“Plain Cake” seems to be a very uninspired title for something as wonderful as this. But, a cake that you eat happily unadorned is rare. This cake, with perhaps the lightest sprinkling of confectioners’ sugar is a simple joy. I suppose this is technically a member of the pound cake family. The original recipe recommends a tube pan. But I have a habit of taking tall and regal cakes and throwing them into a sheet pan or a 9” x 13” pan to bring them back down to earth. A cake need not always be an “affair.” It need not always be a blue ribbon show pig. Sometimes you just want some cake.
This cake is easy. It uses simple ingredients. It is well behaved. The thing that I love most about it is that, when baked, it has a wonderful crisp but airy topping. I wouldn’t turn it out and mess with that for anything. This is a “serve from the pan” cake. Take it to work, take it to a pot-luck, or keep it for yourself and sneakily reduce it sliver by sliver over the course of the day.
I found this recipe in The Junior League of Abilene’s The Best Little Cookbook in Texas. I have come across it in several other Junior League cookbooks, but this is the version that I like most.
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened (1 stick)
3 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon lemon extract
3 cups sifted cake flour (sift first, then measure)
1 cup of heavy cream or “heavy whipping cream” (not whipped)
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and granulated sugar for approximately 3 minutes.
2. Crack the eggs into a container with a spout, such as a glass measuring cup. Gently whisk the eggs. Slowly, very slowly, in a tiny stream, begin to add the eggs. This method allows you to incorporate the eggs thoroughly as you go. If you add too much at one time, the batter can “break” and look a bit cottage-cheese-ish.
3. Once the eggs are incorporated, add the vanilla and lemon extracts. Slow the mixer and add the flour and whipping cream alternately, beginning and ending with the flour, until it is all incorporated and the batter is smooth.
4. Pour the batter into a well greased 9” x 13” baking pan and smooth the surface with a spatula. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes. Check the cake with a toothpick at this point. When the cake is done, a toothpick will come out clean or crumby, and the top of the cake will be golden and cracking. You will likely need to bake it 5 to 7 additional minutes. But, you do not want to over-bake this cake. Remove the cake from the oven and allow it to cool.
Note: If you choose to use a tube pan, make sure it is greased thoroughly and bake for approximately 1 hour.
If you are curious about the differences between types of heavy creams and whipping creams, Cooks Illustrated online has a good description of the merits and drawbacks of each. I don’t pay for a lot of online content, but the Cook’s Illustrated site is very useful. Suffice to say that they generally recommend purchasing “heavy cream” not “whipping cream.” And if given the option, choose “pasteurized” over “ultra-pasteurized.” Although, rest assured I’ve used all of the heavy types of cream for this cake and it has turned out fine every time. And, on my last trip to the grocery store, ultra-pasteurized was the only option. But, it is something to consider.
The process of creaming butter for this cake is a little strange. This is a very low ratio of butter to sugar. A lot of fat is added at the end with the heavy cream. But you are starting with a small amount of butter. It does not really “cream” prior to adding the eggs. As I understand it (and I’d love to hear from any serious bakers in the comments if I am mistaken), the addition of the eggs will cause the mixture to “emulsify” properly so that the necessary air bubbles will get whipped into the batter. After you have added about 3 eggs worth of the whisked eggs, the batter will just magically “come together.” There is so much to learn about butters and sugars and proteins and leavening with baking cakes. But this recipe just works.
Poppy, our Golden, gave it her seal of approval the first time I made it. I was in the driveway helping the kids with bike riding, when Lily went into the house for a drink of water and let the little beast in the back door, unbeknownst to me. I know what the dog does when there are baked goods around so I had put her out back. By the time I made it into the house, Poppy had bellied up to the bar and eaten one side of the cake. She had then gotten down and walked around to the other side of the island, bellied up yet again, and eaten off the other side of the cake, leaving a 3 inch strip of cake down the middle for the rest of us. This might be funny except for the fact that she does it ALL THE TIME. She is fast, and sneaky, and probably developing coronary artery disease. But I kind of love her anyway.