My grandmother and my mother often made a very simple, rustic cake to enjoy during a lazy weekend breakfast or with an afternoon cup of tea. After my mother died, I realized I didn’t have the recipe. By this point, my grandmother was in the early stages of dementia, and when I asked her for the recipe, she referred me to an aunt. My aunt said: “this cake is so simple; it doesn’t require a recipe. It’s simply milk, sugar, eggs, flour, and you know, the other ingredients that normally go into a cake.” This response was not what I’d been hoping for, and certainly unacceptable to my Type-A nature. So I set about finding a recipe to replicate Grandma’s cake. After 3 years of searching, a recipe from Martha Stewart for a vanilla cake came closest to my memory of the cake. I started with her recipe but tweaked a few elements to make it even more similar to my memory of Grandma’s cake. I replaced butter with vegetable oil. This creates a tighter, more rustic crumb. I decreased the sugar from 1½ cups to 1 cup for a barely sweet cake, as I remember Grandma’s cake to be. These two changes make it easier to spread something like jam onto the cake at serving time.
Grandma’s Simple Cake: Adapted from Martha Stewart
Equipment: 2 9-inch round cake pans, 1 bundt pan (8-cup capacity or larger), or 2 8×4 loaf pans
240g / 2 cups all-purpose flour
1 TBsp baking powder
¼ tsp fine sea salt
200g / 1 cup granulated sugar*
125ml / ½ cup neutral vegetable oil or 113g / 4oz unsalted butter, at room temperature
250ml / 1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 large eggs, at room temperature
*Based on your preference, you can use up to 300g (1 ½ cups) sugar.
Preheat the oven to 350F (180C) and butter and flour the pan (s). For round or loaf pans, butter the pan (s), add a layer of parchment paper, and then butter and flour the parchment for easy release. For bundt pans, use a silicone pastry brush to really grease the pan well, and then add a thin layer of flour, making sure to tap out any excess.
Sift the flour, baking powder, salt together into a bowl. Add the sugar on top and combine, either with the paddle attachment of a stand mixer set to low, or by hand with a wooden spoon. Add oil and mix on low to coat the dry ingredients well.
Combine the milk and vanilla together, and add it to the batter, all at once. Mix on low for 30 seconds, and then increase the speed to medium for 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Add eggs, 1 at a time, and mix for about 30 seconds on medium speed after each addition. Finally, beat on medium-high speed for 30 seconds. Note: the entire batter can be mixed by hand as well; just use a rubber spatula to make sure everything has been combined well. The batter will be very liquid.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan (s) and bake until golden on top (roughly 33-35 minutes for round pans, 42 minutes for a bundt, and 50-55 minutes for a loaf pan). Cool in the pan on a rack for 10-15 minutes, and then remove to the rack by inverting the bundt or round pans, or by lifting with the parchment sleeve with a loaf pan and cool for 1-2 hours. Serve the cake on its own or with whipped cream, butter, and jam, and a hot cup of tea or coffee.
Variations: Because this cake is so simple, it lends itself well to variations. In the winter, my grandmother often added a hint of orange zest. Sometimes, she would add a cocoa stripe in the center of the cake, reminiscent of a classic coffee cake with its cinnamon-y center. Experiment to find variations you like.
Orange Simple Cake: Add 1-2 teaspoons of finely grated orange zest to the batter in the final stage of mixing.