Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Let them eat 1-2-3-4 cake!

When I was a child, I often spent the night or even the weekend or a week with my grandmother -- "Celie Mama" for those of you who know my grandmothers from each other. She was not a grandmother who really loved cooking and baking and feeding people up, but we always had fun in the kitchen. One thing we made occasionally was a 1-2-3-4 Cake. I knew quite a bit about basic cake baking at a young age; my mother is a champ cake baker, and I was "helping" as soon as my precocious self could see over the edge of the counter. The 1-2-3-4 cake stuck in my mind, though, because the recipe was so easy: 1 cup of butter, 2 cups of sugar, 3 cups of self-rising flour, and 4 eggs (plus 1 cup of milk). It's a relative of the true, original pound cake (1 pound of butter, 1 pound of sugar ... etc.).

So anyway ... I've always had a soft spot in my heart for 1-2-3-4 cake, but rarely made it on my own. A few years ago, though, I ran across a 1-2-3-4 Cake recipe in the paper. This one came from an Alice Waters cookbook (probably not actually written by Alice Waters, but, whatever). Not being a Southern recipe, it used cake flour and leavening instead of self-rising flour. What really caught my eye, though, was that it used one of my favorite cake tricks -- combining butter cake ingredients with a chiffon cake technique. With this recipe in particular, it transforms a not-quite-pound-cake into a lighter, more tender cake.

The wonder of this recipe is not only its simplicity but its flexibility. It is almost a master class in cakes because it is a dead-basic, classic cake, but there are an endless number of things you can do with it. First, it is in every way a traditional butter cake except for the whipped egg whites folded in at the end. You can vary the dairy product to get a slightly different flavor and texture. You can vary the flavorings and add embellishments like nuts. You can bake in any size/shape pan. You can serve it plain, in all it's vanilla-butter glory, or you can glaze or frost it. It is a recipe that is easy to divide in half; I have even made a quarter recipe.

Today I took small loaves of a personal variation to work today as holiday gifts, and was inspired to make this rare blog post, so great is my love for this recipe. So, without further ado, here it is. First, the recipe and variations that were published in the paper; second, today's variation, plus other variation ideas and notes.

1-2-3-4 Cake
adapted from The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters
Makes 2 9-inch round cakes

1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks), softened
2 cups sugar
3 cups sifted cake flour*
1/2 tsp salt
4 teaspoons baking powder
4 eggs, separated**

1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup milk
  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Butter and flour 2 9-inch cake pans.***
  3. Sift together the flour, salt, and baking powder.
  4. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter until light and fluffy. Add sugar; cream together with butter.
  5. Beat in egg yolks, one at a time, then add vanilla.
  6. When well mixed, add the flour mixture and milk alternately, starting and ending with one third of the flour. Mix just until the flour is incorporated.
  7. In another bowl, whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks, but take care not to overbeat. Gently fold one third of the egg whites into the batter. Add the remaining egg whites and fold in; be careful not to over-mix.
  8. Pour batter into the prepared cake pans and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 30 to 40 minutes.
  9. Let cake cool in pans 10 minutes. Invert cake onto plate, then immediately invert again on a wire rack. If using a glaze, it may be applied while the cake is warm. Otherwise, allow cake to cool completely before cutting or frosting.
Variations:
  • Lemon cake: Add 1 Tablespoon finely grated fresh lemon zest and 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice to the batter.
  • Orange cake: Add 1 Tablespoon finely grated fresh orange zest and 2 Tablespoons fresh orange juice to the batter.
*I have been known to substitute White Lily All-Purpose flour for cake flour -- they have nearly the same (low) protein/gluten content, although cake flour is a little more finely milled. If using White Lily, be SURE to sift.
**If you want a slightly denser cake, closer to a pound cake, do not separate the eggs; add the whole eggs in step 5 and skip step 7.
***You can, of course, use any type pan you like. The full recipe will fit into a full-size (10-inch) tube pan, or two 9x5 loaf pans, or four 8x4 loaf pans, for example. If using different pans, DO NOT adjust the oven temperature. You may, however, have to adjust cooking time; the tube pan may take 50-60 minutes. For more information on pan substitutions, see the excellent Baking911.com reference page: http://www.baking911.com/pantry/substitutes_pansizes.htm

TL's Almond Cake
  • The first change I made was to substitute buttermilk for the milk. You could also use sour cream or plain yogurt (preferably one without gelatin or other additives). These acidic dairy products not only give a subtle tangy flavor to the end product, but produce a more tender crumb. When you sub these acidic dairy products for regular milk, though, you have to add baking soda to counter the acidity. Otherwise, the leavening power of the other ingredients could be compromised. The rule of thumb is 1/2 tsp baking soda, added with the other dry ingredients, for every cup of buttermilk/sour cream/yogurt.
  • The second change was to add 1 teaspoon of almond flavoring. In many cases, bakers will omit the vanilla when adding almond or other flavorings, but I like to use both. I could see reducing the vanilla to 1/2 teaspoon, but in this case I used a full teaspoon of each.
  • To give a visual signal of the flavor of the cake, plus to provide a little embellishment to what was to be an un-iced cake, I added sliced almonds to the top of the batter right before putting the pans in the oven. It's a good idea to press them into the batter just a bit; otherwise, they'll fall off after baking.
Other Variation Ideas
I haven't tried any of these, but I think they would be *ahem* a piece of cake.
  • Coconut Cake: Add a little coconut flavoring and top with sweetened shredded coconut before baking. (You could also mix the coconut into the batter.)
  • Nut Cake: Top with any sort of chopped nuts before baking. I think chopped pecans would be great. Bonus points: Substitute Vanilla, Butter, & Nut flavoring for the vanilla extract.
  • Berry Cake: Add fresh berries, either a single variety or a combination, along with a few teaspoons of finely grated lemon zest. (I would toss the berries with a couple of tablespoons of flour before adding to the batter.
  • Spicy Cake: It might be fun to experiment with adding cardamom or ginger to this cake. Ginger and lime zest, maybe? mmmm
One final note ... BE CAREFUL about adding other fruits. For example, crushed pineapple or mashed banana might be a good add-ins, but they are acidic, and thus would need to be countered with some baking soda.