It’s no wonder that my friend Lisa and I were fast friends from the very start of first grade. While other kids wolfed down lunches in their haste to claim a foursquare court, Lisa and I spent the entire lunch recess contentedly working our way through our tin lunch boxes. When we got together on weekends, we mixed cookies, played board games and breathed in buttery air as we waited for the oven timer dial to click into its strident buzz.
Even now we share many of the same favorite recipes – chocolate cake, banana bread, cream scones. But you’d never mistake my plain Jane cakes for hers. Lisa is a singer and performer whose favorite color is red. Her cakes are tall, cloud-like creations, covered in delicate chocolate curls or other fanciful edibles. She owns cake stands, cupcake carriers, pastry bags, offset spatulas. I don’t even own a sifter.
Part of my approach is practicality – sheet cakes may be aesthetically boring, but they are easy to make, transport and serve. And as a matter of philosophy I would rather feed my sweet tooth a restrained but satisfying treat every day than gorge on a really decadent indulgence once a week. Frosting is fun and rich, but while a cake might use a stick or two of butter, frosting for a layer cake can require a full pound (they don’t call it buttercream for nothing).
It all works out, however, since I lack the artistry to be a great cake baker. Lisa’s family of creative crafters would see a naked cake as a missed opportunity. Lucky for me my family couldn’t care less about looks as long as it tastes good.
So I gravitate toward cakes that can stand on their own in flavor. Most birthdays in our family are chocolate cake occasions. But my big brother is a plain vanilla kind of guy, and it’s challenging to find a yellow cake that doesn’t seem dry and bland alone. This cake, adapted from The Perfect Cake by Susan Purdy, has a fine butter flavor without being heavy.
The original recipe, from Purdy’s Swedish friend, uses almond extract as its flavoring. Substitute vanilla, and it tastes like a simple pound cake. Orange zest and juice add a fresh citrus note. Dress it up with frosting if you have the inclination – or simply give it a lazy dusting of powdered sugar.
I love how this recipe has the most basic of cake ingredients – flour, sugar, butter, eggs, milk. Easy to make without advance planning.
Beat butter and sugar with a wooden spoon, as Purdy’s Swedish friend did, or use a mixer. A mixer will add air to the batter and lighten the cake’s dense crumb. I have a hand mixer that was a gift from my great college friend Allison, 20 years ago. But I like the quiet workout of mixing by hand.
Add two eggs, one at a time.
I add vanilla here instead of waiting until the end, since I’m more likely to forget later.
Add dry ingredients.
Alternating with milk.
Until everything is well incorporated. The batter is very thick and soft.
Spoon batter in pan (it’s too thick to pour easily). For maybe the second time ever, I used my bundt cake pan. Digging it out from kitchen Siberia was such a distraction, I forgot to show the buttering and flouring of the pan. Make sure to tap it well to get the excess flour out.
Bake until golden.
I used a knife around the edges to loosen the cake from the pan. Then I realized my regular plates wouldn’t fit the bundt cake. So I went back to Siberia and pulled out a platter that was a wedding gift over a decade ago (we may have been the last generation to think that registering for china was a necessary part of getting married). Fortunately the cake popped right out when I flipped the pan with the platter.
The kids thought it was a chocolate cake. It did look awfully dark.
I blended up a fresh strawberry puree to serve alongside. Just strawberries and a little sugar. A touch of lemon juice is also nice for brightness.
We weren’t cutting the cake until night, and I was dying to take a picture while I still had daylight. Moral dilemma. Then I realized that not only would my brother not care a bit, in all likelihood he wouldn’t even notice.
I put it back together with an extra dusting of powdered sugar.
Happy birthday, bro. I love you.
Not fancy, but straight up simple – buttery, with a tight crumb, this cake can be dressed up for a wedding or enjoyed plain with a cup of tea. Adapted from The Perfect Cake by Susan Purdy.
- 2 cups (8.5 ounces; 240 g) all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt (omit if using salted butter)
- 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened at room temperature
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar (10.5 ounces; 300 g)
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 3/4 cup milk
- 1 teaspoon almond extract (or vanilla)
- Confectioners’ sugar (optional)
- Prepare cake pan (2 9″ layers, or a 9″ tube pan, or an 8″x8″x2″ square pan). Rub with butter, dust with flour, shake to distribute and tap out excess. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- In a medium mixing bowl, stir together flour, baking powder and salt (omit salt if using salted butter).
- In a large mixing bowl, mix sugar and softened butter until light and creamy. Using an electric mixer will result in a somewhat lighter texture than mixing by hand.
- Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each. Stir in almond or vanilla extract.
- Alternately add dry ingredients and milk, starting and ending with flour. Scrape down sides of bowl as needed.
- Pour batter into prepared pan(s) and level the top. Bake in preheated oven until top is golden and a toothpick tested in the center of the cake comes out clean (about 30-35 minutes for layers or 50-60 minutes for a tube cake).
- Cool the cake on a wire rack for about 10 minutes, then loosen edges with a knife. Top with a plate, flip over pan and plate, and carefully lift the pan off the cake. Cool completely. Dust with confectioners’ sugar or frost.
- Orange variation: add zest from 1 1/2 oranges and replace milk with orange juice.
- Chocolate variation: replace 1/3 cup flour with unsweetened cocoa and add 1/4 teaspoon baking soda.
- Fresh strawberry puree: in a blender or food processor, blend one pint fresh strawberries with 2-4 tablespoons sugar and bit of lemon juice (optional). Add a splash of orange juice or water if you need liquid to get it going. Serve with cake.
Here’s the link to a printable version.