Because the only fat is this recipe is shortening, the resulting cake is snowy white, fluffy and tender, and gives you that “cake!” mouthfeel while leaving space for your brain to register flavorful fillings and frostings. The use of ice water as the liquid may seem odd; it’s a tip I was introduced to by my friend Jessie Sheehan, who in turn learned it from the gents of Baked, in Brooklyn. I don’t know exactly how it works, but it does.
As for the frosting, this is an endlessly adaptable recipe. Play around with different extracts or add in a few tablespoons of cocoa powder. I love to blitz up freeze-dried berries in a clean coffee grinder, then use the resulting powder to flavor this frosting. I only use the base recipe with deeply chocolate cake, the combination resulting in essentially a giant, soft Oreo, and I use all shortening-based frostings with a light hand. This is a case where there definitely can be too much of a good thing.
- Preheat oven to 350°F and prepare your pans using your preferred method.
- Sift together the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. And I mean it: sift.
- Measure out the water and add in ice cubes.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the shortening with the sugar on medium speed until fluffy, about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Mix in the vanilla. Remove the ice cubes from the water and pour out the excess until you have ½ c. On low speed, alternate the dry ingredients and the water in three parts, beginning and ending with the dry. Remove the bowl from the mixer.
- With a clean stand mixer bowl, a separate bowl and hand mixer, or with brute strength, beat the egg whites until they form medium-stiff peaks. Fold a bit into the batter to lighten, then gently fold in the remaining, continuing to work the batter about with care until smooth, with no more lumps of the whites visible.
- Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans.
- For two 6” cake layers, bake 18-20 minutes until the cake starts to pull away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Also, I’ve noticed that a cake is done baking when I can really smell cake.
- For one dozen cupcakes, bake 10-12 minutes and follow as directed above.
- Remove the cakes to a rack to cool. After 10 minutes, remove them from the pan and let cool completely. I always wrap the room-temperature cakes and put them in the fridge for at least an hour before frosting. That way the shortening returns to its semisolid state and makes for less finicky application of buttercreams, etc.
- Thoroughly sift the confectioners’ sugar.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, whip the shortening on medium speed for a few seconds. Stop the mixer and add the confectioners’ sugar and vanilla. Starting on low speed and increasing to medium as the sugar is absorbed into the shortening, beat for two minutes on medium speed until light and fluffy, then reduce the speed to low and beat for another 30 seconds.
- If the texture is too stiff, add in a little milk or cream a teaspoon at a time, whipping between each addition, until it’s to your liking. Use water if you want a super-crusting frosting.
- After cooled, frost cupcakes or cake to your liking.
Jessica Reed is a writer, baker, artist, and historian obsessed with the history and culture of cake. She is the author of The Baker’s Appendix (Clarkson Potter, 2017) and just left the North East Coast after 15 years for the North West Coast. She is happy to still be baking at sea level.