The Baker's Pantry Essentials (& 15 Cakes They'll Bring to Life)

December 22, 2016

Grocery lists get out of control fast. One second you've picked a main, a side, and a dessert, and the next, your chicken-scratched list of what to "grab" has spread from the back of your hand to well up your forearm.

But just as savory pantry essentials—be those anchovies, canned tomatoes, and pasta; sushi rice, kombu, and miso paste; chana dal and tamarind concentrate—bound you closer to dinner, the baker's pantry staples (often outlined in the front or back of trusty dessert and pastry books) leap you closer to dessert (and save you from wondering whether you have baking powder in the cupboard).

If you have the following essentials, all 15 of the cakes below can be pulled off with just a couple additional ingredients that we've made note of below each image, along with viable substitutions. And in some wonderful cases, you'll need nothing extra at all.

Here's what to keep on hand, in plentiful quantities, this baking season:

  • All-purpose flour
  • Leaveners (baking soda and baking powder)
  • Salt (fine sea salt is versatile for baking)
  • A few key spices (cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg)
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Neutral oil (like canola or vegetable)
  • Vanilla and almond extract
  • Granulated sugar
  • Bittersweet/dark chocolate (70% cocoa)
  • Cocoa powder
  • Eggs
  • Whole milk (perishable, but very easy to find uses for—helloooo, cereal)
  • Unsalted butter

And here's what to put them toward:

You might need 1/3 cup of heavy cream. Use whatever you have in your kitchen (poppy seeds? lemons? orange flower water from years ago?) to flavor the cake, which is designed to be played with.

You'll probably need to buy 1 cup heavy cream and 3/4 cup yellow cornmeal. This cake is at its best with a drizzle of maple syrup, but perhaps you already keep that handy for pancake breakfasts.

You might need 3 ounces ground almonds (or swap in walnuts or hazelnuts). If you have whole nuts, you can process them yourself. You'll also need 1 tablespoon of hard liquor (a good excuse to make a cocktail, no?) and 1 tablespoon strong coffee or espresso (save it from your morning cup?).

An even more pared-down variation of the cake above, this one has no liquor or espresso. You'll still need ground almonds (4.4 ounces).

You'll need 1/3 cup sliced almonds and any jam of your choosing (like the one you already use to make sandwiches or smear on your morning toast).

Pick up plain yogurt (which you may already have) and 3 lemons. The recipe calls for self-rising flour, but if you have all-purpose flour, baking powder, and salt you can make it yourself.

Add 10 1/2 ounces fresh ricotta and 1 lemon to your list. And while the recipe calls for superfine sugar, you can get around that by blitzing your regular granulated sugar in a food processor until it's softer and more powdery.

All you need is love heavy cream (1 1/2 cups).

Everything but the 7 ounces shredded, unsweetened coconut comes from your stock of baking supplies.

You'll need 1/2 cup buttermilk (or, better yet, make your own from milk and lemon juice or vinegar), as well as 1/2 cup creamy unsalted, unsweetened peanut butter (if you don't keep that on hand for sandwiches and bananas).

Surprise! The only thing you might not have for this cake is 1/2 teaspoon finely ground white pepper. (And one Food52er, Kaite, swapped it out for black with good results.)

Add 1/2 cup walnuts and 1 orange to your shopping list. You'll also need 1/2 cup of strong, cooled coffee (and I bet I know where you will get that...).

You'll need 1/3 cup almond flour or meal (and if you have whole almonds and a food processor, remember that it's easy to make your own).

Buy a 12-ounce jar of lemon curd and mix together the self-rising flour yourself.

For the grand finale—a fancy and beguiling nearly-pudding—you'll need 3 red grapefruits, 1/2 vanilla bean (or sub in 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract), 1 cup Greek yogurt, and 1/2 cup crème fraîche (which you could replace with additional yogurt).

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What baking basics are you never without? And what would you like to always keep on hand? Tell us in the comments below.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Karin Byars
    Karin Byars
  • John B
    John B
  • Trees
  • ChefJune
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


Karin B. May 21, 2017
Yesterday I had no bread for breakfast, no milk for pancakes or cereal so I decided to make cream biscuits from flour, lots of heavy cream, some salt and baking powder. They were hard as rocks and did not rise. When I looked at the baking powder it said "best by 02, 2012". So, if you are going to bake, clean out your pantry
All the cakes look great, I am already fat so one or two of those will not make a noticeable difference.
John B. April 23, 2017
This list is just the ingredients which should be in the cake-bakers pantry. I suggest a box of cake flour. It works well in "softening" the crumb of layer cakes. It is a splendid add-in with/to biscuits. You'll be surprised!
Trees December 31, 2016
If you're dairy-free or just looking for non-perishable substitutes for dairy, these are some good options: ground flax seed to replace eggs (1 tbs flax + 3 tbs water = 1 egg); full-fat canned coconut milk to replace heavy cream; coconut oil to replace butter. I also try to always have molasses (because gingerbread is the best), apple cider vinegar (you can whisk a small amount into milk to make faux-buttermilk), and non-stick spray.
ChefJune December 22, 2016
Shame on you, Sarah! These are ALL my kind of cake. Are yo trying to make me fat??? ;-)