A good friend from Arizona sent this recipe several years ago, right around the time that my cooking skill was experiencing more successes than failures. Though I could master a birthday cake from the box with ease, making this cake from scratch gave me such a sense of accomplishment right when I needed it most. With its quick preparation and common ingredients, this has become my go-to recipe should I need a desert in a hurry.
I rank this recipe at a medium difficulty because it does required some diligence in the preparation, but anyone with a set of basic kitchen tools can master this recipe on the first attempt.
Once you have gathered your ingredients let's get mixing!
Cream together 1/2 cup (2 sticks) of butter with 1 cup sugar. It may be tempting to just throw all of your initial ingredients in at once, and while you may still make a tasty cake, it won't be as great as it can possibility be for 2 reasons:
-Dispersion is essential. This rule goes beyond just this single cake and into nearly any recipe you might attempt, especially in baking. As a general rule, your most concentrated flavors (extracts, salts, spices) and your workhorse alchemy ingredients (or in more boring terms: levelers, yeasts, etc) tend to occupy a very small volume of your finished product. If you do not take care to mix them thoroughly, you may experience a range of unpleasant results from complete failure to rise, to your guests finding little pebbles of baking powder in their slice.
-Air bubbles are king. Without trapped air, your finished product is going to be really dense. If you mix out of order, or ignore specific guidelines, you may inadvertently interfere with the delicate chemistry going on inside your cake.
Proper mixing is such an easy habit to develop and will raise your baking game from box mix to bakery in no time. Here are the three mixing instructions you will mostly often encounter, but might choose to ignore:
-Mix wet ingredients in one bowl, and dry ingredients in a second. This was a kitchen sin that I will admit to performing throughout my early years. Without the 'why', I thought I was being clever by avoiding the cleaning of an extra bowl. At least I started with the dry ingredients since the salt, baking powder and baking soda seemed like they needed a few spins around the bowl with the flour. Still, I look back now and lament all of those cookies that could have been superstars. Dispersion is indeed essential, but there is a second reason for keeping your 'drys dry and your wets wet' until the last moment. Science! Chemical leaveners (such as baking powder and baking soda) are like firecrackers vs. yeasts which are living organisms that need time to eat, multiply and thrive. Once you wet your leaveners, you have about 30 minutes to get the most out of the chemistry happening inside your baked goods. If you think back to the last batch of pancakes you made, those big bubbles that occur while you're waiting for your skillet to reach temperature is your leavener hitting party stage. If you don't get your pancakes, cookies, cake, etc into the heat soon, you'll wind up with a denser product that lacks the bubbles that are responsible for a nice rise. Mix your dry, then mix your wet, then combine as you start your oven. By the time you have your cookies shaped or you cake poured, your oven will announce that its showtime.
-Sifting is not always for grandmas. This is the one rule that I'm a bit lax about in terms of technique. I did not grow up with a large kitchen and still do not have a lot of culinary real estate, so a big coffee can-sized sifter is not to be found anywhere in my home. This does not mean that I forgo the sifting process, however, as it does serve a worthwhile purpose. Aeration. When I open a new bag of flour, the first thing I notice is that it has been compacted during storage and transport. Often we hear that sifting allows the flour to 'breath', but that seems like a throwback to a time when flour quality was lower and moisture may have been a larger issue. If you are storing you flour in an air tight bin or canister, then this really should not be an issue. If, on the other hand, you live in a humid climate, or find yourself baking during a humid season and do not store your flour properly, then actual sifting may be necessary. Since humidity isn't a huge concern where I live, and I store my flour in containers, can I skip sifting? Yes and no. As I mentioned earlier, I don't own a sifter, but I do own a whisk. Add flour, add dry ingredients and whisking until incorporated grants the perks of aeration while ensuring proper dispersion. When we make a cake, we need to ensure that the flour is uniformly fluffy and free of lumps. A whisk will provide that for you with less work than a sifter.
-Cream butter and sugar. Now we come to the boost in rising that will take your cake from tasty to heavenly. Butter should be room temperature -pause- butter should neither be a melted puddle fresh from the microwave (unless your are making brownies, which are dense by nature), nor a brick from the fridge (unless making flaky pastry). This is crucial once, again, for science! Fats are glorious things in our baking, and should be respected. They elevate the taste of everything and help maintain structure by the way it plays with the sugar. When blended with room temperature butter, sugar will act to aerate the fat which will then capture the gasses released by your leavener. Even the butter on its own will provide some structure as it provides pockets between the flour where the sugar will eventually crystallize into caverns of tastiness. If we instead melt the butter and then blend it with the sugar, we will begin to melt the sugar before it hits the oven, leaving no chance for air pockets. We see this failure more easily in the case of cookies where this will lead to a more dense middle and potentially, darker bottoms as the sugar burns before the cookie is done.
Butter and sugar should be creamed, scraped down, and then creamed again to ensure a uniform mixture. -Don't over mix-. You will know the batter is done with you can see no obvious grittiness, but stop before it is completely smooth. Remember, we just want those sugar crystals in there, but not obliterated.
Add your remaining wet ingredients: 2 eggs, 1 cup of sour cream and mix only until incorporate. It is generally a good idea to crack your eggs into a small bowl and give a very short whisking so that they join more easily with the creamed butter mixture. I am also a fan of cracking eggs into a separate bowl so that you don't ruin a batter over a bad egg. In all of my years of cooking, I have seen two, and both were farm fresh eggs. Despite the odds, I will not risk ruining costly ingredients on account of a touch of laziness.
Add your vanilla after the eggs and sour cream are mostly incorporated and give a few final stirs.
In a separate bowl, mix 2 cups of all purpose flour, 1/4 tsp salt, and 1 tsp each of baking powder and baking soda. Whisk to combine and aerate, then add to your wet ingredients to form a thick batter. As with all non-yeast products, do not over mix! When flour is worked by your mixer, it begins to develop gluten which is a stretchy substance necessary for bread. Unfortunately, quick acting leaveners and gluten are not friends as gluten is too resilient to be forced by the limited gasses of baking soda or powder, resulting in a denser product. To void this situation, mix the flour -only as much as necessary- in order to incorporate your ingredients. Once the batter looks nearly mixed, I will generally stop the machine and use a rubber scraper to target any linger bits.
Set your oven to 350 degrees and prepare your pans. In this picture, I show how a muffin tin can be used for single serve desert cakes. The more common form is to use a spring form or Bundt pan to serve slices instead, though even a loaf pan would work to make more of a pound cake shape. Regardless of which pan type you use, make sure to lightly grease them. In both of my examples I used a quick spritz of cooking spray, and they came out easily.
Fill your pans, leaving at least 1/3rd of head-space for expansion. If you mixed the batter correctly, these will have a large oven-spring effect (the stage during cooking in which the product hits its maximum expansion due to the leavener gasses). If you fill the pans too much, the cakes will overflow the edges and make for an uneven presentation.
I love when I can stage a demonstration that shows both the right and wrong way to cook something. My spring form pan came out nicely - the walls of the cake pulled back perfectly when cooled and the head-space was sufficient to avoid overflow. The muffins, however, were overfilled by a smidge. The taste will not be affected in the least, but the presentation would be undesirable if we were to plate these 'top up'.
No worries, its just time to be creative.
There is no chef alive that does not make mistakes from time to time. Oven-spring can change depending on the season, time of day and age of the leavener. So when your desert isn't quite as expected, you can use one of these methods:
-Distract: Present the desert in such a way that hides the flaws. Did the cake crack? Cut it into slices before presentation and decorate the plate with whipped cream, ganache or fruit.
-Cover: Great for uneven coloration or a small flaw like we saw in the case of those muffin sized cakes. Simply cover the area either by flipping the desert's orientation or with a frosting, dusting of sugar or complementing sauce.
-Mash: If that cake just isn't coming out of the pan, scope out as much as possible and arrange in small bowls or mason jars with layers of topping and whipped cream or top with ice cream.
Our mistake wasn't so dire, so I'll be 'covering' my cake. My desert was intended to showcase the delicious strawberry jam we made earlier (find the recipe here), so adding some fresh strawberries was an easy choice. Cut the berries into nice, bite sized pieces, sprinkle with sugar, toss and let sit for about 30 minutes to form a quick and simple syrup that will develop as the sugar extracts juices from the fruit.
This is also a wonderful solution for sour berries and can be refrigerated for later use. The shine is also a nice perk, giving the fruit a fresh and glazed appearance next to our simple, brown piece of cake.
In addition to adding the fresh fruit, I will also change the orientation of my mini-cakes.
What a fortunate accident! As it turns out, I like the way the cakes look in this position much better. It will be more stable and give the jam a great precipice to dribble down from.
And there you have it. A single serve desert coffee cake with strawberry jam, fresh whipped cream and glazed strawberries that would be the perfect finish to any summer dinner.
While I chose to highlight this recipe for use with our strawberry picking harvest (read about that here), this cake can be adapted to just about any topping, including a simple cinnamon sugar and crushed walnut sprinkle. They taste amazing on their own and I suspect that most of the mini-cakes disappeared from my kitchen without any topping at all. Chocolate or caramel sauce would be a quick and easy choice, especially with a small scoop of ice cream. I might try to make a tiramisu version the next time I make fresh mascarpone cheese, and promise to post the process if that turns out as amazingly as it sounds.