One Perfect Cake, Unlimited Ways to Customize It

Swirl, top, flavor, and sprinkle your way to the cake of your dreams.

August 29, 2023
Photo by Julia Gartland

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):

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. 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.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I doubled it-- I know, risky for a first try, but if you're bothering to make cake, why not two?-- and it came out perfectly. I rubbed the zest of two oranges (because I was making two cakes) into the sugar per one of the modifications, used bourbon instead of vanilla, and also subbed out a little of the buttermilk for OJ. I love the flavor and the texture is just perfect.”
— Alix D.

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.

  • 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.

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!
  • 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. 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!

This article was updated in August 2023 with products from our Shop to help you bake this everyday cake.

More from Food52

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

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • judy
  • ScMont15
  • cbelako
  • Alix Davidson
    Alix Davidson
  • Poppygold
A kitchen scientist and dog-lover. Someday I want to have you over for dinner.


judy September 1, 2023
I like both the chocolate and vanilla versions of the old fashioned Depression Cake. No dairy no eggs. And no Baking Powder. I can no longer tolerate baking powder, I have no idea why. This cake uses vinegar and baking soda for leavening, and a moderate amount of oil. I have been making it with avocado oil to great effect. And I have about 15 versions between the two flavors. quick and easy and I do not need to worry about the buttermilk, which I rarely ahve on hand. I have made a version with buttermilk to see how it goes, and it works fine, as does yogurt or sour cream, either one replacing some of the fat and water in the recipe. Spiced versions, black forrest version, coffee cake, carrot cake and apple cake versions; marble and blueberry bucket-type. All have worked. It is moist flavorful and keeps well for a couple of days. I think. it would keep longer--but it never last that long! My recipe is just an 8x8" pan recipe--enough for two for a couple of days. But I tried doubling it once to see how it would do, and it doubles fine! Also a great cake for a birthday cake. Beautiful crumb, moist, light, tender. It has become my go-to cake....
ScMont15 September 28, 2019
What can be replaced for buttermilk? To make it still fluffy and still moist
cbelako February 4, 2018
I made this today, subbing 1/4 cup of cocoa powder for the same amount of flour, and adding cinnamon to the dry mixture. It ended up being a thicker mixture than expected; but it baked up beautifully. Topped it with a semisweet ganache. Looking forward to trying other variations,
Alix D. February 3, 2018
I made this cake this morning, it's like the Victoria Sponge of my dreams!

I doubled it-- I know, risky for a first try, but if you're bothering to make cake, why not two?-- and it came out perfectly. I rubbed the zest of two oranges (because I was making two cakes) into the sugar per one of the modifications, used bourbon instead of vanilla, and also subbed out a little of the buttermilk for OJ. I love the flavor and the texture is just perfect.
Poppygold February 2, 2018
Can it be used as a base for tres leches?
Rona R. February 2, 2018
That's a lot of sugar in a 9X9 pan.
Joycelyn February 2, 2018
Although I'm sure the buttermilk cakes shown are good basic and quick recipes, ( although the tops have to make pockmarks for my satisfaction) myself, I'd not make a buttermilk cake without an addition of baking soda as buttermilk is wanting of more than baking powder for best results.
Joycelyn February 2, 2018
Correction.. To many pockmarks, not to make.
Alix D. February 3, 2018
This one has baking soda in it
Joycelyn February 3, 2018
Ingredient list calls for baking powder actually, although there is some baking soda in baking powder. When baking with acid aka buttermilk, sour cream, yogurt etc. I've learned over the years, a small addition of baking soda renders better results.
If it so interests you, have a peek at the link.

That said, to each her or his own when it comes to baking or cooking favorite recipes or wanting to try new recipes, if you're satisfied with what you always do, or with what you've read, that's all that matters.

Alix D. February 3, 2018
Super, thanks so much for the info. The cake rose well with the ingredients specified-- sort of since I used plain yoghurt instead of buttermilk-- but a general tip like that seems really useful.
Smaug August 29, 2023
Baking powder is baking soda+acid- I'm pretty sure this could be made as well with just the soda.
Kirsten S. February 2, 2018
I can't even handle how amazing these all sound... where to start?! Have you ever used syrups with it?
susiem February 2, 2018
How about making this in a ten-inch skillet? What would the timing be?
susiem February 5, 2018
I did this. No parchment, because the skillet is so well-seasoned. 45 minutes exactly. And added some candied grapefruit peel and a little bit of grapefruit juice. Incredible.
Kanan January 31, 2018
Oil instead of butter?
Catherine L. February 1, 2018
I bet that would be excellent! Especially if you added some orange zest to the mix... when in doubt, consult Alice Medrich: https://food52.com/blog/18190-yes-you-can-substitute-olive-oil-for-butter-in-dessert-but-carefully
Girlfromipanema January 30, 2018
You missed the most common question regarding modifications (at least in this health-conscious day and age)- can this be made with gluten-free flour? Can the sugar amount be reduced? I would hope a good, basic cake like this would be amenable to those changes.
Catherine L. January 30, 2018
Hi Girlfromipanema,

Good questions! I've only played around with this cake as a base for different toppings, flavors, and glazes, but you're right: it would be interesting to try switching up the flour and sugar amounts and types, as well. I imagine a gluten-free flour substitute would work well (like Cup4Cup) but I can't recommend replacing all the flour with almond flour or the like, as the structure would be totally different. Sugar, however, has a little more wiggle room: you could try subbing in honey, maple syrup, or agave for some or all of the granulated sugar, and could definitely reduce the sweetness a bit, especially if you're topping the cake with a sweet glaze. Do some experimentation and let me know how it goes!
Melissa B. February 2, 2018
We have a child with celiac. I often use cup4cup in simple cakes like these, subbing a little GF oat flour to keep the cake from being too starchy and adding a little xanthan gum to help the crumb. The cake tends to be more pound-cake-like, but is delicious! Good luck!
Joycelyn February 2, 2018
Replacing sugar with honey, maple syrup, agave etc. would bring about the need of changing the liquid amount too of course.

Monica B. February 4, 2018
Swapping honey, maple syrup or agave doesn't reduce the amount of sugar. They actually need to be swapped out in lesser amounts when baking otherwise the dish will be too sweet or strongly flavored--especially agave. Furthermore, the sugar content of these sweeteners is very close to that of white sugar so you aren't going to reduce sugar content by just swapping the type of sugar. I find that I can reduce sugar in most cake like recipes by 25% without affecting the texture.
Nancy H. January 30, 2018
Thank you Catherine! I can see now that I should have clicked on "articles" about trifle rather than "recipes", or I would have already seen the link you provided. While I can't get behind the suggestion to possibly skip the step involving the "boozy soak" (I mean, REALLY), it does seem that there are promising trifle rabbit holes to explore further here! It may be awhile before I report back, but will definitely do so once trifle season rolls around once again :)))
Nancy H. January 30, 2018
Just wondering if this might be a good cake base for a trifle? I've been trying to find a reliable go-to in this department for some time - an uncomplicated white or golden cake that is capable of absorbing liquid without turning to mush. As far as I can tell, none of the sponge cakes on this site refer specifically to an application for trifle, and I have not been thrilled with the ones I have experimented with. Any suggestions?
Catherine L. January 30, 2018
That. Sounds. Amazing. Having made this cake several times (with quite a few variations), I'd say that its sturdy crumb would be a good match for trifling. I would suggest maybe cubing or sliceing the cake first and letting it dry overnight on the counter so that it doesn't fall apart when it absorbs some of the trifle liquid. If you need a trifle-making guide, try this: https://food52.com/blog/11890-how-to-make-a-trifle-without-a-recipe