What to CookAmerican

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

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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.

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

Tags: Cake, Bake, Comfort Food