Easy Cake Recipes
A cake makes any celebration better—but there’s also absolutely nothing wrong with having cake on a regular Tuesday night. But before you reach for that box of cake mix, consider this: making a cake from scratch is easy, and you’ll avoid the additives and preservatives that are present in boxed mixes. And finally, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you turned out a truly homemade cake…
A basic cake only has a few ingredients: fat (for example, butter, shortening, or oil), sugar, eggs, liquid (for example, milk, water, or cream), all-purpose flour (or cake flour), a leavener like baking powder or baking soda, and salt. Cake is also a great palette for flavorings—add vanilla extract for a vanilla cake, chocolate or cocoa powder for a chocolate cake, or pureed strawberries for a strawberry cake.
The Perfect Cake Pan
While some cakes require specialized pans (angel food cakes and Bundt cakes are two examples), for most cake-baking there’s only one pan you will need: an 8-inch or 9-inch round cake pan. To make layer cakes, you’ll need to have 2 or 3 of these. The 8-inch pan will make a slightly thicker cake layer, and the 9-inch pan a thinner layer.
If you don’t have a cake pan, you can also make a sheet cake (so called because it is baked on a sheet pan, which you probably already have in your kitchen for making cookies or roasting vegetables). Just be sure your baking sheet or sheet pan has a rim around the edge, so your cake batter doesn’t run off in the oven!
What Fat to Use?
Some form of fat is essential in most cakes, to make them moist and tender. Butter is a staple in many cake recipes; it lends a rich taste to the finished product. Most of the time, recipes will call for you to cream the butter with sugar (essentially, beating the two together to introduce air into the mixture, which will result in a light, airy cake). However, some cake recipes use melted butter instead. Fats like shortening or vegetable oil, which have a more neutral flavor, have less impact on the taste of the baked cake—these work well when the cake has other strongly-flavored ingredients that might compete with the taste of butter. Finally, other cake recipes eschew butter or oil in favor of ingredients that may surprise you, like sour cream or Greek yogurt. Though all these fats have a place in cake-baking, if you’re on a low-fat diet, all is not lost! Try angel food cake, which is practically fat-free. It uses whipped egg whites to add stability and has no added fats.
A note on butter: unless the recipe explicitly states otherwise, always use unsalted butter for cake-baking. Using salted butter means you’re adding extra salt to the recipe, and it will affect the taste of the finished cake.
How Do I Know When My Cake is Ready?
Use the cooking time listed in the recipe as a guide only; ovens can vary in temperature. An excellent way to test for doneness is to insert a toothpick into the center of the cake a few minutes before the stated baking time is up. If the toothpick comes out clean, the cake is ready to pull out of the oven! If the toothpick comes out with wet crumbs still attached, return it to the oven for a few more minutes. You can also use an instant-read thermometer; a fully-baked cake should register at 200 to 205 degrees Fahrenheit. If the cake took less or more time to bake than the instructions stated, be sure to make a note of the correct baking time for the next time you make the recipe.
Remove the baked cake from the oven and set on a cooling rack. Cool in the pan for 10 to 15 minutes, then run a butter knife between the cake and the pan to loosen the edges. Invert the cooling rack onto the top of the cake pan, and flip the cooling rack and the cake pan together onto your work surface. Gently lift the cake pan; the cake should slip right out.
Frosting a Cake
Frosting is the finishing touch on a cake. Making your own couldn’t be easier: a basic buttercream uses just three ingredients (butter, powdered sugar, and milk) and comes together in minutes in a stand mixer. (You can also make it by hand in a large bowl.)
Stir in any flavorings of your choosing—vanilla or maple extract, raspberry jam, fruit juice, melted chocolate—and you’re ready to frost your cake. Bonus: any leftover buttercream makes a delicious topping for sugar cookies or graham crackers.
The first rule of thumb when frosting a cake: Make sure your cake has cooled. Otherwise, the frosting will melt and won’t stick to the cake. Next, place your cake on the plate or platter you’ll be serving it from (putting a small dab of frosting in the center of the plate before you put the cake down will help the cake stick to the plate while you’re frosting it).
The best tool for frosting a cake is an offset spatula, which has a flat, rounded blade that is set at an angle from its handle. The offset spatula allows you to spread frosting without getting it on your hands. But in a pinch, a regular butter knife or small spatula will do. Put a healthy dollop of frosting (at least 1 cup) on the top center of the cake, and use your spatula to smooth it toward the cake’s outer edges. Try not to lift your spatula until you reach the edge of the cake; this will keep crumbs from mixing with the frosting. Repeat, adding more frosting if necessary, until the entire cake is covered.
If you’re making a layer cake, frost one layer before adding the next layer. Pro tip: as you are assembling the cake, place each cake layer down, so its bottom (the part that contacted the cake pan) faces up. This will ensure your finished cake has a flat, professional-looking surface. And save your best-looking cake layer for the top of the cake. If there are any broken or misshapen layers underneath, the frosting will cover them, and no one will ever be the wiser! Add colorful sprinkles for a fun birthday cake, or top with sliced fresh fruit for an elegant presentation.
Cakes like pound cakes or Bundt cakes lend themselves nicely to a glaze, rather than a thicker frosting. To make a simple lemon glaze (delicious on a lemon or vanilla cake), place 2 cups of powdered sugar in a medium bowl and add ¼ cup lemon juice. Stir together until the glaze is thick yet pourable (you can add more lemon juice or sugar to reach the right consistency), then drizzle over your finished cake. Or skip the frosting altogether and serve your cake warm with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream or a dollop of whipped cream.