Comfort Food

If You Only Learn One Cake Recipe, Let it Be This One

If the grocery store isn't your favorite place, it should be. We're sleuthing for the best back-of-the-box recipes and every Sunday, Posie Harwood from 600 Acres will share our latest find. 

Today: Can you count to 4? Great! You know a fantastic cake recipe.

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My mother makes the best birthday cakes. Every time I'm served a slice anywhere but home, I taste it hopefully, wishing it will be as good. But it never is. This is surprising to me, since my mom follows a modest, old-fashioned 1-2-3-4 cake recipe. My suspicion is that everyone is trying to whip up fancy, hedonistic birthday cakes when simple would suffice. Stick with the classics, people!

The 1-2-3-4 cake gets its name from the ingredient list: 1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour, and 4 eggs. You'll find it printed on the side of the Swans Down cake flour box. 

This basic formula yields a quintessential yellow layer cake. It has a tender crumb but is neither overly moist nor dense. Lighter than a chiffon or sponge cake, it tastes faintly of sugar and vanilla, which means you can pair it with absolutely any flavor, from chocolate and caramel to lime or raspberry. It's sturdy enough to be split into four layers and shellacked with peanut butter buttercream and fondant, yet humble enough to be served plain with whipped cream.

Two Harwood girls celebrating birthdays with 1-2-3-4 cakes

A novice baker would do well to master this recipe. It's one of the more forgiving layer cakes, and it will last you through a lifetime of birthdays and graduations and bake sales.

I frosted the cake with a Swiss meringue buttercream on the inside and a raspberry-flavored Swiss meringue buttercream on the outside. If you don't love pink quite as much as I do, you can leave the raspberry out.

A word on frosting: If intricate frosting techniques aren't your thing, just use an offset spatula to make little smudges around the cake like I did. Top the cake with fresh flowers (remove before serving!), whole berries, or shavings of chocolate.

1-2-3-4 Cake with Raspberry Swiss Meringue Buttercream

Adapted from Swans Down

Makes three 8-inch layers

For the cake:

cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

cups sugar


teaspoon salt

cups sifted cake flour

teaspoons baking powder

cup milk

teaspoon vanilla

For the frosting:

egg whites

cup sugar

cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

ounces raspberries

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Posie Harwood

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Kathryn Tanner
    Kathryn Tanner
  • Rachel Pope
    Rachel Pope
  • Tammy Maltby
    Tammy Maltby
  • amy pletz
    amy pletz
  • Michelle
I like warm homemade bread slathered with fresh raw milk butter, ice cream in all seasons, the smell of garlic in olive oil, and sugar snap peas fresh off the vine.


Kathryn T. August 24, 2015
Making this cake for my brothers wedding on Saturday. Just double checking the crumb coat is the raspberry frosting not the butter cream or do you do crumb coat with the buttercream and then the add the raspberry frosting over it
Posie (. August 24, 2015
Use the raspberry frosting for the crumb coat! Or you can also use regular buttercream for it, but I'd do the raspberry. Since it is a wedding cake, I would definitely recommend making more frosting than you need (double the batch) to ensure that you have enough to make it perfect looking! Good luck!
Rachel P. August 2, 2015
I have seen and also have a cake plate that I purchased at Home Goods. I love them with a lip on them that will keep anything like a sauce from running over. They have great ones from time to time.
Tammy M. August 2, 2015
That cake pedestal in that picture is from Bed Bath and Beyond? I have never seen anything like that there...I am having a hard time finding something both large and tall. This one is just is the cake!
amy P. August 2, 2015
I made this cake for my sister's birthday yesterday and the frosting turned out way too buttery. When we sliced it, the frosting separated from the cake. Wayyyy too much butter. I followed every step exactly. Much prefer a buttercream frosting made with heavy cream, confectioners sugar.... Thanks anyway.
Michelle August 2, 2015
When you write three cups sifted flour, do you sift before or after you measure? Thanks!
Bruce Y. August 2, 2015
When a recipe says "3 cups of sifted flour" it means to sift, then measure. If it says "3 cups of flour, sifted", you measure, then sift.
Michelle August 3, 2015
Thank you, Bruce! I made it yesterday and sifted first. Cake was delicious!
Tammy M. July 30, 2015
Where is the cake pedestal from?
Posie (. July 30, 2015
I honestly can't remember! I think it was someplace very simple and utilitarian like Bed, Bath & Beyond -- but years ago!
Sarah C. July 27, 2015
Ah. We made this cake once and had neighbors over to eat it (Yeah, make a big cake too big to eat at a go, and ask people over so you won't eat cake and icing until it is gone.) They could not believe it was a homemade, fairly ordinary cake. Granted they were college students, but still . . . .
AntoniaJames July 27, 2015
Yes, this was a favorite when I was growing up. I'm quite certain this recipe was on the Swan's Down boxes even then (a long time ago). It's the first cake I remember, in fact, in a lifetime of so many cakes. I am fairly sure that the "one bowl golden layer cake" from "The Joy of Cooking" was the first cake I ever baked (age 8 or 9) and that the 1-2-3-4 cake was the second. Truly a classic. ;o)