I get stuck with food; often there’s so many things I want to make I get frozen in place, paralyzed, not knowing what to do first. I’ve found a cure for it, almost like hitting a personal reset button on my recipe brain, and it seems to really do the trick. The prescription:
- Unearth a favorite vintage cookbook, preferably one which focuses on foundation recipes.
- Find the simplest, most cornerstone-like recipe from any given genre of food. Not simple like easy, but simple like basic: it needs to be multi-purpose and practical.
- Make the recipe, and make it as directed, with zero to minimal adjustments, if you can. Your goal is to stay true to the recipe, not reinvent the wheel.
- Eat what you made, and think hard about it. Is it better than the present-day version? In what ways? Was it harder/easier to make than its modern-day counterpart? How do you think this recipe from decades ago got to where it is now, and why?
Sounds ridiculous? Perhaps, but trust me here: it gets your brain going about food preparation in so many ways. Depending on the year/era of your chosen cookbook, you may start to appreciate what things cooks used to have to do by hand versus using modern conveniences, be in awe of what it took to produce something then as compared to now, or just be thrillingly confused by what ingredients are listed and how recipes used to be written.
I can’t guarantee your result will always be better; I’d bet that’s about 50/50 with a slightly higher success rate going to cookbook standards (Betty Crocker, Culinary Institute of America, etc.) versus more obscure ones; may the odds be ever in your favor with this. But it’s a mind-clearer: like a Swiffer for your recipe development brains, and you get to explore what life was like when in the process.
This cake was that recipe for me a few short weeks ago. I had just finished a project, and transitioning back to blog recipes from projects is like a space shuttle landing, for me: it’s just a shift in gears that can be bumpy – okay, completely catastrophic – if not done with thoughtfulness and precision. I was expecting this cake to be a solid, perfectly decent vanilla cake. How could it not be? it’s from this book, one of my most prized possessions.
You really haven’t lived until you’ve seen some of the recipes that women made for their spouses and kids back in the 50’s. It’s quite something.
Anyway: I happened upon this cake in the desserts section, obviously, as a foundation recipe. I’ve seen this a lot in cookbooks from the 1940s through the 1960s especially – the idea that you have a recipe for a foundation thing which you can use as itself, or can build upon, adding and subtracting as needed, until you have an entirely different thing. This cake, for instance, can start out life as a perfectly simple white cake, or it can be morphed into a citrus cake, a chocolate cake, a nut cake, etc. all with different frostings (which have a foundation recipe in the book as well) to suit your individual needs. It’s wonderful, really: so much less space taken up in cookbooks, and you see how cakes become cakes, if that makes sense. You get a sense that we’re all too lazy in this day and age to do the visual work required by these cookbooks: the back and forth, the note-taking, all that paying attention must be too hard on us now. If you ever wonder how your mom or grandma instinctively knew how to transform one recipe into another with ease, look no further than an old cookbook. One wasn’t simply handed a fistful of recipes back then, but rather given a textbook to study; all those developed skills landing squarely into long-term memories of the women (and certainly at times, men) who came before.
And this cake? It’s the best white cake i’ve ever eaten, hands down, it’s perfect. It’s monumental. It’s the thing i have been searching for. It’s a thing of beauty, and it’s work, but it should be everyone’s white cake. The ingredients are simple: flour, baking powder, salt. A nice dose of vanilla – to achieve that kinda-perfect bakery vanilla flavor, use the clear imitation variety – gives it that white cake smell and flavor, and look. A little milk to give it a boost, combined with the secret super-weapon: not an egg yolk to be found, but rather a wave of beaten egg whites that you fold in at the end gives you a cake that will bake perfectly white on the inside, even on top, and with this amazing outer golden crust you can’t take your eyes off of.
I’m going to be honest: it’s not easy folding egg whites into what is basically a thick paste of batter, which is probably another one of those things we skip today in favor of getting things done faster. Those egg whites are what makes the magic happen, but you can’t rush them: just keep going, and folding, and working, and then suddenly, two will become one and you’ll have the creamiest batter in the universe, trust.
This cake for me wasn’t something to be decorated: I ate it plain to revel in it’s vanilla-ness. I’m not always on Team Frosting, so this was fine with me. It would be beautiful with a little whipped cream frosting and a thin layer of fresh or preserved fruit – maybe a little strawberry or raspberry action, if you’d like. You could pop a little chocolate frosting on here too, or double the recipe and bake up two 8-inch rounds, slice them horizontally, and go crazy: that’s all up to you. Serve it naked (the cake would be naked in this scenario) with your favorite ice cream: along those same lines, this cake is sturdy enough to make a great ice cream layer cake, if that’s how you roll. But this really should be your own foundation white cake: one you can make your own in any way you choose.
I love this cake: not only did it clear my mind, but it also gave me so many new things to focus on, and I got the best cake ever out of it. Within 48 hours of vacation touchdown, I had made this for everyone, again, for the 3rd time since I discovered it. It’s almost gone. It’s that cake.
Best Ever White Cake, circa 1958
- 2 cups cake flour (unbleached if you can find it), sifted
- 1 tablespoon baking powder (aluminum-free, please)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 10 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 cup granulated sugar, divided
- 2 teaspoons clear imitation vanilla extract*
- 2/3 cup whole milk
- 4 egg whites
*You want snow white cake, you use snow white ingredients, period – including snow (er, clear) vanilla extract. It’s doing double duty here, because not only is it keeping your cake white, it’s also giving you that Straight Outta Bakery flavor you that’s special and that we all seek out no matter how embarrassing it is.
Preheat oven to 350˚F. Butter an 8-inch, fairly deep cake pan on bottom and sides.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt; set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and 1/2 cup of the sugar together until light and fluffy, 4 minutes. Add vanilla and beat again until incorporated. Scrape down sides of the bowl and beat a few seconds more if ingredients need further incorporation.
With the mixer on low, add flour mixture and milk in two parts each, alternating between the two (flour, milk, flour, milk), stirring just until each addition is incorporated and scraping down the sides bowl as needed. Set aside for a second.
In a very clean, large bowl using an electric mixer…
(if you’re like me, and lazy, keep an electric mixer and large bowls around just for this occasion so you don’t have to transfer the batter and clean the bowl and beater just to use the stand mixer again, or even worse, have to beat egg whites by hand…that’ll be the day! Back to the recipe now.)
…beat the egg whites until frothy. Add the remaining 1/2 cup sugar a tablespoon at a time while you continue beating, allowing the sugar to incorporate each time before adding more. Beat until stiff peaks form.
Add about a 1/2 cup of egg white mixture to your batter and fold in, working gently but with purpose, to lighten the batter. Add the rest of the egg white mixture and fold in – again, really working with care, this isn’t a race – gently but firmly, making each stroke count, until the batter is homogenous. This is not that easy; it’s a thick batter, so you may feel like it’s taking forever, but right after you feel that way, suddenly your batter will go from two distinct batters to one really great, fluffy one. Be patient.
Pour carefully into the prepared cake pan and smooth the top without pressing down – don’t want to deflate all that hard work. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes until cake tester comes out clean or with a few crumbs clinging to it. Check after the 20-minute mark, and continue to do so as it finishes up: you want a moist cake, not a dry one.
Remove and allow to cool completely in pan. Flip over to remove it – this cake is so amazing that it just glides right out of the pan – and right it on a cake plate. Do whatever you want with it, but I say you just eat it.