Gillian gives us the definitive birthday cake recipe
by Gillian Bell
We all need a decent birthday cake recipe up our sleeve. One that we can quickly knock up from what’s in our larder and refrigerator. And one that you can use with any size cake tin you have to hand.
Whether you choose to make a modest cake, dusted with icing sugar and topped with fresh flowers or a more elaborate number with piped buttercream swags, here’s my humble offering. It’s the one that Annabelle made, very successfully, in episode 4 of the podcast, despite the initial panic and the mix up with the ganache recipe. The photos say it all, really .
Believe me, there are a limited number of cake types in the world and you could probably count them on your two hands. Most of the recipes you see in cookbooks are just variations on these. Baking books are very lovely (I have hundreds) but don’t let them undermine your confidence or render you impotent. There was a time when they didn’t exist, the cake world still functioned perfectly, ordinary people baked in their kitchens with basic ovens, and children didn’t miss out. With that said, let’s get baking!
I’ve offered some ways you might like to change things around each time you bake this one – just for some variety. But your ideas are heartily encouraged. Enjoy yourself.
Here’s some general things to remember:
(1) In Australia and in the UK, butter is generally sold in either 250gm or 500gm blocks, so if you don’t have scales (as Annabelle didn’t), for this recipe, use 1 x 250gm plus a ¼ of a 250gm block of butter. In the US, a stick of butter is 110g. But if you like baking cakes, I encourage you to buy a cheap digital scale. You can even measure your liquids with them.
(2) the best result in cake-making will be when all your ingredients are at room temperature. Yes, including the eggs and milk. And softened butter doesn’t mean melted butter. Ideally, if you stuck your finger into a block of softened butter, you would be able to, easily and the hole would remain perfectly formed when you removed it. .(I’m sounding like the late Professor Sumner-Miller)
(3) Always preheat your oven. Don’t put a cake in an oven that is still reaching the desired heat.
(4) The following quantity is based on you owning/borrowing 2 x 9”/23cm round tins about 4cm/2in in depth.
If you have a deep 1 x 8”/20cm, you could bake one whole cake and you will just need to bake it longer. We’ll come to that. You’ll have some mixture left over probably, but don’t waste it. Make a little cake for next week’s morning tea in a mug.
Line your cake tins with parchment paper or lightly, but thoroughly grease them with butter. This is so the cake easily slides out of the tin when its baked.
Preheat your oven to 180 degrees celcius/350F.
300gms of softened butter. I usually use unsalted, but if you only have salted, use that:)
6 large, organic eggs
3 cups of sifted self-raising (self-rising) flour. If you only have plain (all-purpose flour) you’ll need to add 6 level teaspoons of baking powder to 3 cups of plain flour and sift together at least 3 times. It’s really important the baking powder is evenly distributed through the cake.
½ cup of full fat milk
Ok. Cake tins are ready, ingredients are room temperature, butter is softened, oven is hot.
Now, you can use a mixer or do this by hand.
Beat the butter and sugar together until the butter has turned a very pale cream/white colour.
Add the eggs, one at a time, beating slowly until fully combined before adding the next. It will look like it doesn’t want to come together, then the lecitin in the egg yolk will work its magic and your ingredients will suddenly coe together.
Now fold in half the sifted flour, then half the milk (fold, fold), then the remaining flour, fold, then the last of the milk.
Fold it all together until it’s one lovely smooth batter. Then stop. Your batter should be a good ‘dropping’ consistency, that is, it falls easily from the spoon. If not, add a ¼ of a cup of milk and fold that in. It’s not you, you’ve done nothing wrong. It’s just the different flour types in your country/region which hydrate at different levels.
Pour equal of amounts of batter into each of your tins. Spread evenly in tin with back of spoon. Bake for about 45-50mins. If you are doing one deep cake, you will need to bake it for about 50-55 mins, but these times will vary slightly depending on your oven. When the smell of the cake fills the room, it’ll be ready. But test it first by sticking a skewer (Annie used a twig from her garden) into the centre of the cake. Remove it. If there is wet batter or very damp butter on your skewer, return it to the oven for about 6-8 mins, then try again. It won’t sink at this point. If it does, call me.
Remove your cake(s) from the oven and leave them for about 10mins in their tins before turning them out, upside down, onto a wire cooling rack. These are very helpful. If you don’t have one, I suggest you invest in a large one. Allow your cake to cool completely.
Decision time. You can wrap these up very tightly and keep them in the fridge for use later or in a few days time. Or freeze them. They will be great months down the track. It’s the fats in cakes that makes for great keeping qualities. But when you’re ready, you can slice your cakes horizontally, if you want more layers, fill the layers, and decorate them as you wish.
Here are a few ideas for varities of this cake recipe and some fillings and frostings.
Zest the rind of 3 large, unwaxed lemons into your beaten butter and sugar.
Replace ¼ cup of the milk with fresh lemon juice.
Replace ¼ cup of flour with ¼ cup of a good quality cocoa powder. If you want an even more unctuous chocolate cake, add 80gms of melted, but cool, dark chocolate to the batter. Get the best quality one you can afford. It does make a difference.
And to fill your cake, this chocolate cream you won’t be able to stop eating.
2 tbsp cocoa
2 tbsp cornflour
100g caster sugar
2 egg yolks
100g dark bitter chocolate, chopped
125-150ml double cream
Whisk the cold milk with the cocoa, cornflour, sugar and two egg yolks in a saucepan. Then place this mixture over a moderate heat and whisk it continuously until it is boiling and very thick. Now remove it from the heat and beat in the chocolate until it melts through evenly. Next, spoon this on to a dinner plate, cover it with cling film or another plate and leave until cold. Finally, stir in the double cream and beat with an electric whisk until thick and smooth.
If you want something simpler, quicker:
Whip together butter and icing sugar with about 250g of cream cheese. You could add some zested lemon rind for a lovely taste, or some cocoa for a chocolate frosting. Balance the ingredients to your taste. There aren’t really any firm rules with this. Trust me.