I don’t appreciate snobbery, even food snobbery, but I recently had to admit to myself that I’m a cake snob. I didn’t set out to be a snob. I grew up eating and liking most cakes. Then, my grandmother gave me a 1950’s Betty Crocker cookbook, and I started making cakes from it. I’d made a few from-scratch cakes before, but Betty Crocker, ironically, was the final nail in the casket of cake mix for me.
I started baking cake from scratch. Often. The immediate difference I noticed was that real cake holds up to frosting; cake mix makers try so hard to have tender cake that they overdo it. The texture of real cake was cake-like (imagine!) and not gluey. I didn’t realize, though, that I was getting slowly accustomed to subtle, fresh, well-balanced flavors of real cake.
After a few years of from-scratch cakes, I took a bite of a cake mix cake at a birthday party and almost gagged. It tasted strong, chemical, cloying. It was gummy. Was this the stuff I used to like? Repeated eatings of boxed cakes have confirmed that I’m spoiled forever. And no amount of gussying-up a cake mix will mask the off-flavors and funky texture.
But here’s the good news- baking real cake is easy. Plus, most cakes take no special ingredients; if you have the stuff for chocolate chip cookies, you can bake a cake tonight. Truly! We tend to think that because an “easy” food product exists, its authentic self must be time-consuming and skill-testing to make. (For puff pastry, this is 100% true- buy it frozen and be grateful for prepared foods.) But when the time comes to bake a cake, it’s easy to make the real deal. It has a few more steps than a cake mix, but the results are well worth it.
The basic process is nearly always the same; it’s called (unimaginatively)The Cake Method. Once you know this, you can look at almost any cake recipe and not even have to read past the ingredient list:
1) Cream fat (usually butter- and you should use real butter if you’re making real cake) and sugar. (The fluffier you get it, the lighter the final product.)
2) Add eggs and vanilla (add vanilla, even if your recipe doesn’t call for it).
3) Add 1/3 of the (already whisked together) dry ingredients. Mix.
4) Add 1/2 the liquid. Mix.
5) Add 1/3 of the dry ingredients. Mix.
6) Add the rest of the liquid. Mix.
7) Add the rest of the dry ingredients. Mix until incorporated.
8 ) Pour into greased and floured pans (trust me on this; spray isn’t gonna cut it).
9) Bake (almost always 350 for 25-30 minutes).
10) Cool for 10 minutes in the pan.
11) Cut around the edge. Flip it out onto a cooling rack and cool completely.
Then you can frost it. (And yes, I’m afraid I’m a frosting snob too, but that’s another story for another time.)