanted to emulate were definitely taller (though perhaps less wide?) and I had planned on decorating the sides with circles which I don’t have enough of a canvas to do now.

So I’m at a total loss.. days behind schedule (I’m supposed to be working on the fondant part!) and wondering where one can order a cute monkey cake at the last minute.

Being that the first cake TASTED good I probably should have just layered all four and called it a day but I had already sampled one layer (hey, it was supposed to be my practice cake!) and Jeff tore into the other when I had my back turned so those two layers are already in the trash.

The prospect of baking yet again tonight sounds about as appealing as a lobotomy. And as you can imagine, it’s not like I have nothing else to do to prepare for the party!!

Kimberly has already been channeling her inner martha stewart and trouble shooting with me, but if any one else has any advice to offer I am all ears..

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I think it turned out great looking, especially if you are not particularly used to baking cakes. A friend of mine always said, “Baking IS a science!” Great work though, I am sure the next one will be even better with fewer issues! :)

Kimberly says:

I do think that the issue (if there actually is one) may be your oven temp… and buttermilk certainly can’t hurt… but I also think that you can get away with using your 1″ layers if you add a couple more of them. Even under perfect circumstances I don’t think you’d get MUCH more height out of them… Every time I’ve made this cake I’ve used 4″ or 6″ pans and the cakes were probably about 2-3″ at most. (I did have leftover batter when I used the 4″ pans… so made a few cupcakes.)

Kimberly says:

I do think that the issue may be your oven temp… and buttermilk certainly can’t hurt… but I also think that you can get away with using your 1″ layers if you add a couple more of them. Even under perfect circumstances I don’t think you’d get MUCH more height out of them… Every time I’ve made this cake I’ve used 4″ or 6″ pans and the cakes were probably about 2-3″ at most. (I did have leftover batter when I used the 4″ pans… so made a few cupcakes.)

Jennilynn says:

After reading more comments I’m thinking its probably your oven. When you get home just check out the thermometer before you decide what to do :o) But the whole lemon zest & buttermilk thing really shouldn’t be the issue since it is powder you are using (baking powder is essentially baking soda w/ acid added to it). And as other said- box cakes are not the devil! If you want to go the box cake route but be a little more creative you can go the Sandra Lee (semi-homemade) route- I’m sure she has some sort of cake recipe.

ariana says:

Sarah, that made me LOL that he told you not to make it from scratch!

Kimberly, do you really think that 1 inch layers is how it was supposed to come out? That seems wierd to me, because the recipe said to use 9 inch rounds and a 2 inch high cake seems so flat.

I did buy a mix and a thermometer.. now I just have to go home and decide what to do.. mix and get one fluffy cake or two more flat layers to layer ontop of previous layers. My concern is that if it didn’t rise properly it will taste too dense.

If you didn’t see my fb/twitter update, I did a google search a few hours ago on “why do cakes fail to rise” and guess what post is on the first google results page? Ah the notoriety.. ;)

murphyec says:

Honestly, even the most avid bakers i know, the ones who make wedding cakes for friends, use the box mixes for cakes, so that is what I do.

Well, I’m all for taking the easy way out! I’d use a Duncan Heinz mix with homemade icing. Wilton recommends that brand and professional cake decorators swear by it! Really, most mixes rival the flavor of homemade, and they also seem to stand up better to decorating. Besides, it’s the decorating that counts (this time around, at least!)

Kimberly says:

Oh, also…
I know that to all of us who bake, the extra 2-minute beating of the batter in my recipe that you used this time does seem counter-intuitive, BUT it is a critical part of the instructions and this recipe comes out every time for me and for all the commenters I’ve seen who have tried it on other blogs. Hence, the name, “Perfect Party Cake.” :)

Kimberly says:

Oops, that was me above… my link didn’t go for some reason. Darn iPhone. ;)
Anyway… I think given that you’re using 9″ pans that the height of your cakes are probably about right. As someone already said, if it were a really high cake, that would indicate a lot of air which doesn’t provide much structure… hence you can’t really put fondant on an angel food cake…. it would be too heavy for the cake to support. My 9″ layers on James’ cake were only about an inch thick, and I used 2 of them… so my bottom layer was not as tall as my top layer, which was a 6″ cake made up of 4 layers. Your cake will just be one round cake rather than a tiered one, and I think that 4 cakes 9″ around and 1″ thick layered with buttercream should yield a cake that in the end will be around 6-8″ tall. Keep going, you’re doing great!! :)

Kimberly says:

It sounds like your latest cake came out fine. I have always made it with buttermilk and I also did 6″ cake pans and then split the cakes in half to build the cake. I’ve also made that recipe both with and without the lemon and it comes out beautifully either way. I would use your white cakes and just make another batch, giving you 4 cakes to layer without splitting them In half. I would buy an oven thermometer, they’re inexpensive and you can just leave it in your oven all the time. Don’t give up and use box cake. I guarantee if you followed the recipe to a T, which you did, it will be fine.

Sarah says:

Not so frequent poster/nestie here, I also had big aspirations of making DS’s first birthday cake. I went to a cake decorating store to get supplies and the owner made me swear I wouldn’t make it from scratch. So I didn’t. :) I made several Betty Crocker cakes instead.

As for a tall cake, you might also try a smaller pan. A normal recipe split between 2 9 in. pans is not going to be tall no matter what recipe you use. If you want a taller cake, use a smaller pan (I used 5 inch pans for DS’s smash cake), or make more than 2 layers).

Good luck!

lelu says:

I love Duncan Hines. I have made a LOT of birthday cakes and always go with the box. And never felt bad about it. Good luck!

Someone may have already suggested this–sorry no time to read all comments! It sounds like you over-mixed. When baking stuff that needs to rise just mix enough to wet all ingredients. Over-mixing kills the chemical reaction that causes the rising.

Oh, and mmmm. Pancakes!

AmandaG says:

Save yourself the stress and do a box! The decorating will make the cake GREAT! Either way, I hope you find yourself victorious!

ariana says:

I’m giving in and going boxed! Or at least I’m buying it. And also a thermometer if they have one so I’ll know if that’s the problem! If so, I’ll maybe try scratch again?

Ariana: your cake will be a hit no matter what, I know it! I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using a box mix. You’re still “making” the cake yourself. Plus you’re still doing all the decorating, etc. It will be loved, period.

Sherean says:

Oh wait, I see Ruthie already posted that. Way to go, Ruthie! Ariana, she is a rock star baker and a dear, dear friend.

Sherean says:

I emailed a friend of mine who is a super baker and she said this:
The only thing I could see about her cake baking disaster(s) was the fact that she beat the eggs with the butter, instead of first beating the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy, and then adding the eggs, one at a time, beating until fully incorporated. The eggs are the “air,” along with the baking powder, so I think she’s making them null and void when she beats them with the butter (in terms of using them as a leavening agent). That’s about all I could see.

Joelle says:

Make a box cake – hide the box and tell no one. Then when people comment on the cake, smile and say “Yes, it is tasty”. Who cares if it was “made from scratch” or made from a box – you made it either way.

ariana says:

Crap.. so I could go to the supermarket and buy a box.. or I could buy an oven thermometer.. or I could buy both. Nothing like throwing good money after bad!

ariana says:

Kari, that sounds about right.. god, I hhad NO idea what I was getting myself into!!

Ruthie, I fully admit to botching the egg mixing in the first cake, but the second I followed these instructions to a T:

To Make the Cake: Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.

Whisk together the milk and egg whites in a medium bowl.
Put the sugar and lemon zest in a mixer bowl or another large bowl and rub them together with your fingers until the sugar is moist and fragrant. Add the butter, and working with the paddle or whisk attachment, or with a hand mixer, beat at medium speed for a full 3 minutes, until the butter and sugar are very light. Beat in the extract, then add one third of the flour mixture, still beating on medium speed. Beat in half of the milk-egg mixture, then beat in half of the remaining dry ingredients until incorporated. Add the rest of the milk and eggs, beating until the batter is homogeneous, then add the last of the dry ingredients. Finally, give the batter a good 2-minute beating to ensure that it is thoroughly mixed and will aerated. Divide the batter between the two pans and smooth the tops with a rubber spatula.

kari says:

what is the saying…
“cooking is an art and baking is a science”

looks like you have lots of great advice/ hints etc.

mine simply is.. box mix rules ;)

good luck :)

Ruthie Ekmark says:

I am a ckae baker. Not professionally, but I’ve made hundreds. I love cake and I love to bake.

The only thing I could see when you described what you did, was that you mixed the butter and eggs together without first beating the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. The eggs should be added, one at a time, after that. If you had to separate the eggs and then whisk the egg whites, adding the whipped egg whites should be the final step, after adding the flour/milk/vanilla/zest, and the egg whites should be gently folded into the batter. I always use buttermilk, because I love the tender cake that it produces. I’ve got two “no fail” easy from scratch recipes if you would like, but it sounds like you have lots of good sources. Good luck and don’t give up! It will be a GREAT birthday cake!

Anh says:

Hmm, it sounds like you may have already figured it out. There was a time when my cakes were turning out flat so I went out and bought an oven thermometer and found out that my oven wasn’t getting hot enough for the cake to rise. Also, you can definitely expect the cake to settle when it cools so it’s not quite as “high” as it is when you first take it out of the oven. But when you add the icing in the middle and ice the top, it really gives the cake some lift. If you want to give it another shot, maybe you’d be up for doctoring up a cake mix tonight? I’ve found that the devil’s food cake mixes taste most “homemade” and yellow cake tastes like box cake (ick). Have never tried white though so perhaps that would work if you want to go that route.

Oh yeah, and if you do end up making the marshmallow fondant, be sure to add the coloring while it’s still in the “soupy” stage before you add the powdered sugar. Makes it so much easier to mix in the color than trying to knead it in later. Good luck!

ariana says:

Jennilynn, thank you for delurking to help!

I definitely used baking powder, though it wouldn’t be unlike me to mix those up :)

I must confess that I left the lemon zest and teaspoon of lemon out of the recipe I tried last night, but I was told it wasn’t necessary.

I did just see these notes that I had ingored at the end of the recipe: Perhaps as the notes imply, I should try again using buttermilk (in the actual recipe it said you could use either)??

• Make sure the butter is VERY soft, the consistency of mayonnaise, before mixing (mine might not have been THAT soft?)

• Have the egg white and buttermilk at room temperature too (I used regular milk which it said you could, but it wasn’t at room temperature)
• Use buttermilk instead of milk, the acidity promotes faster setting during baking and also weakens the gluten in the batter. ( I had buttermilk but used milk, should I try again using buttermilk??)
• Use bleached, not unbleached, all-purpose flour. If you’re using cake flour, make sure it is NOT self-rising (I used cake flour, but it is not self rising)

Katie says:

It seems like you’ve already checked to make sure you’re using the right flour and baking powder/soda. It must be the recipe or oven temp. I always go to Baking Bites Blog for desserts. Everything I’ve made from this site turns out well and tastes great. I’d recommend checking out her layer cakes.

There could be a million things, sigh. Baking is hard!

What about overbeating? I know I’m guilty of that. I believe that the second the flour starts to “disappear” into the mix, the beating must stop. “At end of addition batter should be smooth…” not exactly the most precise instructions in this recipe…

How much time is there to try again? I wonder if subbing the flour would make a difference. Cake flour supposedly makes for a lighter cake, but I don’t think those cakes are supposed to rise or double in any way. Or double the recipe?

Jennilynn says:

Good morning! (on my coast anyway!) I’m a first time commenter but have been reading for over a year now! So I went to culinary school- specialize in baking and *I’M* confused!! :o) So my 1st thought was that maybe you should be using baking powder instead of soda? I ALWAYS triple check which one the recipe says as I’m about to dump it into the bowl. Its something that seems obvious but I have mixed it up several times in my head and caught myself at the last moment. And I’m almost positive that most cake recipes are baking POWDER.

But be careful not to add TOO much baking powder (don’t try to make it rise more)- the structure of the batter won’t be strong enough to hold it if it rises too high and it will collapse.

And if it is soda the recipe calls for is there an acid of some sort? Soda doesn’t do a great job at leavening alone. If it doesn’t I would find a new cake recipe- I can give you several.

But then someone else said their stove is a factor for their box cakes- and since you live in an older house THAT could be it too! You could try upping the temp maybe 50 degrees or so, but that might be more trial and error. Make sure you don’t peek on your cake- baking really is science and the slightest amount of cool air will mess it up too!

I’m hoping for your sake that its the 1st one and you get your cake made easily!!! Good luck!

ariana says:

Hami and Michelle, THANK YOU. Sometimes it just helps to know that I’m not alone :)

Shane, I wouldn’t go so far as foam, but I have considered a plain cake to decorate!

Heartartz, thank you for that recipe.

Lou, LOL yes, I did use baking powder. I wasn’t super fast about getting them in the oven as I had to divide into two pans, but I didn’t let them lounge around either.

I used cake flour, but that’s what the recipes called for!

Heather, I’m very tempted to try box version.. but would be so disappointed if those failed too in the end. I keep wondering if it’s my oven or something more mechanical? I did check out wilton, their recipes didn’t seem different really than mine. I also noticed that almost EVERYONE uses box mix on their forums.

I also think it’s interesting that a number of people using the same recipe I did the first time reported the same problem:
while others said it was the best cake ever!

The same thing was true for another recipe my friend sent:

The reviews were so mixed that I think my problem must be a somewhat common one. The question is what am I and the other cake wreckers doing wrong??

Heather says:

Whenever I cheat with the box mix, I always go for Betty Crocker’s French Vanilla! But if you are looking for a good recipe from scratch, have you tried Their recipes are fairly fool proof! I know I don’t know you, but email me if you need any help…I bake as a side job! If you lived close I’d totally hook you guys up!

Are you sure you used baking powder and not baking soda? Also, depending on the powder, you may need to stick that baby in the oven ASAP or it will fall, if I remember correctly from my Daring Bakers days?

Also, what kind of flour are you using? All-purpose? I don’t think you can use cake flour if you need it to rise.

What else could it be? Hmmm…I’ll keep thinking!

heartartz says:

A friend of mine only makes cakes from scratch.
She likes recipes from the book Carole Walter’s Great Cakes.
She swears this is “Absolutely The Best Yellow Cake”
I found the recipe online:

I have never had a fallen cake…but then again I use my mother’s recipe…Duncan Hines – Yellow Cake mix!

Oh I love teh idea of the brownie cake.

Happy baking!

Shane says:

Oh this just isn’t the stress anyone needs before a First Bday. Have you watched Ace of Cakes? They LOOK awesome, but there isn’t a lot of CAKE in those designs. Would you feel victorious if you crafted a cake base of something else — foam, wood, who knows… and then focused on the decorating. Make a nice display, and then serve up some cupcakes — costco cupcakes are good. (not as good as the $4 specialty cupcakes, but I’m not serving those for a kid’s bday party).

And as a backup, is it possible to purchase just plain cake from the grocery store bakery? I think our local chain grocery store actually bakes their cakes in store. I bet if you went in with your story, they would help a momma out. Then focus on making that monkey face decoration.

Michelle says:

Oh and I use the Betty Crocker cake mixes and they still are flat.

Michelle says:

I have the SAME problem whenever I bake a cake. I chalked it up to a very crappy old oven. So I always bake 4 layers. I make the Wilton cakes for birthdays (shape of a firetruck, etc.) and I make two cakes instead of the one. Those do turn out better than a basic 9 inch. Good Luck. I feel your pain and have no solution.

HamiHarri says:

Boo…I find scratch baking can be very frustrating at times – it truly is a science.  Part of me thinks that it could be your baking powder/soda.  But then again, when I make scratch cakes I use my year old stuff in the pantry :O  So my guess is that it’s the recipe.  Since receiving my stand mixer as a wedding gift I’ve probably made 5 scratch cakes.  Hubby I think has made one.  Mine all rose properly and couldn’t fit into my cake stand with the top on (but that was a three layer cake ;).  I think the cake layers were between 2-2.5 inches each.  And all but one of my cakes tasted terrible!  The white and golden cake particularly were dry and crumbly.  And only one of my chocolate cakes had the right density/taste/height etc.  Hubby made a golden cake and although it tasted ok, it was as flat as a pancake (and he’s a really good cook/baker – he used to work with his Mom in a bakery throughout high school :)  All of these cakes were made with different recipes.  So, I blame the recipe…not the temp of your eggs etc.  Try again – you’ll get it right!  If all else fails, Betty Crocker makes yummy cakes too :)

Megan says:

Whenever I have tried to make a 9 inch layer cake, the baked cake has always risen about the pans. Not much, but above. I know you have to be careful about not banging stuff in the kitchen while the cake is baking – so it won’t fall, but other than that don’t have tips. I have difficulty with my gas oven – I think the temp is inconsistent and wish I had an electric.

That said, I see girls on the message boards freak out about making the perfect cake – when it’s my turn – I plan on making cupcakes or ordering a cake – it’s just easier – I don’t have the kind of time to stress about it. And even with practice cakes, on the day of – if it doesn’t go perfectly – then you are out a cake!

Good luck though.

ariana says:

Oh Alicia, this is soooo not about Jasper anymore..this is between me and the cake now. And I don’t like losing! ;)

CMC says:

Well, hmmm… this is too funny. But, as you noticed in the cake smash photo shoot, your boy doesn’t really have a taste just yet for cake…. maybe he really doesn’t want cake.
How about just make a 1″ layer of fudge and cut out the mod monkey? That would be so cool! You could have a fudge monkey!!!!