Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Easiest Cake You Will Ever Bake

That is Otis, my obese and beloved former street cat, who was (understandably) intrigued by the sudden and unexpected presence of a freshly baked cake on the floor.

I do talk a lot about my beloved Betty Crocker 1961 cookbook.  But as I have said in the past, these dames knew from baking.

My husband and I have a little family tradition that each person is allowed to choose any cake recipe (simple or complicated) on his/her birthday, and the other person has to bake it.  I have occasionally chosen this luscious banana cake recipe from Rose Levy Beranbaum's exhaustive tome, The Cake Bible, but I find her recipes, with their three-ways measurements (avoirdupoids, metric, weight) and fussy-to-the-point-of-eye-rolling directions, to be poorly designed for the home baker.  Unless you happen to the the type of home baker who is really interested in food science, which would describe my husband and me.

Anyhow, when push comes to shove, good old Betty usually takes the day.  And here is the best from-scratch cake recipe in the whole book, both for flavor/texture and for ease of preparation.  It tastes, looks, and has the exact texture of a cake mix cake, minus the chemical stuff.  Swear to God.  And it takes about as long to assemble.

[Before writing the recipe, I have to tell you about the cake names and captions in this cookbook.  This recipe I'm talking about is called "New Starlight Cake", and is followed by the caption "Of all cakes baked in homes, this undoubtedly is made most often."  That's a pretty high-falutin' claim.  I love the "in homes" part (as opposed to what? campsites? hotels? homeless shelters?).  Some more gems from the Cakes section of this book:

Miracle Marble Cake
Rich chocolate and dainty white...in intriguing marbled effect. "Guests at my home exclaim over it especially when I serve fingers of it with pink strawberry ice cream on white milk glass plates," says N. Faye Woodward of Lawrence, Kansas.

Burnt Sugar Cake
The real old-time, caramel-rich variety of cake that has always been first choice at church suppers.  Developed by Mabel Martin of our staff.

Sour Cream Spice Cake
Mrs. George Holm of Cuba, North Dakota, says, "What is better with afternoon coffee on the farm...or anywhere else...than Sour Cream Spice Cake frosted with Easy Penuche Icing?"

Applesauce Cake
The old-time quilting bee favorite.

Coconut Angel Food Cake
"For birthdays I sometimes frost it with a yellow icing, add lighted yellow candles and encircle it with a wreath of green leaves," says Mrs. Glenn M. Lewis of Knollwood, Hopkins, Minnesota, an authority on home decoration."

NB: I think Knollwood must be the name of an estate or farm...and it certainly MUST be someplace decorated authoritatively.]

New Starlight Cake
(From the 1961 edition of Betty Crocker's New Picture Cook Book)

2 cups plus 2 tbsp. all-purpose white flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup soft shortening (I use butter)
1 cup milk
1 tsp flavoring (or 2... I like vanilla, but you could use 1 tsp vanilla, 1 tsp almond)
3 eggs

Heat oven to 350.  Grease and flour two 8" or 9" layer pans, or a 9x13 rectangular pan. [If you have never tried Baker's Joy, a grease-and-flour spray in the genus of PAM, you haven't lived]

Mix thoroughly the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.  Add the butter, milk and flavoring.  Mix, with a hand mixer or a stand mixer such as a Kitchen Aid, on high speed for two minutes, or 300 vigorous strokes by hand, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl constantly.  Add the eggs and beat 2 more minutes, scraping frequently, as described above. [And here we have the crux of the cake.  All cakes are made of basically the same ingredients.  It is the order in which you combine them and the manner in which you mix them that differentiates one cake from another.  The length of beating here creates tenderness and structure, loft if you will, and must be done exactly as stated.]

Pour into prepared pans.  Bake 8" layers approximately 35-40 minutes, 9" layers 30-35 minutes, and rectangular pan 45-50 minutes, or until cake tests done**.  Let layers rest in pans for about 2 minutes, then remove to wire racks.  The rectangular cake can remain in the pan, and be frosted and served from the pan. Let all cakes cool completely before frosting.

**There are several ways to test a cake.  The safest for beginning bakers is to take a bamboo skewer, a thin sharp paring knife, or a straw from a broomstick, and insert it deep in the center of the cake.  If the cake is done, the tester will come out clean.  Another method:  Gently touch the highest part of the center of the cake.  If it springs back, it's done.  If you leave an indentation or can tell it's still a little squidgy, put it back in the oven.  You can also eyeball it:  A cake will start to pull away from the sides of the pan a tiny bit when it's done.

If you have a mixer, the actual labor involved in making this cake is virtually nil.  It is fragrant and will make you moan with delight when you pop that first meltingly tender bite into your mouth (yes, I think cake and sex are pretty much on par with one another.)

Now... the perfect icing.

Butter Icing

1/3 cup very soft (but not melted!) SALTED butter [salt mitigates some of the unrelenting sweetness and gives balance]
3 cups powdered/confectioners' sugar
about 3 tbsp cream or whole milk
1 1/2 tsp vanilla

Blend butter and sugar.  Stir in cream and vanilla until smooth.  Adjust texture if needed (this is very easy to do with either more sugar or more cream... we all know what frosting's supposed to look like.)

Spread this on your completely cooled cake.  This is what is known in the biz as a "crusting buttercream" (a term, incidentally, I intend to co-opt when it's time to name my future punk band), which is simply to say that it develops a little crackly crust when exposed to air over time.

Store the frosted cake and any leftover frosting in an air-tight container.  Here's an old housewife's trick for storing a frosted cake if you don't have any fancy contraptions like lidded cake plates, etc.:  Poke about 6 toothpicks in the top of the cake and gently drape cling film over it, securing on the underside of the plate.  You keep the frosting looking pretty that way, which is handy if you have done fancy things like write someone's name on it.  Of course, you can mash the hell out of it and it will still taste great.

And now, as a footnote, a recipe from the same page of the cook book for a smaller sized cake of exactly the same flavor and structure.

Kitchenette Cake
A small 1-egg cake that keeps and carries well. "This is just the right size for my sister and me," says Olga Stege of our staff.  [Don't you love the image of the two spinster sisters sitting at their tiny table in their kitchenette, snacking on a slice of cake?]

1 1/3 cups all-purpose white flour
1 cup sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/3 cup soft butter
2/3 cup milk
1 tsp. flavoring
1 egg.

Mix as for New Starlight Cake, but bake in a greased and floured 9" square pan--the kind you make brownies in--for approx. 30-35 minutes.

And a footnote to the footnote...

Dinette Cake

Make Kitchenette Cake, except use 1 1/2 cups Swan's Down or Softasilk Cake Flour in place of all-purpose flour.

God bless Betty Crocker.

P.S.  My birthday cake was actually the New Starlight Cake with a whole bunch of shredded coconut added.  Also, since my understanding husband knows how hard it is for me to stand by and watch someone else baking cake without me, he let me frost the cake and I sprinkled more coconut on top.  You'll see from the picture that I only frosted between the layers and on top.  This is a non-trick I stole from Nigella Lawson, and I think it makes a very homey-looking result.  Plus, you can pile the frosting Really High and make it look Terribly Luxurious, whereas if you had to frost the sides you'd be scrimping and saving to make the frosting stretch, and who wants to do something so miserly with something so decadent?  Fast and sexy, that's MY motto...


  1. Or...you could double the frosting recipe, frost the entire cake with some to spare, and lie in bed with your lover eating the rest directly from the bowl.

    Um...not that I'd know anything about that.

  2. You have such great timing! My son's birthday is coming up and I've been looking for a super-easy but yummy basic cake recipe to make his birthday cake. This fits the bill perfectly. Thanks!

  3. An update: I used this recipe for my son's birthday this past weekend. I used whole wheat pastry flour instead of the specified all-purpose white, and flavored it with lemon extract and some lemon zest in addition to vanilla. And then I used whipped cream instead of frosting since my son doesn't like frosting. I think the whole wheat flour made the cake a bit heavier and denser than was originally intended; it was certainly heavier than a box cake.

    But it tasted sooooo good. All the kids loved it, as did the parents. I usually don't really like cake much, but I would gladly eat this plain without any frosting or whipped cream or anything. Yum. Thanks again for sharing the recipe!