recipe – basic layer cake

I like cake, but most cake is crap.

Store-bought cakes are usually too sweet, frosted with diabetic-coma-inducing, weird-tasting fluff. Home-baked cake from scratch tends to lack consistency, usually dense and sitting like a rock in the gut. That cake density may be directly related to using measuring cups as opposed to a scale, because I have yet to meet the baker who can measure two cups of flour and have the first cup scale out at the same weight as the second. Home-baked from a box tends to have an insubstantial texture that can’t hold real flavor. White cake from a box is the worst, since it presents an unholy combination of insubstantial texture combined with a distinct flavor of chemicals.

From a professional bakery, the stuff of paradise can be obtained – but who wants to spend that kind of money for a cake when it’s not a special occasion?

Baking a cake should be simple. It should be cheap. It should require minimal equipment*. It should start with a base recipe. Once that basic cake can be baked with consistent results, then the ingredients can be fiddled with to create a variety of cakes, each offering something special without losing the essence of the good, simple, idiot-proof cake. That cake (and its daughters) should be scalable, so you are not left with more cake than you can eat without despair or waste, but can also churn out enough cake to feed a crowd/bake sale on short notice, without having to depend on some other (untried) recipe.

The basic cake of many professional bakeries is the 1-2-3-4 cake:

1 cup butter (230g)
2 cups sugar (384g)
3 cups self-rising flour (378g)
4 eggs
1 cup milk (240g)
1t vanilla

In theory, this is enough to bake a cake of three 9-inch layers at 350 degrees until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. For 9-inch pans, bake for ~25-30 minutes; for cupcakes (makes 24), bake for ~15 minutes. In practice, don’t trust someone else’s times or temperatures, your oven may be a diva like mine is. You will need to adjust the time/temp so that YOUR oven bakes a perfect cupcake or cake every time.

I have made this recipe, without fail, enough times to want to adapt it for a multitude of flavors, but I have a problem. I can divide everything except the eggs easily. If I need to scale this recipe to something that my little family can enjoy on a weeknight, I may not have self-rising flour in the house and I’m not going to divide 4 eggs by 3.

Self-rising flour is simple: 1c minus 2t flour, add 1 1/2t baking powder and 1/2t salt. To scale it, it’s 120g flour, then add the baking powder and salt.

When a recipe calls for eggs, it usually means (unless otherwise stated) large eggs. With size standardization being pretty good in the US, a large egg weighs about 50g. From small to jumbo, the weight equivalents should be 38, 44, 50, 56, 63. With four (large) eggs weighing 200g, dividing by three yields us ~67g, close enough to one jumbo egg that I can live with the result.

So, the 1-2-3-4 cake, re-written for scalability to one 9-inch layer or 8 cupcakes:

77g butter
128g sugar
120g all-purpose flour
1 1/2t baking powder
1/2t salt
1 jumbo egg
80g milk
3/8t vanilla (1/4t + 1/8t…I can live with that)

This is not nearly as easily remembered as 1-2-3-4, but it is something that you can print out and keep forever, in a spreadsheet that shows the measurements for adjusting upwards to another layer or 8 cupcakes. For a 9 x 13 sheet cake, use two layers worth of ingredients:

154 g butter
256g sugar
240g ap flour
3t baking powder
1t salt
2 jumbo OR 3 medium eggs
160g milk
3/4t vanilla

* if you have the equipment to bake a box mix cake, buy a digital scale for $15 at Target or Kmart or Walmart – that you can use forever – and you’re all set

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