Easy as...Cake!

Any cook can rise to the challenge of baking from scratch.

By Pat Dailey

Cakes are such grand and wonderful affairs, almost always the celebratory signal of a festive occasion or fanciful feast. Lush and indulgent, they proudly present themselves as something of an anachronism these days, flouting the modern-day naughtiness of cream, butter, sugar and eggs. Their forms are myriad: Tiered affairs stacked together with sweetened berries and pouffy clouds of whipped cream; sugar-spun layers bound for glory with puckery lemon filling and a shower of coconut; simple, homey loaves; unforgivably rich chocolate tortes; and, as Easter approaches, one of the sweetest of all; the endearingly old-fashioned bunny- and lamb-shaped cakes. Tradition doesn't always adapt to the modern-day tale, though. Baking takes time and a certain amount of skill that some cooks claim not to possess. These jarring realities make it hard to resist turning to a boxed mix or a bakery. Except, of course, it's just not the same.

For those who say it's too hard to bake a cake, or that it's a job best left of other, Flo Braker, Author of "The Simple Art of Perfect Baking" (Chapter Publishers, $19.95), begs to differ. Her book has been described by one reviewer as "the perfect book for imperfect bakers," so who better to sift through all the layers of intimidation and turn the science of baking into a piece of cake? A cake recipe, M. Braker said, is a simple formula that anyone can follow, and the results are worth the effort.” Even if you're busy, you'll find time if you're motivated," Ms Braker said from her home in California.” Baking is about creating memories. It says that someone cares enough to do it," she said, adding that the "not enough time" excuse is a lame one.

With Easter as a motivation, we asked Ms. Braker to demystify each step of a homemade cake and provide the perfect recipe, one that's open to variations in flavoring, shape and size. She proposed a never-fail, completely unfussy, lusciously textured yellow cake, and offered reassurance for those who doubt their baking skills.” Cooks don't have to know any of the science of baking," she said. "All they have to do is follow the recipe. It's not so much skill as it is concentration."Ms. Braker offered more comforting words for those who think they lack baking abilities:"Older recipes were a little less precisely written and assumed a certain amount of familiarity.” she said. "It's comforting to know that, today, they're written with a tremendous amount of accuracy, so they're easier to follow and there's no guessing."

Ms. Braker's offering is her own finely tuned rendition of a time-honored classic. Called 1-2-3-4 Cake, its name was once the same as its ingredient list; 1 cup of butter, 2 cups of sugar, 3 cups of flour and 4 eggs. Modern tastes prefer a lighter cake, so it has been amended by adding liquid and leavening. The results are sweetly satisfying.

Some cake-making tips from Ms. Braker:

1-2-3-4 Cake

Makes 16 Servings

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

2 cups sugar

4 large eggs

1 cup whole milk

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract


Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour three 9-inch round cake pans. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt; set aside.

Put the butter into a large mixing bowl. Beat with an electric mixer on high speed until the butter lightens in color, 2 minutes. Gradually add the sugar. Beat until the mixture is light and fluffy, 5 to 7 minutes, stopping several times to scrap down the side of the bowl with a spatula. With the mixer on low speed, add the eggs, one at a time, mixing just until the eggs disappear.Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture, alternating it with the milk and vanilla, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Mix lightly, only until each addition is incorporated.

Divide batter among prepared pans. Bake until the cake just begins to pull away from the sides of the pan, 28 to 32 minutes. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes then loosen from the sides with a small knife. Invert layers onto a wire rack and cool completely.



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