In the mid 1970s while still living in Cornwall, I commenced what was then called O Levels. As well as the mandatory English and Maths, my subjects included Biology, History, Geography, French – and Cookery.
It was called Cookery then, long before it became Home Economics or Food Technology, but to this day it remains the only formal study of cooking and nutrition I’ve done. The double period of lessons each week was always conducted in a kitchen and it was there I learned to make flaky pastry, a fat-less sponge cake and how to work with arrowroot and gelatine amongst other skills.
I was perfectly content in this world, but trouble lay away from the classroom. The theory involved – and the homework – was spent working out how protein is broken down and ingested, the correct way to re-heat food (and so avoid food poisoning), meal plans for diabetics, how Vitamin C is absorbed and so on. It was difficult course-work and I stumbled through it with very poor results. I doubt I would have passed this O Level had I continued. As it was, we relocated to Sydney and I abandoned Cookery, at least in the formal sense, at the end of Year 10.
Still, there are some basic recipes from this time that I constantly return to, not least when making cakes and pastries.
Last month the Queensland branch of the CWA contentiously decided to allow the use of packet cake mixes into their cake competitions. I took it to the Facebook community and we were all united in our opinion – it makes for poor cookery skills. Not because packet mixes aren’t useful, but how else do you learn the value of weighing and measuring ingredients, how do you learn to trust your judgement when assessing that the creaminess of whisked butter is just right? How else to you gauge, just by the merest drop, how much of a dash of vanilla extract to put in?
In short, how else do you learn to trust your judgement and so become an intuitive cook?
So, let’s begin trusting that intuition, with the most basic of all sponge cakes – a butter cake.
In essence there are two ways to make a sponge; one method uses butter and the other* has no butter (or any other fat) at all. Both have their advantages. A butter cake is a little denser and has better keeping abilities. You can pile huge amounts of icing and decorations on top without it sagging under the weight. You can cut it into all sorts of shapes without it collapsing. For this reason it is used extensively for all sorts of birthday cakes that generally use a soft buttercream icing on the top or sides. It is the basis of just about every recipe in the iconic Australian Women‘s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake Book, and if you don’t already have a copy of this book in your kitchen, why not?
*For those enquiring, the other type of sponge, a fat-less sponge cake, is the sort that is sandwiched together with cream and strawberry jam. It will be featured later next week.
From this base recipe, all sorts of possibilities and variations present themselves. For one thing, you can cook it in a variety of shapes and sizes. It becomes a date and walnut loaf, a cherry or sultana cake or a dozen small cupcakes you can then pop into lunchboxes. The addition of a spoonful or two of cocoa gives the chocolate hit you crave, or you can colour some of it and make a marble cake. It truly is a recipe you can use for the rest of your life.
So I give you this recipe from my O Level Cookery days. The only thing I’ve done is adapt the imperial measurements to Australian metric guidelines. I still use it and as you can see from the photo, it gives great and reliable results. It will never let you down.
Makes one 25cm square cake or one 20cm round cake.
- 125g butter, chopped, at room temperature
- ¾ cup (150g) caster sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 cups (250g) self-raising flour, sifted
- 2/3 cup (160 ml) milk
- 1 quantity Buttercream icing
Preheat the oven to 180°C (160°C in a fan forced oven). Grease a 20cm round springform cake tin or a 25cm square tin and line the base with a piece of baking paper.
Place the softened butter and sugar in a clean bowl and use electric beaters to cream the mixture until it is very pale in colour and fluffy. This should take about five to ten minutes depending on the speed of your beaters. You should not be able to feel the sugar grits between your fingers. Throughout this step, stop the beaters occasionally and use a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl and to loosen it off the bottom.
Add the vanilla and beat to combine, then add each egg one at a time and beat well between each addition to thoroughly incorporate the egg. If you have added the eggs straight out of the fridge, the mixture will probably curdle or start to separate out a little. Don’t worry – it will come back once you start adding flour, so don’t throw it out!
Add a spoon of flour and blend it in, then add a dash of milk. Continue this way, alternating between flour and milk until both are completely mixed into the batter.
(If you are adding cocoa for a chocolate cake, sift it into the flour and add at this time.)
At this stage, add your flavours and extras, such as sultanas or cherries, some chopped nuts, dates or a drop or two of food colouring and stir until just combined.
Use your spatula to spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and smooth the surface. Use the spatula to create a small hollow in the middle of the cake so that when the cake rises it creates a more even surface.
Bake for 40-45 minutes, until cooked when tested with a skewer. You can also test by pressing your fingers lightly in the centre of the cake – if it springs back, it’s cooked to perfection.
Cool the cake in the tin for 5 minutes, then turn it onto a wire rack to cool completely.
To finish, ice the cake following instructions from this tutorial for Buttercream icing.
$3.50 for one un-iced 25 cm square cake.