Saffron Yellow Cake with Chocolate Buttercream Frosting


For many years as an adolescent, I thought my ethnicity was pretty 50/50 straight-forward. Who doesn’t? What other information are we supposed to go off of other than what our family members tell us? My fathers side of the family is German-Italian, and my mothers side is Irish, so it was easy to conclude that this was the reason my skin burns within twenty minutes of sun exposure, as well as my unconditional love for bread, pasta and Italian cuisine in general. I took their word for it. My Italian ancestors are from the Northern Lake Como region (George Clooney has great taste–as if we didn’t already know) and I’ve been dying to visit for as long as I can remember. I cry whenever I stare at photos of Italy long enough, or watch a documentary about traveling in Italy (thanks Rick Steves). The bright colors, the fresh pesto, the rugged cobblestone streets, the overgrown ivy, the people, the philosophy of life. This is how badly my heart longs to breathe and experience the magical place that Italy is.


To get the real truth on just how Italian I really am, I decided to satisfy my curiosity by finally taking one of those DNA ethnicity tests on My Italian (and Greek!?) percentage came in surprisingly (and disappointingly) lower than I expected–a whopping 15%. The highest percentages (25% each) came in from Great Britain and Ireland. The rest, just a vague blend of Western and Eastern European to make me into 100% European. My mothers father, my wonderful and beloved Irish ninety-year-old “Pops”, is who I like to credit for my love to bake cakes. He has always been the baker in the family, which is cute as hell and I love it more than anything. He has the biggest sweet tooth, which I inherited many of. Mostly boxed cake mixes, mind you, but still, totally a baker. Every now and then, after persimmon season, persimmon raisin cookies, and some batches of chocolate chip… so what I’m saying is the 25% Irish-inherited baking gene makes total sense. Nine times out of ten when I would stop by their house for a visit, there would always be a freshly baked 9×13-inch yellow sheet cake on the kitchen counter. Usually plain, without frosting, but on special occasions topped with whipping cream and coconut flakes–his absolute favorite cake of all time. Needless to say, yellow cake and my Pops has always been (and will forever be) linked together in my mind. They go hand in hand. Yellow cake brings back memories of family, and when I miss home, I think of yellow cake.

Trying my hand at a homemade yellow cake with a traditional chocolate buttercream has been on my radar for months now, I’ve just been a wee afraid of it turning out too dry. I researched high and low all the yellow cake recipes on the inter-webs, and created a hybrid of several ideas. But with an updated twist, of course. Saffron and turmeric! Not only does the saffron have a chance to shine it’s earthly complex and bitter flavor in a nice yellow canvas, it (along with the turmeric) adds just that extra pop of yellow color for good measure. And my dry cake texture fears were alleviated by making my classic homemade “buttermilk” with apple cider vinegar. That always seems to do the trick. I added the saffron and turmeric into the milk mixture while it was curdling to bring out more of the yellow color and flavor, and it delivered just as I had hoped.

And let’s not forget this frosting–holy moly, it’s exactly everything I was hoping for. Perfectly spreadable, just the right balance of sweet and bitter and creamy goodness. It’s a keeper forever and ever. Just like my Pops.

So Pops, I dedicate this cake to you. Sensitive Irish sunburned skin and all.

(And Italy, you are still my #1 destination, no matter what these test results say. Don’t you dare go anywhere.)


Saffron Yellow Cake with Chocolate Buttercream Frosting
A wonderful homemade spin on traditional classic boxed yellow cake mix, made with saffron and turmeric for extra yellow color! Yellow cake is the perfect birthday cake staple. The saffron adds a nice unexpected pungent, earthy and complex flavor. Yes, it's a bit expensive to buy, but you don't need much--a little goes a long way with saffron, and you only need a few strands for this recipe. This Spanish saffron is a great value, and will last a long time. The turmeric is mostly for color and is undetectable to taste, although it compliments the saffron perfectly in Indian/Turkish/Mediterranean dishes and the two are commonly used together. Let's not forget the best homemade bittersweet chocolate frosting on the planet--this is perfection. Not too runny, not too dry, just the right amount of sugar and chocolate to sandwich between the tender and moist yellow cake!
Recipe type: Dessert
Serves: One double-layer 8-inch cake (10-12 servings)
  • For the Saffron Yellow Cake:
  • 1 cup milk (dairy or non-dairy)
  • 2 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • ¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 10 strands of saffron, crushed
  • 2½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 1½ teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • 8 Tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • ¼ cup canola oil
  • 1¾ cups sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 3 large eggs

  • For the Bittersweet Chocolate Buttercream:
  • 12 Tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2½ cups powdered sugar
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and slightly cooled
  1. For the Saffron Yellow Cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F with rack set in the middle of oven. Line two round 8-inch cake pans with parchment paper (cut into a circle) and coat with baking spray. Set aside.
  2. In a small bowl or measuring cup, combine milk, apple cider vinegar, turmeric and saffron. Stir well until the mixture turns bright yellow. Set aside.
  3. In another small bowl, whisk together flour, cornstarch, baking powder, sea salt and baking soda. Set aside.
  4. In a large bowl, mix butter on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add oil, sugar and vanilla, continuing to beat another 1-2 minutes. Add egg yolks, one at a time, allowing each to incorporate before adding the next. Add the whole eggs in the same manner, allowing 1 minute between each addition.
  5. Add ⅓ of flour mixture to the butter-egg mixture, mixing on low speed until flour just incorporated. Add ½ of the milk, mixing until just incorporated. Continue with remaining flour mixture and milk, alternating between each, until all ingredients are incorporated and smooth.
  6. Divide batter evenly between the two prepared pans. Bake until edges of cake slightly pull away from pans and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out dry with just a few crumbs, about 30-35 minutes (mine were good around 32 minutes).
  7. Remove pans from oven and cool on wire rack, about 10-15 minutes. Run a knife around edges of each cake and turn out onto rack to cool completely (about 1½ hours) before frosting.
  8. For the Bittersweet Chocolate Buttercream: In a large bowl, beat butter on medium speed until light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes.
  9. Add powdered sugar and mix on low speed until completely incorporated.
  10. Add vanilla and cooled chocolate. Beat on medium-high speed until frosting is airy and mixed thoroughly, about 2-3 minutes.
  11. To frost, evenly spread about ⅓ of the frosting over the top of the first layer, then stack the second layer, evenly spreading another ⅓ of the frosting over the top and sides of the whole cake (this is the "crumb coat"--you will finish frosting with the remaining ⅓ later so it's ok if you get a few crumbs in the frosting). Place in refrigerator until frosting sets and is slightly hard, about 20 minutes. Remove from refrigerator and spread remaining frosting over top and sides of the cake as evenly as possible before serving.
  12. Cake keeps up to 3 days at room temperature.
If you're looking to make a traditional yellow cake without the saffron and turmeric, feel free to just omit from the milk and vinegar "buttermilk" mixture. The cake will come out just the same, maybe just not as yellow. If you want to ensure extra "yellowness", you could add an additional egg yolk to the cake batter to substitute the colorful spices.

If you don't have two 8-inch cake pans, you can still make this in a 13x9-inch cake pan. You may have a little leftover frosting, but that is never a bad thing especially if you're a chocolate frosting lover.



  1. says

    Your recipe looks so beautiful and delicious.It makes my mouth water.I am so excited to make this recipe and I will try this very soon..Thanks for sharing such delicious recipe.

  2. says

    Hahaha love the fact that you decided to try an ethnicity test! I don’t think I’m ever going to be questioning mine… 100% Chinese… Born in China, lived in China… And now I’m here!
    But this cake!!! I’ve never tried saffron but I think it’s prime time that I do so!

  3. says

    This recipe looks so nice and delicious and also your post image is awesome to look.Your recipe makes my mouth water. I will try this very soon..Thanks a lot for sharing.

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