I was up way too late last night making my own birthday cake.
My birthday is the Fourth. We have a bit of a "thing" for holiday birthdays in my family: One of my cousins on my dad's side was born on Valentine's Day, and my maternal grandmother's birthday was Hallowe'en. I'd love to have a Hallowe'en birthday--can you imagine the amazing parties you could have! But I got the Fourth of July. I have to confess that it's not one of my favorite holidays; I don't really like summer and, since it's a holiday where activities tend to be either closed or mobbed, and people drink a lot, it's sort of not that much fun. I spent my eighteenth birthday working the later shift at the local water park. Yay. They gave me the later shift so I could spend the first part of the day with my family and then we'd all get in free to see fireworks in the evening, except that none of us really care about fireworks. My awesome coworkers did have a cake for me, though.
This year, my brother and sister-in-law will be in town and we're going to go . . . do something. Not sure what yet.
Anyway, about the cake . . .
Everybody talks about "Grandma's cooking". Apparently my brother and I are the only two people in the United States whose grandmothers weren't cooks. Actually, I'm not sure if my dad's mother was much of a cook or not. I know she could set a very nice table and I have to assume that she was perfectionist enough that she could make at least some things well, but I don't remember eating that many cooked meals with her (we didn't live near her and didn't see her that often). I've heard stories that suggest that her cooking career got off to a rocky start--something about a birthday cake that nobody would eat and that bounced when she threw it over the fence into the chicken yard--but I really don't know much about it after that.
My mother's mom, according to everyone whom I've ever heard comment on it, hated to cook and never became more than adequate at it. I think my mother was basically raised on canned-soup tuna casserole. Both of my mother's parents were gone before I was born so I don't have any first-hand stories to tell. Mom has her copy of The American Woman's Cook Book (1942 edition) and it has a lot of wear on it, but for all I know it may have been the only cookbook she ever used.
I do know, though, that the only cake recipe she knew how to make was . . . well, we used to call it just "the birthday cake recipe", but I found out later that it's properly called a 1-2-3-4 cake. It's apparently an old recipe; the 1-2-3-4 refers to the measurements of certain ingredients. It was easy to remember and, since it relies more on proportion of ingredients than precise measurements, could be made easily before the days of standardized measuring cups.
I had the recipe written down wrong for years and the texture wasn't coming out right, but then I found a James Beard cookbook at a library discard sale and now I think I'm back on track (you can also find the recipe all over the web).
1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks) at room temperature
1 cup milk
2 cups sugar
3 cups cake flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 - 1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350. Cream butter and sugar. Separate eggs and beat yolks into butter. Beat whites until fluffy. Sift flour, baking powder, and salt together. Alternate flour and milk into the butter mixture; don't over-mix. Add vanilla. Fold in beaten whites.
We usually bake this in a 9 x 13 pan; this cake was made with two 9-inch round pans. I baked it about 45 minutes total, but I was baking both pans at once and my oven is kind of old; you might lowball it to 30 minutes and then check. The cake should be golden on top and a knife should come clean out of the middle.
It's definitely a homemade cake: The texture is a bit coarse and slightly chewy, unlike the really fine, almost powdery, texture you get with box mixes. It tastes a bit like pancakes.
It's very versatile. The James Beard book includes variations for lemon and spice versions, but I haven't tried them yet (I can't eat that much cake). Mom always liked hers with chocolate frosting. Personally, I think it makes a great base for coconut. I added 1/2 cup fine coconut to the batter and mixed more coconut into the frosting. I suspect it would be awesome with a caramel or butterscotch frosting.
It's also huge. It turns out that if you use the correct recipe, you get a cake that will feed an army.
This terrible iPhone photo disguises my ham-handed frosting job (I'm blaming the coconut I mixed into the frosting. Honestly, I just stink at frosting cakes, but we'll say it's the coconut) but fails to convey the size of the thing. It's two nine-inch layers, but we had to put it under a huge metal dough bowl last night because the cake cover wouldn't fit.