My life is largely made up of fantasies, semi-conscious jumps from one hungry daydream to the next, playing the "what if" game with the endless possibilities of flavor combinations. I write down words and draw pictures sporadically across a page with no defining link to reality, no measure of how each flavor will interact with the next. In this case, we're talking cake, the number one thing that I have dirty thoughts about on a daily basis. After years of posting photos of food on the internet, I've come to realize that dietary or nutritional restrictions have very little bearing on the inner most desires of our hunger. Vegan? Paleo? Gluten free? It doesn't matter. You couldn't be such a good whatever-you-are in the light of day if you didn't secretly look at photos of cake on the internet by night (you perv).
I have no dietary or nutritional restrictions keeping me from making or eating cake, save except the confines of my Mother's wedding dress that I must wear in August, so why not bring abstract musings to life? When I come out of my writing trance, stepping back to observe the nonsense that I've scribbled down in haste, I come to a moment of clarity as I remember I have a formula for making these visions real: 1-2-3-4. That stands for one cup butter, one cup milk, two cups sugar, three cups flour, four eggs. Impossible to screw up, unheard-of to dislike, and unlikely to forget; this is my go-to cake, the cake recipe on which all of my other cake recipes are based.
Here I feel that it is important to note that I make about a hundred different variations of this cake. I fill it with lemon curd and frost it with stabilized whipped cream, then top it with generous amounts of berries; I spread fig jam between the layers and infuse the butter in the frosting with basil...you get the picture.
And while I have every intention of this cake becoming the basis for your own, unique food-based fantasies, I do encourage you to make it plain at least once. A very wise lady once told me that you should judge each baker by the quality of her plain, vanilla cake, the way one might asses a writer by her grammar or an artist by her figure studies. A well-made cake is all about balance; it should be sturdy enough to move around without cracking yet the crumb should feel tender on your tongue. The flavor should be sweet- not an intense sweetness, but one that is subtle and accentuated by the bite of salt. The aroma should be clean, smelling of nothing but butter and vanilla. Just simple and good.
My recipe for this classic cake is slightly tweaked, with less than two cups of sugar and tangy, sour buttermilk instead of whole milk. The idea is to cut down on the sweetness of the layers, since I generally frost it with unavoidably sweet American buttercream out of laziness. With the right amount of salt and a hearty glug of whiskey, even I, hater of all things cloying, find American buttercream not only worthy of a pardon, but suitable for consumption.
For the cake
1 cup (two sticks) salted, grass-fed butter at room temperature
1 3/4 cups raw cane sugar
3 cups sifted AP flour, mixed with 3t baking powder*
4 large eggs at room temperature*
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup full fat buttermilk
Preheat oven to 350.
1. With whisk attachment, whip butter until fluffy. Add sugar and beat until combined.
2. Add eggs one at a time, followed by the vanilla. Whip the crap out of it.
3. Fold in flour and buttermilk in three additions, beginning and ending with the flour. Use a spatula and this method.
4. Butter and flour three 8" cake pans. Divide batter evenly among them and bake 25-30 minutes, or until set in the center.
*You can play around with these two ingredients to see what you like. Some people use self-rising flour, others use cake flour. You can also separate the eggs and beat the whites until soft peaks form, then fold them in at the last minute.
For the frosting
1 1/2 sticks (6 ounces) butter at room temperature
4.5-6 cups powdered sugar, sifted
pinch of sea salt
1/4 cup bourbon, or to taste
1. Whip the crap out of the butter.
2. Add salt, then powdered sugar one cup at a time.
3. When you have added half of the powdered sugar, pour in the whiskey.
4. Continue adding powdered sugar until you reach the desired consistency. The amount of sugar you use will vary according to temperature and humidity.
5. Store on the counter top in a bowl with one piece of plastic wrap directly on the frosting and a second piece covering the bowl for up to two days.
Cake Assembly 101
1. When the layers come out of the oven, let them sit five minutes, then swiftly and carefully flip them on to a cooling rack. Let them cool completely, then transfer them in the fridge for about an hour. With your hand flat on the surface of the rounded side of the layer, use a large bread knife to level them off.
2. Make a portion of your frosting a little too thick. Smudge a tiny bit on the center of the cake stand to keep the bottom layer from sliding.
3. Use the overly thick buttercream to frost in between the layers; start in the middle and work your way out with an offset spatula. If there is extra, thin it back out with a bit of whiskey and mix with the rest of the buttercream.
4. Create a thin crumb coat and put cake back in the fridge for at least 20 minutes.
5. Frost your cake as evenly as possible and don't worry too much about how smooth it is. Put it back in the fridge for 20 minutes.
6. Fill a glass with very hot water. Dip your offset spatula in it and use the heat to smooth out the frosting, leveling off the top first and then the sides.
Once you have mastered the basic cake, I want to hear all about your beautiful versions of it! Email me or tag me on Instagram @HMMessinger #nothingbutdelicious.