I love an everyday cake. Not necessarily a cake that you eat every single day—just one that you could, and one that doesn’t require much fanfare or intense grocery shopping. One that you can whip up with ease, any time; one that you’d be proud to take to a dinner party; one that is low-key enough to eat for breakfast (yes, I said breakfast), yet special enough to present as a housewarming gift. A multi-purpose, crowd-pleasing cake that never fails.
I have a favorite recipe for one such cake. It’s my go-to: moist, just sweet enough, and with a great crumb, plus it comes together, quickly. Most importantly, though, it’s the ultimate base for any flavor combination or general dessert experimentation—the perfect foundation for all of your topping, swirl, and add-in aspirations. We’ll show you the basics (and then let you free!)
I’d think of the original cake recipe as a template, one that you can play around with to make it your own. I discovered this rift from the wonderful website Food 52, Genius Recipes. The credit goes to Catherine Lamb. At home this winter, I baked up the basic cake first, then replaced 1/2 cup of the flour with cocoa powder and folded in 1 cup of chopped bittersweet chocolate to make a chocolate version. I have been making this cake all winter long, in loaf pans, mini ones and 9x 5 ones. My fav has been the roasted white chocolate version, and as you will see by the myriad of suggestions, the sky is the limit! This is truly a fast and yummy cake! The cake freezes well, so you can bake as the mood strikes and tuck away for busy summer potlucks and your work is done!
- 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 3/4 cup buttermilk
TIP: If you have no buttermilk on hand, feel free to substitute 2 Teaspoons lemon juice into ¾ cup milk, 2% or whole. Let sit a bit, and you will have nice thick buttermilk.
- Preheat the oven to 350° F. Line a 9 x 9-inch square pan (or a loaf pan, or a 9-inch circular pan) with parchment paper, then butter or spray the paper.
- In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, or in a stand mixer, beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, 4 to 5 minutes. Do not skimp on this step! It helps to aerate all the ingredients and establish a nice crumb. You want the mixture to be pale and light.
- Beat in the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the sides and making sure batter is fully combined after each addition. Add the vanilla and beat to combine.
- Add one-third of the dry ingredients, beat to combine, then add half of the buttermilk and mix again. Alternate between dry and wet ingredients, starting and ending with the dry, until everything is just combined.
- If you haven’t yet started to feel like a mad kitchen geek, just wait—the experimentation is coming! We recommend first following the recipe as is, because the cake is just that delicious. But if you want to play around with it—by tweaking its flavor, its add-ins, or its toppings – see some inspiration below!
- Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth it out with a spatula. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Now let’s Play!
Some more flavor and add-in ideas:
- Substitute 1/3 cup of the flour with well-sifted matcha powder.
- Substitute almond, coconut, or orange blossom extract for the vanilla. Or swap the extract for vanilla beans; just scrape out the seeds and add them to the butter and sugar mixture.
- Rub the zest of a lemon, orange, or half of a grapefruit into the sugar before mixing. Feel free to up the flavor even more by replacing some of the buttermilk with juice from your chosen citrus. ( this is super yummy)
Scented and Spicy sugars
- Spice it up by adding 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon of cardamom or allspice, or even a few cracks of black pepper into the dry mixture. You could also grate a tablespoon of fresh ginger and add it to the butter and sugar mixture.
- Add fruit (even frozen!), chocolate chips (or toffee chips, or white chocolate chips), or chopped toasted nuts to the batter. Try raisins plumped overnight in rum! Add in a handful of cocoa nibs! Mix and match! Just remember: If you’re using fruit or nuts, make sure to toss them in a tablespoon or so of flour before incorporating, so that they don’t sink to the bottom of the batter.
Add a swirl (or two)
- A simple way to jazz up your cake with very fancy results is with a swirl (or two). Simply make your cake base (basic, chocolate, or otherwise), dollop your topping(s) of choice evenly on the top of the smoothed, unbaked batter, then swirl into the cake using the sharp tip of a knife. The finished effect looks (and tastes) amazing, yet is incredibly easy.
- Sauté bananas, apples, or pears with sugar (and maybe a splash of bourbon?) in a saucepan until soft, then dollop them over the smoothed batter and swirl.
- Mix together equal parts brown sugar and melted butter with a generous shake of cinnamon, then swirl it on top. It tastes like a cinnamon roll.
- Drop spoonfuls of stirred tahini, peanut butter, or almond butter over the top of the cake and swirl, topping with sesame seeds (a mixture of white and black is pretty), chopped toasted peanuts, or almonds.
- Spoon generous amounts of jam (or even multiple jams!) over the cake and swirl into a hypnotizing pattern.
- Anything else viscous and delicious is fair game: lemon curd, dulce de leche, pomegranate molasses, compote, marmalade…the sky is the limit!
- If you’re going for a confetti-like vibe, add on rainbow sprinkles before baking. Chocolate ones are good, too—you can even incorporate them into the batter, if you want to be extra over-the-top. Whip up a quick streusel topping, then use it to (generously) top the unbaked cake. Now you’ve got cinnamon-spiced coffee cake!
- For added crunch, top the cake batter with chopped toasted nuts!
- To add a little bit of savoriness to the mix, sprinkle flaked sea salt on top of the unbaked cake (use gray or pink sea salt for extra color). Just don’t go too overboard on this one, or your cake will be the wrong side of savory.
- If you want to add some serious flavor to your cake, glaze is the way to go. We topped the chocolate cake with a salted caramel glaze and the basic cake with a crunchy grapefruit one (a riff on this lemon version), but that’s just the tip of the glazing iceberg. Remember: It’s best to glaze the cake when it’s still warm. Before you bathe your cake, poke it all over with a toothpick or wooden skewer. This will help the glaze absorb deep into the cake, making it even more moist and delicious.
Some more glazing ideas:
- Top a chocolate cake with a deep chocolate ganache for double the intensity.
- Melt down peanut butter or Nutella, or thin out tahini with lemon juice and warm water, then pour all over your cake.
- If you want chocolate and caramel, try this genius caramelized white chocolate. If you don’t eat it all straight off the spoon, spread it on your cake.
- For a fresh twist on the beloved classic salted caramel sauce, make fruit caramel.
- Smooth on a thick layer of two-ingredient sweet potato frosting.
- Top with whipped cream or buttercream, then layer on fresh fruit.
Rebeka and The Hollyhock Kitchen Team