What to CookCake

One Perfect Cake, Unlimited Ways to Customize It

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I love an everyday cake. Not necessarily a cake that you eat every single day—just one that you could, and one that doesn’t require much fanfare or intense grocery shopping. One that you can whip up with ease, even on a Tuesday; one that you’d be proud to take to a dinner party; one that is low-key enough to eat for breakfast (yes, I said breakfast), yet special enough to present as a housewarming gift. An all-purpose, crowd-pleasing cake that never fails.

I have a favorite recipe for one such cake. It’s my go-to: moist, just sweet enough, and with a great crumb, plus it whips up quickly. Most importantly, though, it’s the ultimate base for any flavor combination or general dessert experimentation—the perfect foundation for all of your topping, swirl, and add-in dreams. I’ll show you the basics (and then let you loose):

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Your blank cake canvases (vanilla on the left, chocolate on the right).
Your blank cake canvases (vanilla on the left, chocolate on the right). Photo by Julia Gartland

First, start with the cake

First, sift the dry ingredients (all the usual suspects) together in a bowl. Cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy—and don’t skimp on this step! It helps to aerate all the ingredients and establish a nice crumb. You want the mixture to be pale and light. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Next, add in the buttermilk and the dry ingredients, alternating between the two, starting and ending with the dry. If you haven’t started to feel like a mad kitchen scientist yet, just wait—the experimentation is coming.

I’d recommend first following the recipe as is, because the cake is just that dang good. But if you want to play around with it—by tweaking its flavor, its add-ins, or its toppings—we’ve got a handy guide for how to make it happen.

change the flavor

Vanilla or chocolate? Probably smart to try a bite of both.
Vanilla or chocolate? Probably smart to try a bite of both. Photo by Julia Gartland

Think of the original cake recipe as a template, one that you can play around with to make it your own. In our test kitchen, we baked up the basic cake first, then replaced 1/2 cup of the flour with cocoa powder and folded in 1 cup of chopped bittersweet chocolate to make a chocolate version.

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Some more flavor and add-in ideas:

  • Substitute 1/3 cup of the flour with well-sifted matcha powder.

  • Substitute almond, coconut, or orange blossom extract for the vanilla. Or swap the extract for vanilla beans; just scrape out the seeds and add them to the butter and sugar mixture.

  • Rub the zest of a lemon, orange, or half of a grapefruit into the sugar before mixing. Feel free to amp up the flavor even more by replacing some of the buttermilk with juice from your chosen citrus.

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  • Spice it up by adding 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon of cardamom or allspice, or even a few cracks of black pepper into the dry mixture. You could also grate a tablespoon of fresh ginger and add it to the butter and sugar mixture.

  • Add fruit (even frozen!), chocolate chips (or toffee chips, or white chocolate chips), or chopped toasted nuts to the batter. Try raisins plumped overnight in rum! Add in a handful of cocoa nibs! Mix and match! Just remember: If you’re using fruit or nuts, make sure to toss them in a tablespoon or so of flour before incorporating, so that they don’t sink to the bottom of the batter.

add a swirl (or two)

A simple way to jazz up your cake with very fancy results is with a swirl (or two). Simply make your cake base (basic, chocolate, or otherwise), dollop your topping(s) of choice evenly on the top of the smoothed, unbaked batter, then swirl into the cake using the sharp tip of a knife. The finished effect looks (and tastes) amazing, yet is incredibly easy.

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We didn’t make a swirled cake in our test kitchen this time, but we have lots (and lots) of ideas to get you inspired:

  • Sauté bananas, apples, or pears with sugar (and maybe a splash of bourbon?) in a saucepan until soft, then dollop them over the smoothed batter and swirl.

  • Mix together equal parts brown sugar and melted butter with a generous shake of cinnamon, then swirl it on top. It tastes like a cinnamon roll.

  • Drop spoonfuls of stirred tahini, peanut butter, or almond butter over the top of the cake and swirl, topping with sesame seeds (a mixture of white and black is pretty), chopped toasted peanuts, or almonds.

sprinkle away

We didn’t sprinkle anything on our test kitchen cakes, but that doesn’t mean you should stop yourself.

  • If you’re going for a Funfetti-like vibe, add on rainbow sprinkles before baking. Chocolate ones are good, too—you can even incorporate them into the batter, if you want to be extra over-the-top.
  • Whip up a quick streusel topping, then use it to (generously) top the unbaked cake. Now you’ve got cinnamon-spiced coffee cake!
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  • For added crunch, top the cake batter with chopped toasted nuts.
  • To add a little bit of savoriness to the mix, sprinkle flaked sea salt on top of the unbaked cake (use gray or pink sea salt for extra color). Just don’t go too overboard on this one, or your cake will be the wrong side of savory.

pour on a glaze

The basic cake with a crunchy grapefruit glaze and a chocolate cake with salted caramel.
The basic cake with a crunchy grapefruit glaze and a chocolate cake with salted caramel. Photo by Julia Gartland

If you want to add some serious flavor to your cake, glaze is the way to go. In our test kitchen we topped the chocolate cake with a salted caramel glaze and the basic cake with a crunchy grapefruit one (a riff on this lemon version), but that’s just the tip of the glazing iceberg. Remember: It’s best to glaze the cake when it’s still warm. Before you bathe your cake, poke it all over with a toothpick or wooden skewer. This will help the glaze absorb deep into the cake, making it even more moist and delicious.

Some more glazing ideas:

  • Top a chocolate cake with a deep chocolate ganache for double the intensity.

  • Melt down peanut butter or Nutella, or thin out tahini with lemon juice and warm water, then pour all over your cake.

  • If you want chocolate and caramel, try this genius caramelized white chocolate. If you don’t eat it all straight off the spoon, spread it on your cake.

now go forth and play

I hope we’ve inspired you to put on your lab coat—er, apron—and do some cake experimentation. Try mixing and matching swirls, toppings, add-ins, and glazes to find your ultimate combination; or just switch it up every week to suit the occasion and your mood. Now go forth and express yourself!

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The Ultimate Customizable Everyday Cake

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Makes one 9 x 9-inch cake
  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk
Go to Recipe

Do you have a favorite cake (or dessert) that you reach for all the time? Let us know in the comments below!

Automagic Spring Menu Maker!
Automagic Spring Menu Maker!

Tags: Dessert, DIY Food, Entertaining