Af­ter nearly 300 years, the but­ter cake is still the golden stan­dard


Af­ter nearly 300 years, the but­ter cake is still the golden stan­dard

It’s the first cake that you learnt how to bake. It re­calls gran­nies and grand aunts, so but­ter cake has nos­tal­gia whipped in aplenty. But don’t think but­ter cake is old fash­ioned—it’s still en vogue and on­trend, dressed up in var­i­ous guises. While the but­ter cake is as­so­ci­ated with the Amer­i­can bak­ing tra­di­tion, its ori­gin harks back to the Bri­tish pound cake, so named for us­ing a pound of the four main in­gre­di­ents of but­ter, sugar, eggs, flour. That works out to a hefty recipe of over four pounds (about 2 kg) of bat­ter!

This evolved into the Vic­to­rian sponge cake, which takes the same con­cept but us­ing a ratio prin­ci­ple of equal amounts of the four main in­gre­di­ents. In France, they call it qua­tre-quarts, the four quar­ters cake, as the main in­gre­di­ents are split four ways.

In the orig­i­nal, eggs are sep­a­rated and the whites whipped to lighten and leaven the cake. Dur­ing the in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion bak­ing pow­der was in­vented and the modern but­ter cake was born. The Vic­to­rian sponge with bak­ing pow­der added marks this tran­si­tion. A but­ter cake can now be made sim­ply by just mix­ing every­thing to­gether.

In older recipes the but­ter is creamed with the sugar, and the yolks added be­fore the egg white foam is gently folded in. Be­fore that, one sim­ply “beat it all well to­gether for an hour with your hand(!), or a great wooden spoon” ac­cord­ing to a 1747 cook­book.

In the Amer­i­can tra­di­tion, but­ter cake is flavoured with rose wa­ter or brandy, or both, and mace is favoured in the south. Vanilla is also a favourite, along with rum. The list of pos­si­bil­i­ties goes on to in­clude orange, lemon, ginger and cin­na­mon, and even turmeric.

The tra­di­tional pound cake and the qua­tre­quarts yield a cake that sits mid­way be­tween a dense loaf cake and a true cake that is lighter, more moist and more del­i­cate. Any vari­a­tion will move your recipe to­wards the loaf or cake side.

What I look for in a good but­ter cake is a firm and moist tex­ture—and that rich but­tery taste. Ul­ti­mately, a but­ter cake in its un­adorned form is a sim­ple cake, but that’s not to down­play its magic. I un­der­stood that magic when a friend shares that she first started to bake when the lit­tle ones ar­rived, as “a home should be filled with the warm, invit­ing smells of a but­ter cake bak­ing in the oven”. For this rea­son alone, but­ter cake will never go out of fash­ion. Not when it’s baked with love, with the best but­ter that you have.


The ratio cake doesn’t re­ally need a recipe. You start by eye­balling the size of your bak­ing pan. For a one-litre pan, keep your cake bat­ter to no more than 800g, or 200g for each quar­ter. Al­ways start by mea­sur­ing the eggs as it’s hard to add or mi­nus spe­cific amounts of egg. Then use equal quan­ti­ties of the other in­gre­di­ents, adding a pinch of bak­ing pow­der to the flour. The stan­dard method is to whisk the but­ter with the sugar, add the eggs and flavour­ings, and fold in the flour. Just re­mem­ber not to over­beat the mix­ture as this tough­ens the cake. Bake at about 170°C un­til it’s done.

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