You know when you find that one clothing item that drapes perfectly, clings in the just the right place, is flattering and comfortable, is basically the unicorn of clothing items actually come true? The item that makes us look like we’re wearing mascara and having a good hair day even if neither are true? Ugh – it’s so elusive and when we find it we consider breaking the bank to have it in every color because it is perfect and these bodies are so hard to live in and dress well.
If that clothing item were a cake – this is that cake.
It’s perfect. It’s THE cake. If there were only one cake you need on this earth – this is it. And I’m not speaking hyperbolically. These are just facts.
The base of today’s cake is a classic pound cake. If you’ve been following along with the Washington Post Voraciously Baking Basics Newsletter, this is our Grandmother’s Perfect Pound Cake. It’s classic and iconic and somehow… all of our grandmother’s made the same cake, claimed the genius for themselves, and we’re all ok with it because the cake is that good.
A perfect balance of fat, sugar, eggs, and flour brings this cake together flawlessly, though each step should be followed with care. There’s a science to how this cake rises and – we respect science especially where perfect cakes are involved.
Today’s version incorporates a gingerbread swirl. Tis the season, and this cake is sturdy enough to handle a flavor addition. This cake fits seamlessly into every season – like having one in every color – it’s timeless like that.
If you can make this cake (and you totally can!) you really don’t need to know any other cake. This can be the one. Your signature.
Here’s what you’ll need for this most classic cake.
• softened butter and shortening. Shortening is actually key to the success of this cake. Want to talk about the science? Butter is made up of water, milk solids and fat – great – lots of the fat and flavor we want in our baked goods. Shortening is 100% fat which will help the cakes have a tender crumb, will keep the cake moist, and will help trap air within the batter as it whips in the mixer, helping the cake to rise. It’s a small amount that plays a key role so try not to skip it, k?
• granulated sugar, plenty.
• vanilla – the good stuff. I used a good vanilla extract and a vanilla bean. (My favorite vanilla is from Jones & Company – they sell the highest quality, most fragrant vanilla I’ve found.)
• 5 large eggs, crucial for adding moisture, structure, and richness to the cake.
• all-purpose flour, a bit of leavening, and salt.
• whole milk, at room temperature.
• molasses and loads of gingerbread spices for the swirl layer. Cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and allspice. Now is our time!
Now let’s cake!
We’ll start by creaming the shortening in the bowl alone just to soften it to pliable. Room temperature butter and room temperature shortening are a slightly different consistency and shortening tends to lump a bit. Give it a whirl first. Add the butter. Mix until the two just come together.
Add the sugar and on medium-low speed, cream the fat and sugar. The mixture will be the palest yellow and visibly begin to aerate to fluff.
(Ps – you can also make this using an electric hand beater!)
See how fluffy the fat and sugar are after about 4 minutes on the mixer? It’s magic!
Now it’s time of the eggs!
The eggs bring a majority of lift to this cake and that work begins as they’re mixed into the batter.
Beat in eggs, one at a time, for one minute between each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the next egg. The time will allow the eggs to aerate the batter – it’s all essential to this cake.
This is the consistency of the cake batter once all of the eggs are added. See how fluffy it looks? That’s just what we want!
Time for flavor.
I added a few good glugs of vanilla extract.
And scraped the seeds of a vanilla bean too… just to be extra… because it’s the holidays, ya know?
We’ll mix baking powder and salt into the flour and spoon half of the flour mixture into the batter.
On low speed, begin the incorporate the dry ingredients while slowly streaming in all of the milk.
The batter will loosen and may start to look curdled. That’s ok! We’re getting there.
Add the remaining flour and give the whole mixture a good whip on the mixer. This is a lot of cake batter so use a spatula to scrape down into the bottom of the bowl to bring up any hidden bits of butter and sugar. Make sure the batter is uniformly incorporated and smooth. It should feel irresistible – that’s how you know you’re on to something.
In a small bowl, scoop two cups of the prepared batter.
This is the portion we’re going to gingerbread.
Add a generous amount of ground cinnamon, ground ginger, nutmeg, and a hint of cloves and allspice.
Molasses is essential too. I used 1/4 cup unsulfured molasses.
Now we have to get everything in the pan.
But here’s the thing . We’ve come so far incorporated our ingredients so carefully – we should also prepare the pan well.
Grease each nook and cranny with shortening and dust lightly with flour. The flour help you see any parts of the pan you might have missed with shortening. Hit it up!
After greasing I scooped half of the plain batter into the pan. Atop the plain batter, scoop half of the gingerbread batter and spread to an even layer.
Top with the remaining half of plain batter – and the remaining half of gingerbread batter.
I used a small offset spatula to gently dig down into the batter and swirl them just a bit.
Set in the oven to bake.
This cake takes a very good while in the oven – an hour – sometimes a few minutes over an hour. Middle rack, please.
Resist the urge to open the oven or rotate the pan within the first 40 minutes or so. This cake is tender in its rise because most of the rise comes from eggs and the aeration of the batter and there’s a critical point in its rise where the cake could fall if it’s fused with. So… ya know… leave it be and trust the process for a while.
To test for doneness, insert a toothpick or skewer. If it comes out with moist crumbs – the cake is done. If it comes out with straight up batter – the cake needs more time.
I allow the cake to cool in the pan for 20-25 minutes. You want the cake to be just slightly warm when inverting it out of the pan.
Brush with melted butter – just because.
Sprinkle generously with cinnamon sugar.
(A powdered sugar dusting would also be lovely. Skip the butter if that’s the case.)
Would you look at this wonder!
The crumb is all the things: moist, tender, sturdy yet somehow light and delicate.
The hint of gingerbread flavor make every bite interesting.
I’m satisfied. I really am.
This is THE cake. The end. Amen.
Photos with friend: Jonathan Melendez.