Novelty is a drug. We love new flavours, new recipes, the unusual, the unfamiliar. But most of us also have a core repertoire of dishes that are as much a part of us as the way we dress. We make them because we love eating them but also because we could turn them out in our sleep.
I do make cakes that require work (layers of genoise, stripes of mousse-like filling, a glossy mirror of glaze on top) but these are project cakes, they’re not what I slide into the oven on a weekend afternoon. I have what I think of as a ‘capsule wardrobe’ of cakes, favourites that can be subtly changed or accessorised.
Odette Williams, a New York-based bakeware designer who adores cake, has an even larger core repertoire, one that she turned into a book, Simple Cake (Ten Speed Press, £17.99). It showcases 10 basic recipes with different flavour profiles and 15 toppings that you can mix and match. I’ve been gobbling it up (and include her yogurt cake recipe here, shared below).
My own basics are an olive oil and nut cake, one made with sour cream or yogurt, and a chocolate cake made by the creaming method (in which butter and sugar are beaten until pale and fluffy before eggs and flour are added). Both the olive oil and the yogurt cake are made with just a spoon, so you don’t even need to get your mixer out (a handy tip: to make plain flour into self-raising, add one rounded teaspoon of baking powder (5g) to every 100g flour).
Perhaps you think, as I used to, that a cake made just by stirring ingredients together must be somehow inferior to a more complicated one. But cakes made with either olive oil or yogurt have something that those made with butter don’t: they have a moist, tender crumb and don’t dry out as they sit in their tin.
Greek yogurt contains casein, a protein that improves moisture retention and volume in cakes. It also contains lactose, a milk sugar whose flavour deepens and becomes more rounded as it cooks. And yogurt’s tang balances this out, bringing contrast. It produces cakes that are satisfying in both flavour and texture.
Oil-based cakes – and I make several types, from the one below to a light-as-a-cloud version that uses beaten eggs and dessert wine – are also moister than butter-based ones. Cakes made with butter – which is solid at room temperature – seem more dry the day after they’re baked than those made with oil (as oil is liquid at room temperature).
But oil-based cakes have another advantage. Butter tastes great – that’s why we use it so much in baking – but olive oils offer different flavours to play with. They can be grassy, bitter, as sweet as butter or fruity (some olive oils have a fig-like flavour). Cakes made with ingredients that work well with olive oil – lemon zest, rosemary and thyme, flower waters – can taste richer and more multifaceted than those made with butter. (Think how muted a butter-based lemon sponge is, then try to imagine a similar cake that harnesses the flavour profile of an assertive olive oil.)
The olive oil and nut cake here can be made with ground pistachios or walnuts instead of almonds; it can have a passionfruit, coffee or rose-scented syrup instead of a lemon one (if you decide to use coffee, leave out the lemon zest, add a dash of vanilla and go for walnuts).
The Texan sheet cake isn’t here simply so you can muck around with it – though you can finish it with chocolate chips or flakes, add more coffee to the batter and top it with a coffee-flavoured glaze – but because it’s so damned good. It’s a dense, moist, chocolatey slab of a cake (it’s also known as Texan brownie cake) that can feed a crowd and be cut into squares as needed.
So, three simple cakes. And every one of them should be in your capsule wardrobe.
Will you be baking over the Bank Holiday weekend? Do you have any recipes that you would like to share? Share them and any other baking tips you have in the comments section below.