Saturday, May 3, 2014

Something else fabulous: 1-2-3-4 Cake!

There are many reasons to make cake, and there are even more reasons to eat it. I had been hankering for one of those low-key American numbers, the kind with a simple American-style frosting (which I never make), served with a metal spatula straight from the pan and eaten out of hand. We had planned our first picnic of the season, and it was the perfect excuse. So I gave in. Whipped the cake up the morning of. Without a hitch. Without so much as a sigh in the wrong direction. And at the park, while Eden and her little cousin ate grass and leaves, we incredibly attentive adults played Frisbee with Cedar and ate a few squares of said yellow cake with sweet chocolate frosting. It was beautiful.

Since then we had that same cake at another picnic (two picnics! already!) and I've planned a lemony version around it for a fancy shindig I'm helping with (stay tuned). When our April birthdays came around to celebrate and I had already made last year's spring success for Easter, I needed something else. Something else fabulous.

Don't disown me, but that something else turned out to be this beautiful yellow cake again. And it was made with the 1-2-3-4 cake recipe.

How did I get here? Yellow cake. 1-2-3-4 cake! Chocolate American frosting. Frosting! Well, the frosting is yet unaccounted for, but the cake? I blame Alice Waters.

Yup. A few weeks back I was brushing up on my Alice Waters cooking tips and I came across that boring of boring recipes: the 1-2-3-4 cake. And I thought, golly-gee, if Alice Waters can keep her integrity and bake this cake, then surely I can.

After all, it is a reliable classic. A birthday cake. A picnic cake. A no-brainer. A go-to. A recipe to be memorized for emergencies. No one actually owns the recipe. And it is everywhere. A lot of the 1-2-3-4 cake recipes call for self-raising flour, which I never have and don't care to make. But others are like this one here. The variables? Salt and baking powder. And vanilla. And pan size.

But the method is the same: use the ratio formula, stir together the dry stuff sans the sugar, separate the eggs, have it all at room temperature, cream the butter and sugar until light as high heaven, add eggs slowly, add essence and flavor, add flour mixture and liquid alternately, fold in whipped egg whites. Bake. And voila! 

But the point of all of them? This cake works. It is moist and soft but has a stable crumb. And this is boring, but I also liked that it works with a variety of milks. We have a lot of dairy issues in the family. and I've found it a little stressful tinkering with cake recipes to fit our needs. I have made this with milk, soy milk, and coconut milk. And they have all turned out swimmingly. I assume almond milk will do much the same. The flavor is in the butter, which, for some reason, we allow. Buttermilk and some baking soda might do well. Just guessing.

I have known about this recipe for a long time, but I have avoided it for the better part of a decade because I thought it was boring. Don't make my mistake. Besides, I find that tweaking anything--recipes, relationships, furniture, religion--it works best when you tweak from the inside. Take a recipe you know, then go at it. Flours, additions, subtractions. But it helps to get to know the original first. So here it is. The perfect boring recipe, with a delightful, classic cake. A cake you can count on, literally.

1-2-3-4 Cake

I have put the ingredients in a logical order, to help with the making. But in case you are not familiar with this ratio, the idea is: 1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour, and 4 eggs. You have to remember that there is also some baking powder and salt in there, and 1 cup of milk. But after making it a few times, even I have  remembered. I am sure you can, too. 

This makes one quarter sheet cake. Alice Waters says it could make a half sheet - but I am almost positive this is a typo. I believe her that it could most definitely make two 9-inch rounds. Or three rounds. Or 24 cupcakes (without paper). Or more with the liners. You get the idea. Adjust times accordingly. The smaller and more spread out, the less time it takes to bake. This recipe assumes two rounds, just to give you a ballpark for time.

For the 1-2-3-4 Cake
(adapted from numerous sources, including Alice Water's The Art of Simple Food)

1 cup coconut milk (or cow, or soy)
4 eggs, room temperature
3 cups pastry flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

1cup unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Have all your ingredients at room temperature, even the milk. Especially the milk. I measure out the milk and put the eggs in a bowl on the counter an hour or so before I'm going to make the cake. If I haven't done this, I take that chill off the eggs by letting them sit in warm tap water for a few minutes. And I set the glass measure of milk in a bowl of the same.

Butter the cake pan(s), line the bottom(s) with parchment, then dust the whole shebang with flour, tapping out any excess. This is not a time for quiet, people. Set them in a stable, out-of-the-way place.

Crack and separate the eggs. Put the yolks in a small bowl and the whites in a clean, large bowl (I like a light stainless steel one I can tote around the house while I try to forget how wimpy I am, already achy from beating a few egg whites). And set both aside.

Sift the flour, then measure it into a medium-sized bowl. I spoon it lightly into the measuring cup and then level it with a knife. Whisk in the baking powder and the salt.

In another large bowl (stand mixer is great), beat the butter until very light. Add the sugar, and then cream until it is fluffy and light in color. (You are creating air pockets, essential for a light cake. If your butter is too cool, this may take up to ten minutes.) I stand there watching it. You could multitask, but I think my cakes turns out better when I am a witness to its transformations.

Beat in the 4 egg yolks, one at a time, and the vanilla. When all is well, stir in the flour mixture in thee parts, alternating with the milk. Mix until just combined, beginning and ending with the flour. Set aside.

Whip the egg whites until soft peaks form. Stir one third of them into the batter to lighten it, then fold in the remaining whites.

Pour and scrape the batter into the prepared pan(s), smooth the top(s) and bake for 30-40 minutes.

The cake is ready when a skewer poked into the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool the cake in its pan(s) for ten minutes, loosen the sides by running a knife around the edges, and cool the cake the rest of the way in the pan(s). Spread a layer of American-style chocolate frosting over the top like the recipe below, or something else light and sophisticated, like a version this. If using those rounds, sandwiched frosting in between. I don't recommend slicing this cake in half for the American buttercream. Use some restraint. Enjoy!

Update and a note on flavor options: For a lemonesque cake to go with lemon curd cream, add 1 tablespoon finely-zested lemon rind and 2 tablespoons lemon juice with the vanilla. You can do likewise with any other citrus fruit. 

For the American-style Chocolate Buttercream
(adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

This is a chocolatey, sweet frosting--but not as sweet as some American style frosting, and not as chocolatey as Deb's. This makes enough for a three-layer cake. Freeze the leftovers and you are that much closer to your next picnic.

5 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
4 cups confectioners sugar
3 sticks unsalted butter, softened
4 tablespoons coconut milk (or cow milk, light cream, or other milky substance)
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 large two-finger pinch of salt

Melt the chocolate in the top pot of a double boiler (or a bowl atop a pot, like me) over simmering water. Stir constantly and don't let it get too hot. Take the chocolate away from the heat when it is almost all the way smooth and let it sit. Stir again after a few minutes to smooth out any lumps, and let it cool.

Whiz all the ingredients together in a food processor until homogenous and smooth. If you need to pipe on your cake (I did) whiz together only the confectioners sugar, butter, milk, vanilla, and salt. When smooth, take out 1/2 cup frosting and set aside. Scrape in the cooled, melted chocolate and whiz again until completely incorporated.

Spread over the cake (or lick off of fingers, dip bananas into it, et cetera) and serve at room temperature. Enjoy!


  1. I made this cake for our Mother's Day celebration and it was a great hit. I used cake flour, which I don't normally use and baked it about 3 minutes too long but it was wonderfully light and delicious. However, I read the frosting recipe and thought it would probably make enough to frost the Enterprise. So I substituted my favorite chocolate frosting recipe. It was exactly the right amount for a 9X13 sheet cake. Here 'tis:
    1/2 C unsalted butter, room temp
    2 TBS milk (I used whole cow)
    1 1/3 C powdered sugar
    2 Oz unsweetened chocolate, melted
    1 tsp vanilla

    Melt the chocolate over simmering water in a double boiler, stirring until smooth. Transfer to small bowl (I use the red glass one that comes inside the green glass bowl that comes inside the big yellow bowl that I use for potato salad - but I digress) with the butter. Stir the butter and the warm chocolate until smooth. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir until frosting is frosting-like. Resist eating it all with a spoon and smear it on your cake.

    1. Thanks Debbie! The original frosting recipe does have a magnanimous yield. And yours looks like a great alternative - it looks very similar to Deb's ratios, only, in less epic proportions. :) I will be trying this very soon, and adjusting our recipe accordingly. Glad this worked so well!