Easy Cakes from Scratch

by Elizabeth Skipper | February 20th, 2013 | Ask the Chef

choc rasp cakeI have been making homemade frosting for years, after reading the label and seeing all of the oils. However, I’ve stuck with boxed cake mixes because I figured the main ingredient in box and homemade is flour. I would like to be able to say the whole cake is homemade. So, how hard is it to make a cake from scratch?

Sometimes I think I could answer almost any question I get here with, “It depends”! It certainly applies to this question. It’s not hard to make a cake from scratch, let me assure you. And while the main ingredient in a cake mix may be flour, there are a lot of other ingredients in there that I’d sure rather not consume, so I highly recommend making your own. But there are all kinds of cakes, and some are much more difficult than others. Baking is in a different category than cooking, and requires a different skill set.

Do you like to be precise, to follow a recipe exactly? Will you be sure your oven’s temperature is accurate, place the racks where specified, prepare the pans as directed, and use good ingredients at the correct temperature? And lastly, are your kitchen skills up to it – can you recognize when butter and sugar are creamed together properly or if egg whites are beaten to a certain stage; do you know how to fold properly? If you can say yes to all that, baking a cake will appeal to you. Do start with an easy cake, though.

There are two basic kinds of cakes, those made with the creaming method, and those based on egg foams. Ordinary white, gold, chocolate, spice, and pound cakes are based on the creaming method. Those begin with, “Cream the butter, add the sugar…” and usually rely on baking powder or baking soda for leavening. In these kinds of cakes, eggs may be added whole, or the eggs may be separated and the whites beaten and folded in. The latter are lighter than those made with whole eggs.

The other kind of cakes use egg foams to provide the leavening. It’s a test of the baker’s skill to produce a beautifully risen cake without using chemical leaveners, so I wouldn’t begin with one of these. Some names to recognize would be genoise, angel food and chiffon cakes, or tortes.

In addition to the two very broad categories of cakes, there’s a hybrid cake that uses a one-bowl method. It begins with creaming the butter and sugar together, beating in the whole eggs, adding all the dry ingredients (flour, salt, baking powder) together with milk and flavorings like vanilla (the liquid ingredients), and then beating everything together for several minutes. It can be done with a hand mixer or even easier, in a stand mixer. I’d call this the “bridge” method, one which is easy enough and gives consistently good results so that even cooks accustomed to using mixes can make the leap to homemade. Almost any general cookbook like Betty Crocker, Fanny Farmer, The Joy of Cooking, etc., will have a recipe for cakes of that type.

Lastly, there’s a chocolate cake that goes by various names – wacky cake, war cake (so-called because it can be made during times of rationing when eggs, butter, and milk are difficult to obtain), or Depression cake (for the same reason). It uses none of these ingredients, and that also makes it great for vegans. My daughter even came home from day camp with the recipe for Wacky Cake written down in her notebook because it’s easy enough for seven- or eight-year-olds to make. Her version called for the ingredients to be mixed right in the pan, but I draw the line there. Use a bowl to mix the cake, and grease the pan somehow (if you’re making it for vegans, you can’t use butter); otherwise, it will stick and you’ll need a chisel to remove it. Just for fun, here’s the recipe:

Wacky Cake

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
3 TB cocoa powder
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
6 TB vegetable oil
1 TB white or apple cider vinegar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup cold water or cold, strong coffee

Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease a 9″ x 9″ baking pan.

In a large bowl, mix together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt. Make three holes in the ingredients.

Into one, pour the vegetable oil and one, the vinegar; pour the vanilla extract into the third. Then pour the water or coffee over everything. Mix together with a whisk or fork until evenly blended.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until a cake tester, toothpick, or skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a rack.

This is the easiest cake you’ll ever make; it rises because of the chemical interaction between the baking soda and the vinegar – no creaming of butter, no whipping of eggs. This recipe is proof positive that you don’t need a mix to make a tasty cake. Frost with the frosting of your choice, or top with whipped cream or ice cream. Enjoy!

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