Everyone Should Know How to Bake a Cake

A simple, plain cake dusted with powdered sugar
William Reavell / Getty Images

"Would you like to come in for coffee and cake?" It's just ten simple words, but, repeated often enough, they have the power to make the world a happier place.

That's why baking a cake is something everyone should know how to do.

If someone you care about ever has a birthday, that's reason enough right there. But also, have you ever been invited to someone's home for dinner? Show up with a cake you baked yourself and you're certain to be asked back.

Not that cake should be reserved for special occasions. Cake should be pedestrian. Run of the mill. Cake should be like pancakes. As a matter of fact, cake is easier than pancakes, and it lasts longer.

Note that I am not talking about decorating a cake. I'm not even talking about frosting a cake. This is about baking a plain, simple, elegant cake. Made by you, in your kitchen, at t least once a week, but preferably twice. "Never be without cake!" shall be your motto.

Boxed Cake Mix Is Not That Much Easier!

A lot of times, someone will get excited to bake a cake, and they'll immediately reach for the boxed cake mix at the store. And why not? It's convenient, it's easy, and honestly, it's foolproof — to the extent that if you follow the instructions, you'll bake a cake.

But wait a minute. The box is just a box of powder. You still have to supply eggs, and oil, and water. You still have to butter your pan, and do the mixing.

Is this really so much easier than making it from scratch? Fine, they measured the flour and sugar. And the salt and baking powder are already mixed in. So what? Those are the easiest parts anyway! Yes, measuring is important, but it's not that hard.

Not only that, but a box cake assumes you're making a double-layer cake, and you're not.

Twin layers mean you have to make frosting or come up with some other filling to go between the layers (whipped cream, maybe), and that's not what this is about.

You could bake both layers and freeze one for later, but that also is not what this is about. Nothing against cake from a box. It's fine, for what it is. It's just not particularly electrifying, and even less so if it's been previously frozen.

Finally, take a look at the ingredients on the box. Many of them are there solely to help the product stay fresh, or keep it from clumping, because it has to sit on the shelf for a long time; or to make the batter smoother, things like that.

I should say that by no means do I subscribe to the idea that "if you can't pronounce it, don't eat it." For one thing, the names of most of these ingredients are not that difficult to pronounce. Am-mo-ni-um hy-drox-ide. Just sound it out!

And anyway, does it even make sense to use pronounceability to determine whether to eat something or not? A lot of people have trouble pronouncing sherbet or ceviche. And you should hear the way they say the word fajitas in Australia. 

The point is, I'm not freaked out by long words, and neither should you be. Still, have you ever made a cake from a box?

In my experience, they can have a bit of a peculiar aroma. Not overpoweringly peculiar, just a faint hint of peculiar. I don't know if it's the artificial flavors or the emulsifiers or what.

It makes me think of a phenomenon known as the uncanny valley, where robots seem creepier the more they start to resemble actual humans. Maybe box cake mixes are a little bit like that.

In any case, I offer my personal guarantee that it is possible to make a cake using flour, sugar, salt, milk, eggs, oil, and baking powder. I also add a teaspoon of either vanilla extract or lemon extract, and guess what? My cakes are good — tasting and smelling.

Making Your First Cake

And now I'm going to tell you how to bake a terrifically easy cake. It's going to become your go-to cake, and you're going to make it at least once a week, all year long, even in the summer.

I know, I know, you hate using the oven in the summer. But you'll do it in the morning, and by noon you'll barely notice it. Until one day, in the very near future, you'll be trying to think of what snack to make for yourself, and you'll hear yourself say, "It's really just simpler to have cake." Like a much more practical, modern-day Marie Antoinette.

And now, to the cake. You'll need an 8-inch round cake pan. There's no creaming involved, so it's easier to make than cookies. You don't even need to use a mixer, you can mix it up by hand. If you have a mixer, they're great for whipping air into the batter, which makes an airier cake. A few minutes on the paddle attachment will do the trick. But if you don't have one, or simply don't care to set it up and do all that every time, you can confidently skip it. The point of this cake is that it should require about the same effort as making an omelet, or a nice grilled sandwich.

Ingredients:

  • 100 grams all-purpose flour
  • 110 grams granulated sugar
  • 2 eggs (for a yellower cake, use an additional egg yolk, or an extra egg)
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract OR lemon extract
  • butter for the pan

Procedure:

  1. Preheat your oven to 350.
  2. Let your eggs come to room temperature. If you're in a hurry, fill a bowl with warm water from the tap and submerge the eggs in it for a few minutes.
  3. Cut a round piece of parchment paper that will fit in the bottom of your 8-inch round cake pan. Rub the sides of the pan with butter, as well as the top of the sheet of parchment. Forget cooking spray. A little bit of butter around the edges will do wonders for your cake.
  4. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Sifting's important. It helps make a light cake. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs, then add the milk, oil and sugar and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Stir in the vanilla or lemon extract.
  5. Now add the liquid ingredients to the dry ones and stir with a fork until you have a smooth batter. You don't have to go crazy stirring, but do break up any big lumps. Since you're doing it by hand, you really don't have to worry about overmixing. If you're using a mixer, go ahead and give it a whir with the paddle for a couple of minutes.
  1. Pour the batter into your prepared pan, transfer to the oven and bake for about 30 minutes, until the top is golden brown, the edges pull away from the sides of the pan, and a toothpick inserted int the center comes out clean.
  2. Take it out, let it cool for 10 minutes, then turn the cake out onto a wire rack to cool the rest of the way. You might need to loosen the edges with a knife, but thanks to the parchment, it should drop right out.
  3. Smile! You just baked a cake.

You'll probably eat two pieces in quick succession, and after that it all depends. If you do decide to save some for tomorrow, wrap it in plastic, or just cover with a cloth, and keep it on the counter or kitchen table, not in the fridge.

If you want to frost the cake (let's say it's someone's birthday), under no circumstances should you use a tub of frosting from the store. Make real buttercream frosting. Otherwise, this cake is effortlessly perfect just the way it is. A dusting of powdered sugar is fine if you can't help adorning.

After that, all that's left is to practice saying "Would you like to come in for coffee and cake?"