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1-2-3-4 Cake with 4,624 Variations

Updated: Jan 18

Simple and basic can hardly claim to have stellar reputations as words, especially when used as modifiers of peoples. BUT, today we are going to change all of those peskily negative connotations .. with what else, but CAKE ? Last week, I teamed up with Leslie from my100yearoldhome.com to develop a baking recipe that would fit under her January blogging theme: "Back to Basics." We filmed the entire process for IGTV; please check it out on her Instagram page @my100yearoldhome, if you haven't already !



Now, I'm happy to say that this recipe is so easy, you can not only memorize it, but also create completely different cakes with just a few tweaks. Not to mention how easily you can dress it up to be a fancy showpiece for entertaining, if desired. No one would ever be able to guess what a snap it is to make -- and that's what I call high efficiency party planning ! Of course, you can totally keep it at home and just eat it off the cake platter with a fork too. Not that I personally know anyone who would do that .... .......... ...


Here is the final result of our cake collaboration. The decor was inspired by some of my favorite oil paintings which come from the Little Dutch Masters. As a former art historian, I love to inject art wherever I can. As a result, this cake may look all fancy schmancy, but I promise it's deceptively simple to make !



Let's start with the recipe. Its catchy name comes from the basic ratio of its main ingredients: 1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour, and 4 eggs. Add some milk, flavorings, leavening agents, and you're done !


1-2-3-4 C A K E


1 cup (226 g) butter

2 cups (400 g) sugar ** I prefer less sweet cakes, so I’ll measure scant cups, about 380 g **

3 cups (360 g) all purpose flour

4 eggs

1 cup (270 g) milk

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt


Preheat oven to 325°F. This temperature is intentionally lower than normal, to create a flatter cake top. Grease two, round, 6 inch x 3 inch cake pans.


Paddle butter and sugar together on medium speed until the mix is pale in color and fluffy in texture ~ 10 minutes. At the end, it should look something like this:



Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside. In another vessel, combine the vanilla extract and milk.


Once the butter is pale and fluffy, add eggs one at a time, and continue to mix on low speed until you have a homogenous mixture. Scrape down the bowl as necessary. Then, alternate adding the dry ingredients with the wet, starting and ending with the dry.


Once your last addition of dry ingredients is in, take care to not over mix the batter ! See those bits of flour in there, and on the sides of the bowl ? It's totally fine -- and actually preferable -- to stop mixing in the machine at this point. We don't want too much gluten to form, which would produce a tough and dry cake. Finish mixing by hand if necessary.



Divide batter evenly into the greased cake pans. I find this easiest to do by weight, but otherwise, just do your best to eyeball it. Use an offset spatula to smooth the batter to the edges of the pan. Tap the pans against the table to finish leveling off the batter, and to release any trapped pockets of air. Place a folded kitchen towel on top of the table before doing this step, to cut down on noise and prevent countertop damage.



Bake for approximately 45 minutes, until the internal temperature reaches 200 F. At this temp, an inserted knife should come out clean. Do keep an eye on the cakes near the end of their baking time though, as they can easily overbake, resulting in a dry crumb (which no one wants) ! Allow to cool for 10 minutes on a wire rack, before removing from the pans and allowing to cool completely.


TIPS AND TRICKS


** A small trick that is especially handy when you’re in a rush: After the initial 10 minute cooling period, do not remove cakes from the pans. Instead, stick the pans in the freezer to expedite the cooling process, and keep the cakes moist.


** If you end up with an overbaked or dry cake despite your best efforts, fret not -- there is a very quick fix ! Just make a flavored simple syrup, and brush the cake layers with said syrup before assembling. Flavor suggestions: mint, vanilla (use vanilla beans for best results).


** If you desire a lighter crumb and have the time/ ingredients to spare, you can:


1. Substitute 3 cups (345 g) cake flour for the all purpose flour.

2. Separate the eggs. Add the yolks where you would normally add the whole eggs. Whip the whites, and fold them into the batter as the last step.


Almond cake made with this method produces a more delicate crumb, as shown here.

Now, for just a small sampling of the seemingly endless ways you can take this cake recipe up a notch .. I've separated them into two categories: variations that change the actual flavor of the cake, and "mix-ins" that you can simply swirl, dollop, or sprinkle, on top of an already-made batter. Feel free to mix options between these categories to achieve your desired result; think of this as the Coldstone's of cake !


{cake} V A R I A T I O N S


Almond: Add 2 teaspoons almond extract (in addition to the vanilla extract). Optional step: add 1/2 cup marzipan to the butter and sugar when creaming for even more almond flavor.

Banana: Add 1.5 cup mashed banana with the eggs.

Brown Sugar: Substitute brown sugar for white.

Caramel: Reduce milk to 1/2 cup, and add 1 cup caramel sauce (use salted caramel, if desired).

Caramel Apple: Same steps as above, then fold 2 diced green apples, into the batter. Increase bake time as necessary, to compensate for the extra moisture from the apples.

Chocolate: Sift 1/2 cup cocoa powder and 2 teaspoons instant espresso powder into the flour before adding to mix. Optional step to amp up the chocolate flavor: fold in 1 cup chocolate chips. Dust the chips in flour first to prevent them from sinking to the bottom of the pan.

Citrus: Add the zest of 2 lemons, 2 limes, and 2 oranges to the dry ingredients.

Coconut: Reduce vanilla extract to 1/2 teaspoon, and add 1 tsp coconut extract to the milk. Add 1 cup desiccated coconut to the dry ingredients.

Coffee: Substitute coffee for the milk, and add 2 teaspoons instant espresso powder to the dry ingredients.

Dulce de Leche: Reduce milk to 1/2 cup, and add 1 cup dulce de leche.

Lemon Poppyseed: Substitute sour cream for milk, add 1/2 cup lemon juice, zest of 2 lemons, and 1/2 cup poppy seeds.

Mocha: Same steps as for chocolate, and add 1/4 cup cocoa powder to the dry ingredients.

Nutella: Reduce milk to 1/2 cup, and add 1 cup Nutella, or similar chocolate hazelnut spread.

Peanut: Reduce milk to 1/2 cup, and add 1 cup peanut butter. Optional: Fold in 1 cup toasted and chopped peanuts as the last step.

Spice: Add 2 teaspoons cinnamon, 2 teaspoons ginger, 1 teaspoon nutmeg, 1/2 teaspoon allspice, and a few grinds of black pepper to the dry ingredients.


M I X - I N S


1. Sautée fruit (bananas or apples would do particularly well in this application) in butter and sugar before swirling them into the smoothed batter.


2. Swirl a confectionary spread into the batter before baking. Try this with nut butters, nutella, jams, marmalades, tahini, dulce de leche, salted caramel, lemon curd -- the list goes on !


3. Sprinkle batter with chopped nuts, sesame seeds, sprinkles, chocolate chips, quick streusel topping** etc. before baking.


** Quick streusel topping recipe: 1/2 cup flour, 1/4 cup brown sugar, 3 tablespoons butter, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/8 teaspoon salt. Whisk together all ingredients except butter. Cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. For an oat streusel, add 1/4 cup rolled oats, and increase butter to 4 tablespoons.


Chocolate version of this cake recipe

For the frosting, I used the same buttercream base that I wrote about in my last post, because Swiss Meringue Buttercream (hereafter referred to as SMB) is simply my favorite. Why ? It's fluffy, silky, and not too sweet. For some reason, I've always had a hard time with American buttercream because of how sweet and heavy it tends to be. Italian Meringue Buttercream is also awesome, but SMB eliminates the step most daunting to new bakers: making a separate sugar syrup that is brought to 249 F, and poured onto whipping whites.


Let's just call SMB the perfect compromise. And can't we all use a little more compromise in our lives ? Okay, I'll stop waxing poetic about buttercream, and just get on with the recipe.


For this style of naked cake frosting, you will need ~ 4 cups. For a more "clothed" cake, I would recommend 5 cups.


SWISS MERINGUE BUTTERCREAM

yields 4 cups, enough for a 4 layer, 6" round cake, frosted in the "naked cake" style


4 large egg whites

1 1/3 cup (266 g) granulated sugar

1 1/3 cup (302 g) unsalted butter, softened

scant teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt


Put a pot of water on the stove to heat, while you whisk together the egg whites and sugar in a glass or metal bowl. Over the simmering water, heat the egg and sugar mixture to 150 F, whisking constantly. (Eggs pasteurize at 140 F, making them safe to eat.) At this point, the sugar granules should have dissolved, and the mix will no longer feel grainy to the touch.


Use an electric mixer to whip for ~ 15 minutes, until the meringue is cooled and has formed stiff peaks. Alternatively, if you are using a stand mixer, do the initial steps in the bowl of the mixer, and whip for ~ 10 minutes.


Slowly incorporate the softened butter, and continue to whip. Add vanilla extract and salt.


And wouldn't you guess it ... you can adjust the flavor of SMB as well !



{buttercream} V A R I A T I O N S


Adult fun: Add 1/2 cup Kahlua or Baileys along with the butter.

Caramel: Fold in 1 cup caramel as the last step. Use salted caramel, if desired.

Chocolate: Fold in 5 ounces (142 g) of cooled, melted dark chocolate as the last step. For a "milk chocolate" flavor, simply use less chocolate ~ 2.5 ounces. For a "white chocolate" flavor, substitute white chocolate for the dark.

Citrus: Add the zests of 3 limes, 2 lemons, and 2 oranges along with the butter.

Coconut: Reduce vanilla extract to 1/2 teaspoon, and add 1 teaspoon (or more, according to taste) of coconut extract. Optional: add 1/4 cup coconut milk powder along with the butter.

Coffee: Add 2 tablespoons instant coffee, dissolved in 4 tablespoons water, along with the butter.

Dulce de leche: Fold in 1 cup dulce de leche as the last step.

Fruit: Fold in 1 cup fruit puree as the last step. Supplement with 1 teaspoon extract in chosen flavor, if desired. A must try with berries !

Mocha: Same step as for chocolate, and add 2 tablespoons instant coffee, dissolved in 4 tablespoons water.

Nutella: Fold in 1 cup Nutella, or similar chocolate hazelnut spread, as the last step.

Peanut butter: Fold in 1 cup peanut butter as the last step.

Spice: Add 2 teaspoons cinnamon, 1 teaspoon ginger, 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, 1/4 teaspoon allspice along with the butter.


Chocolate SMB, yum !
Kid tested and approved.

ASSEMBLY


The assembly process for this cake is identical to that of our beloved Cranberry Cake (last post). The only differences here are that we used more frosting, and that I cut each cake round into only two layers, creating a four layer (rather than a six layer) cake. For complete and illustrated instructions on how to produce this style, please visit my100yearoldhome.com. She has such a beautiful and neatly organized website, I'll probably lose you for a few hours over there. And you can thank me later for all the entertaining and DIY inspiration you're sure to gather during your visit :)


As if you needed another reason to go check it out, I'll just let you know that there may or may not be alcohol involved in the decorating process ...






So that's it for this recipe friends ! There are literally thousands (4,624 to be exact) of combinations possible from the lists of cake variations, mix ins, and buttercream variations provided. Armed with this entire arsenal, go forth and bake -- and impress all those around you !

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