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The cake, the whole cake, and nothing but the cake


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I'm wondering about your favorite cakes that you serve alone, all by themselves, because the cake itself is so good that it doesn't need any help from icing, frosting or whatever. I know that filled or iced cakes and such are part of long-standing traditions everywhere -- seven-layer cakes and Dobos tortes are just two examples. And I love them. But often I eat cakes and feel that the frosting or filling is there to mask an inferior cake. (An outrage!) So, do you have any cakes in your repertoire that are so good they can stand alone, with no dollops of this or quenelles of that or little dots of the other? I can think of three offhand that I make again and again, and I think the cake itself is so good that adding a frosting or even a glaze would detract from its goodness.

Numero uno is Flo Braker's buttermilk cake. I love what buttermilk does to a cake, and this one is just perfect. A bit of a tang, beautiful texture, this cake needs nothing but a fork. I've made many buttermilk cakes and they were all good, but this is the one I keep coming back to again and again.

Next is Alice Medrich's sesame seed cake. It also contains buttermilk, which accounts for its tenderness. In addition to black sesame seeds, which give it a lovely look, Medrich adds just a bit of toasted sesame oil to the cake, and it goes a long way. (I think she was playing around with "unusual" flavors in baked goods long before it was popular to do so.) Anyway, this cake needs no assistance from anything. Its flavor is a true joy.

Third on my list is a recipe that someone posted here on eGullet many moons ago. It might even still be in Recipe Gullet for all I know. It's a pistachio cardamom cake, and of course with those flavors who needs anything else? It really does make a beautiful cake, all by itself.

I'm still looking around for a chocolate cake that will stand on its own, but so far nothing comparable to the above three. I've made some nice chocolate cakes, but nothing I feel compelled to make again, I keep searching for a new recipe.

So how about you? Do you make cakes that you serve with no adornment because the cake itself is perfect?

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cakewalk, try Hershey Cocoa's Black Magic Cake. In addition to buttermilk, it contains black coffee. It tastes very rich, but contains little fat. It is well received by children as well as adults and keeps for a few days without frosting.

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Thanks pyrguy and annabelle. I've made the Black Magic Cake, and yes, it really is a good cake. But it never made me want to stop looking. (Go figure.) The Cook's Illustrated cake is one I have not tried, but that will probably change shortly.

I have one more to add to my list of plain cakes I make again and again: Lori Longbotham's Victorian Lemon-Coriander Seed Cake. (Her recipe calls for caraway seeds but I omit them, because caraway is not my thing.) The unexpected combination of lemon and coriander in a cake is what does it for me. Incredible aroma, great texture (even without buttermilk) and a really good and flavorful cake. She suggests trying it with lemon butter, cream cheese or lemon curd, but I've never used any of the above. No need to.

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I don't know if it's perfect but Cook's Illustrated's chocolate sour cream bunt cake is pretty dang good. It always disappears quickly at parties.

One of my favorites!

There's nothing better than a good friend, except a good friend with CHOCOLATE.
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For a chocolate cake that needs no embellishment, I suggest Rose Levy Beranbaum's Perfect All-American Chocolate Butter Cake, The Cake Bible pp 54-55. Leftovers are not usually a problem. It also works for cupcakes.

The recipe calls for Dutch processed cocoa, which sadly I remember everytime I think to bake one (like now). I really should get some more good Dutch processed cocoa for the pantry.

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Hard to beat a good old fruit cake, unadorned.

I've been making one from my mother's old recipe book called Mock Wedding Cake. It's a big recipe - I make two cakes with it and freeze one - but not as rich as a 'real' wedding cake would be.

Leslie Craven, aka "lesliec"
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I often make poundcake if we want a plain cake. Either vanilla or a citrus, say lemon or orange. Super easy one-bowl cake that can last for a week.

At least that's what the recipe says. This has never happened at my house, however.

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I often make poundcake if we want a plain cake. Either vanilla or a citrus, say lemon or orange. Super easy one-bowl cake that can last for a week.

At least that's what the recipe says. This has never happened at my house, however.

Surprising how many recipes get that wrong :raz:

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Leslie Craven, aka "lesliec"
Host, eG Forumslcraven@egstaff.org

After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one's own relatives ~ Oscar Wilde

My eG Foodblog

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I often make poundcake if we want a plain cake. Either vanilla or a citrus, say lemon or orange. Super easy one-bowl cake that can last for a week.

At least that's what the recipe says. This has never happened at my house, however.

I'd probably have to go with pound cake too. Cream cheese, sour cream and buttermilk are probably my three favorites but I'm not unhappy if someone gives me a pound cake no matter what flavor it is.

It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

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Gramercy Tavern gingerbread. Maybe more of a quick bread than a cake but still delicious naked.

Is that the Guinness Stout gingerbread, or something different? I've made the Guinness one many times, it is excellent, and needs no help at all (except maybe a Guinness). Haven't made it in years, thanks for the reminder.

But you've raised an interesting question, for me at least. How are you distinguishing between a quick bread and a cake?

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Gramercy Tavern gingerbread. Maybe more of a quick bread than a cake but still delicious naked.

Is that the Guinness Stout gingerbread, or something different? I've made the Guinness one many times, it is excellent, and needs no help at all (except maybe a Guinness). Haven't made it in years, thanks for the reminder.

But you've raised an interesting question, for me at least. How are you distinguishing between a quick bread and a cake?

Yes, the Guinness one. I'm using 'quick bread' to mean something that is intended as a relatively unadorned snack rather than as a filled and frosted layer cake - typically loaf cakes like banana bread, pumpkin bread, pound cake - you might put a simple glaze on it, but that's it. We could argue about mixing methods, but I doubt we'll come to consensus (not all cakes start w/ creamed butter and sugar, etc). Cake is all in how you use it? What's the difference between cake and muffins, besides most people feel better about eating muffins for breakfast? (Or coffeecake, just not cake!)

Pierre Herme's lemon loaf cake is pretty good, too, if I recall correctly.

Edited by pastrygirl (log)
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I would have to spend some time poking through my recipes, but these come to mind instantly:

Poppyseed cake from the Solo poppyseed can label. Includes folded-in egg whites. Nice with a dusting of powdered sugar. I know now that I've thought of it, I won't rest until I have it.

Nick Malgieri's brown butter hazelnut financier. Ditto the powdered sugar. This may well be my all-time favorite cake. This is from The Modern Baker.

Craig Claiborne's mother's black walnut and candied ginger (only one nut and one fruit) fruitcake from Moira Hodgson's Favorite Fruitcakes. I recently had two transcendent meals at a restaurant in Naples, Italy and I intend to send the owner one of these cakes as a thank you.

If I was looking for a perfect chocolate cake with no icing, I'd take a look at Maida Heatter. She's pretty good at recognizing perfection. I like the Hershey Black Magic Cake very much, but I consider a mocha frosting a necessity.

I like to bake nice things. And then I eat them. Then I can bake some more.

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Gramercy Tavern gingerbread. Maybe more of a quick bread than a cake but still delicious naked.

Is that the Guinness Stout gingerbread, or something different? I've made the Guinness one many times, it is excellent, and needs no help at all (except maybe a Guinness). Haven't made it in years, thanks for the reminder.

But you've raised an interesting question, for me at least. How are you distinguishing between a quick bread and a cake?

Yes, the Guinness one. I'm using 'quick bread' to mean something that is intended as a relatively unadorned snack rather than as a filled and frosted layer cake - typically loaf cakes like banana bread, pumpkin bread, pound cake - you might put a simple glaze on it, but that's it. We could argue about mixing methods, but I doubt we'll come to consensus (not all cakes start w/ creamed butter and sugar, etc). Cake is all in how you use it? What's the difference between cake and muffins, besides most people feel better about eating muffins for breakfast? (Or coffeecake, just not cake!)

Pierre Herme's lemon loaf cake is pretty good, too, if I recall correctly.

Nah, I really wasn't planning on arguing about mixing methods or anything else. I was just curious about the distinction you made. Because I guess that's kind of what I'm getting at. Quick breads, as you mentioned, are not generally meant for adornment. It's unusual for anyone to split a loaf cake in half and frost/ice it. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) Cakes, more often than not, do get that treatment. Sometimes I find that it leads to a cake that is lacking in texture and flavor of its own. But over the years I've found some cakes (not necessarily loaf cakes) that are delicious without the addition of anything else. I was wondering if others knew of similar cakes. (And of course people do, great responses here.)

I don't know that Pierre Herme lemon cake, but will check it out. Does it use a syrup? I'm always looking for a lemon cake that is nice and lemony without the addition of a syrup after baking it. I like the syrups fine, but I'd really like to find a cake that offers enough lemon flavor that it doesn't need that addition.

Francois Payard has a Lemon Pound Cake that I remember liking, but I haven't made it in so long that I don't remember what I liked about it! He does not use a syrup, but his recipe calls for 1/4 cup heavy cream (in addition to butter). Seeing as how all things are connected no matter how much we try to separate them, this puts me in mind of the thread about "Does Fat Carry Flavor?" I guess that works in baking as well as cooking. I'm reminded of something Sherry Yard wrote in one of her books about adding lemon rind to a cake while creaming the butter, and not combining it with the sugar first. She said it carries more flavor if it's combined with the butter. (Now I have to go look and see where she said that!)

As you might be able to tell from these meanderings, I'm among the minority of people who do not particularly like frosting, but I love cake!

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Enriched cakes and breads/quickbreads made with butter, whole milk, eggs and perhaps cream will have a softer, finer crumb and will also keep longer.

I've not made Francois Payard's lemon pound cake, but I image that is the goal of the addition of cream: a finer, softer crumb and additional moisture to make slicing clean. I have added grated lemon rind to both butter and sugar in creaming (not at the same time!) and I can't say there is an appreciable difference.. Perhaps if you let the cake ripen overnight before eating it the lemon might be more intense. I don't have the willpower for this, so I'll leave that up to you.

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doesn't need any help from icing, frosting or whatever

I don't know if this counts as a "whatever" but a good blueberry coffee cake with a layer of brown sugar/cinnamon in the middle is perfect as it is.

And this one might seem a little strange, but for Passover I make a chocolate chip chiffon cake (using potato starch and cake meal) and it needs nothing else.

Edited by Pam R (log)
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Another great plain cake, with one of Maida Heatter's typically understated titles, is "The Best Damn Lemon Cake" (in her New Book of Great Desserts, pp. 113-114). She says it is "still wonderful after several days." I am not able to attest to the truth of that assertion.

Jim

I love Maida Heatter. I love her recipes and I love her "down-to-earth-ness." And yes, the idea of any of her cakes lasting "several days" is unheard of!

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The banana bundt cake in Dorie Greenspan's Baking book is awesome. It bakes up huge and needs absolutely no adornment. I added a few mini chocolate chips in and it was to die for! (this probably qualifies as a tea or quick bread but it's so moist and hasa beautiful crumb)

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My favorite stand alone cake is also a Dorie Greenspan recipe: her French Yogurt Cake, made "riveria style" with olive oil, ground almonds, and rosemary (or mint) rubbed into the sugar along with lemon zest, is pretty damn perfect all by itself. Recipe here: http://dinersjournal.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/19/the-bakers-apprentice-french-yogurt-cake/?_r=0

Photo of one of my many, many french yogurt cakes, glazed with lemon jam. Ooops, does that count as a topping?p4081981.jpg

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Marcella Hazan makes a "fruit cake" with banana, orange zest and juice, olive oil and grated/chopped apple and fresh pear. It is tasty, not too sweet and excellent for coffee or after school snacks.

The recipe is in her book Marcella Cucina.

She also claims the cake will last for 5 days. I have found this to be an untruth as far as cakes go.

Edited by annabelle (log)
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I have three true cakes that stand absolutely on their own without icing or glaze:

Sweet corn shortcake (I think my recipe is kicking around the eGullet somewhere)

Orange Spice Cake

Death By Chocolate Zucchini Cake (although I often gild the lily by pouring liquified truffle over it....)

Elizabeth Campbell, baking 10,000 feet up at 1° South latitude.

My eG Food Blog (2011)My eG Foodblog (2012)

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