the best white cake ever, circa 1958.

the best white cake ever, circa 1958.

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:

  1. Unearth a favorite vintage cookbook, preferably one which focuses on foundation recipes.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

the best white cake ever, circa 1958.

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.


The Lunchbox Cookbook.

the best white cake ever, circa 1958.

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.

the best white cake ever, circa 1958.

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.

the best white cake ever, circa 1958.

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.

the best white cake ever, circa 1958.

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

Serves 12

  • 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.

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  • Reply faygie June 29, 2015 at 10:02 pm

    As much as I love outrageous cakes (hello, Milk Bar!), I also adore simple cakes such as this. And I’m a sucker for vanilla.

    Next time I need a white cake for something I’ll have to remember to use this recipe.

    • Reply shannon June 30, 2015 at 4:56 pm

      Same! I think maybe we just appreciate cake, Faygie, in whatever form it may take. I know you love a vanilla thing, too: i still remember you having the recipe for that awesome vanilla granola that it’s been far too long since i’ve made.

  • Reply movita beaucoup June 30, 2015 at 5:05 am

    A couple of years ago, Rosie Beaucoup tracked down an entire set of the Mary Margaret McBride encyclopedias of cooking for me. Twelve volumes of truly-tested recipes from the 1950’s. Lots of jello salads and inventive ways to use canned soups, but also: great basics. I always refer to it when researching recipes. ALWAYS. Because even though I probably won’t make anything with canned lima beans, I know her recipe for spice cake will be solid. That cake up there looks divine. It’s on my ever-growing to-bake list!

    • Reply shannon June 30, 2015 at 4:55 pm

      I can’t scribble down the name “Mary Margaret McBride” fast enough because i have to have those encyclopedias. I’ve never heard of them, but i must have them. I definitely agree that the baking in the vintage books tends to be head and shoulders above recipes for say, “authentic” chili con carne, or “olive casserole sandwich filling,” but i can appreciate the effort made so many years ago with canned goods, MSG, and gelatin.

  • Reply Monica June 30, 2015 at 6:21 am

    I love a plain cake that a girl can just, well…eat plain! This looks like a super find. Thanks for sharing because I have almost zero knowledge of white cakes and it seems like one of those things that’s very hard to get a great recipe for. I want to learn and try!

    • Reply shannon June 30, 2015 at 4:52 pm

      Plain is sometimes the best! White cakes are tough: weirdly so, i guess, because you’d think that a plainly perfect vanilla cake wouldn’t be so hard to achieve, but so many fall short and i get frustrated with that. I promise you, this one exceeds expectations: the egg whites folded in is really the secret weapon, and worth every second you spend of extra work.

  • Reply Deb|EastofEdenCooking June 30, 2015 at 9:22 am

    You’ve read my mind! I have so many recipes I want to try and yet the everyday seems to jump in and take over! (Rude!) I adore vintage cookbooks and often find the recipes to be very well written and have fabulous outcomes. I have visions of a slice of the White Cake with summer berries and a dollop of whipped cream……

    • Reply shannon June 30, 2015 at 4:49 pm

      SO rude, right! it’s great to feel so inspired, but i agree: frustrating when you realize there are only so many hours in the day in which to cook (and eat!). you’re making me want to direct some of my summer berry stash to my remaining cake slices, Deb. 🙂

  • Reply John@Kitchen Riffs June 30, 2015 at 10:54 am

    You would love James Beard’s Theory and Practice of Good Cooking. It’s all about basics of cooking from one of the masters who was famous back then (the book was published in the 70s, though –your getting all of this thinking re-distilled and stripped down to basics). Anyway, it’s fun poking around with old recipes and figuring out how/why they worked, and how they evolved. Good cake — thanks.

    • Reply shannon June 30, 2015 at 4:47 pm

      I’ve always – ALWAYS – meant to get that James Beard book: i have a special list devoted to “the classics” in the cookbook world, and this is on it. I’m going to bump it up based on your recommendation, because i’ve been really focused lately on getting to know foundational cooking a little better. Thank you!

  • Reply Sharyn Dimmick June 30, 2015 at 2:47 pm

    When the whiteness of the cake is more important than the taste or the purity of the ingredients I have a problem with the recipe — this is food, stuff we eat. Give me real vanilla extract or vanilla beans any day and spare me the better living through chemicals, please.

    • Reply shannon June 30, 2015 at 4:45 pm

      I’d say I’m sorry you feel that way, Sharyn, but i actually agree with you: if you took what I was said regarding clear vanilla extract to mean i encourage “better living through chemicals,” I’m sorry. I used the very small amount of clear vanilla here to impart a specific flavor and color; an homage of sorts to the bakery cakes many of us grew up with and still love to indulge in every so often. You may have noticed that i also list unbleached flour and aluminum-free baking powder here, because i’m a fan of using natural and chemical-free ingredients too. Swapping pure vanilla extract or vanilla beans here would be easy, and the cake would be just as perfect.

  • Reply Matt July 1, 2015 at 5:55 am

    It never ceases to amaze me (but not surprise me) that some of the best food is always super simple. It also seems to be the hardest to get right. Looks like you nailed this one….reminds me of my grandma and her white cake. I too, like it waaay better without frosting on it. Great job?,

    • Reply shannon July 28, 2015 at 1:10 pm

      Agree on both counts: the best food really is super simple, but difficult to nail, probably because you don’t have a ton of hootenanny (yeah, HOOTENANY) to cover it up…sauces and whatnot. I like it when my recipes remind me of your grandma, Matt.

      I also like how you’re unsure i did a great job. Keeps me guessing.

  • Reply Matt July 1, 2015 at 5:56 am

    *great job!

    Stupid iPad keyboard.

    • Reply shannon July 28, 2015 at 1:10 pm

      WORD, Matt. Word. *highfives

  • Reply Willow @ Will Cook For Friends July 1, 2015 at 1:06 pm

    I like the way you think! I can’t tell you how many times I get recipe paralysis because I just have TOO MANY IDEAS for things. I’ll have to try pulling out an old cookbook next time (or just making this white cake — hello, where were you when I was looking for perfect white cakes four years ago? Sitting in an old cookbook, apparently). Basic recipes like this are such workhorses to have around — I can imagine doing so many things with a cake like this!

    • Reply shannon July 28, 2015 at 1:07 pm

      It’s an awful feeling, the recipe paralysis, isn’t it? It’s like you’re frozen in TIME. 🙁 Always check your old cookbooks for basics/foundation recipes…i feel like that’s the lesson i came out with while making this cake.

  • Reply Abbe @ This is How I Cook July 1, 2015 at 9:33 pm

    My mother had cookbooks very similar to that, with the same illustrations. I am trusting you on this white cake thing. My brother was always a white cake eater and each year on his birthday he wanted white cake. I remember thinking what a waste. How can we celebrate without chocolate? Then I grew up and had twins. My son was the chocolate eater and my daughter somehow inherited the white cake gene. I was a good mom and made two cakes. I wish I had had that recipe!

    • Reply shannon July 28, 2015 at 1:06 pm

      I think you’re onto something with your white cake gene theory! Totally makes sense, as so many of us are sort of predisposed to one or the other, no matter how much we want to like the other, right? UGH…science. i’m going to research this heavily i.e. feed my family and friends chocolate and vanilla cakes and take notes. SCIENCE!

  • Reply Sharon | Cheesy Pennies July 2, 2015 at 12:08 am

    Some of the favorite cookbooks on my shelf are decades-old collections from church groups and families, full of 17 variations on ambrosia salad and ways to make rice casserole. The desserts though? Hands down amazing. Thanks for adding one more to my vintage finds list. This looks excellent.

    • Reply shannon July 28, 2015 at 1:04 pm

      Agree! And it’s always so great to hear when other people appreciate older cookbooks that some (lots) would consider to be completely out of style and useless. I love them! Although yes, i could do without the rice casseroles and aspics, or at least most of them. 😉 Thank you, Sharon!

  • Reply natalie @ wee eats July 6, 2015 at 7:35 pm

    I know enough to know that if you say this is “perfect”, then I need to find a reason to make it. 4th of July would have been PERFECT (I could have red-white-and-blue’d it up!) but now I will have to think of another reason. Like, maybe, “Hey it’s Saturday and what a beautiful day to make a cake!”

    I’m totally on board with naked cakes – I was actually super anti-frosting until recently. But I’ll take any excuse to not dress up a cake with frosting (read: go through the effort of making frosting). 🙂

    I totally agree on the imitation vanilla. I totally judged Ms. Tosi for it on her funfetti thing and I WAS SO WRONG. It really has such a unique flavor to it that is totally different than real vanilla. If I was going to use real vanilla, I would venture to say it might be closer to the Tahitian vanilla than the Madagascar vanilla that most of us use for our general baking needs.

    • Reply shannon July 28, 2015 at 12:15 pm

      I don’t often say “perfect,” for sure: i shy away from the always/nevers of life, and “perfect” seems like one of those, but this is pretty amazing. I mean, naked cake that’s better than most frosted cakes HAS to be pretty outstanding, right? I just “ugh’d” at frosting effort…PREACH.

      YES! that’s exactly the point in which i discovered the beauty that is imitation vanilla. i was apprehensive also, because i always use real vanilla, and definitely 95% of the time, it’s the way i go. I think if you’re trying to achieve a specific thing (in this case, bakery vanilla/white cake flavor), it’s a must. Like if you’re aiming for “orange roll” flavor, you use a combo of orange zest and orange extract: just a fact, or else you’d be aiming for “orange” flavor, which is different than “orange roll.” all depends on what you’re going for, for sure.

  • Reply Ashley July 15, 2015 at 1:17 pm

    Brilliant writing, I loved reading every word! And it is truly amazing how cooking, on the whole, has changed over the last few decades (like how recipes are written, how capable home cooks are at knowing how to use a recipe and adapt it or know which ingredient/technique does what). I totally keep an electric handheld mixer around for when I’m too lazy to get the stand mixer out (it currently lives in a cabinet) or wash the stand mixer (which isn’t that bad, but, clearly, I’m lazy). Before the stand mixer, I lived and died by my hand mixer, even though it couldn’t make quite the same quality whipped cream and wouldn’t survive the process of whipping eggs into meringues (fire! smoke! hideous screeching noises!).

    • Reply shannon July 28, 2015 at 11:53 am

      You are SO SWEET TO ME thank you, Ashley. 🙂 I don’t call any of that lazy, by the way: that’s just making the most of what little time you have to be in the kitchen, right? EFFICIENCY FOREVER. *high fives

      isn’t it funny that you don’t realize the awesomeness of a stand mixer until you have one? it’s like the electric mixer is totally fine but then when you go back from using a stand mixer it’s like …hmmmm. works for some things (sometimes better) but for everyday baking/mixing, give me a stand.

  • Reply Claire Depont August 19, 2016 at 6:03 pm

    So, let’s say that I decide that I want to make a cucumber mint cake. How would I adjust basic foundational recipe for the Cucumber puree?

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