“It's just one of those plain cakes you think you can't see the point of, until you start slicing and eating it,” Nigella Lawson writes of Madeira cake in How to Be a Domestic Goddess. As is the case with most of Lawson’s thoughts on food, this couldn’t be more spot-on, so allow me to introduce you to Food52’s best Madeira cake. A simple sponge cake without frosting, filling, bells, or whistles, you may not think much of this one-layer cake at first blush. (That said, if you want to fill it with something creamy, it’s sturdy enough to handle the extra moisture.)
But sometimes, simplicity is what makes the best snacking cakes: There need not be much more in a great one than butter, sugar, flour, and eggs. Typically found in British and Irish cooking, Madeira cake is named not for an ingredient within the bake, but for the drink with which it was historically served (Madeira wine, if you haven’t already guessed). Even the sweet varieties of this Portuguese fortified wine tend to have a dry finish, and they were often served as a digestif in 19th-century Britain; though the cake is now more typically found as an accompaniment to afternoon—or morning!—tea, the name stuck.
Most recipes for Madeira cake are scented with lemon zest and juice, but any citrus you have on hand—from grapefruit to lime—will do well here. Whatever you do, don’t skip the sprinkle of sugar on top pre-bake, which makes for a crackly textured top and a sweet foil to the tangy cake. Madeira cake is often made in a loaf pan or a deep round cake pan; I found a 9-inch springform pan works nicely for cutting fat wedges to serve alongside a strong cup of English breakfast. While many classic recipes for this cake call exclusively for butter, after much testing, I found that a bit of vegetable oil made for the the most tender version of this cake. Its crumbly, super-light texture is all thanks to DIY cake flour (all-purpose and cornstarch—because who has cake flour in their pantry at all times? Not me!) The addition of flaky salt at the end is not traditional, and it's optional in the recipe, but trust me: once you start salting your desserts, you'll never go back.
This cake will keep, tightly wrapped and stored at room temperature, for 3 days (then it starts to dry out); you can push this to a week by storing it in the refrigerator. —Rebecca Firkser