Lots of us grew up thinking like the little girl in the Joy of Cooking story, who told her mom, “This recipe says take milk and eggs and mix, but it doesn’t say what kind of mix.” To make cake, for example, you absolutely needed a cake mix.
That wasn’t true, of course, and some of us began to wonder what was in those packaged powders that mysteriously turned into cake when you followed the directions. Some were alarmed by all the chemicals it took to keep the mix fresh on the shelf; others just realized that everything we really needed could be put together with a little more planning and a lot less money.
So what do you really need to make a cake?
Flour, liquid (usually milk), sugar, and leavening (something to make the batter rise, almost always baking powder or baking soda). Usually there’s some egg. Probably also some butter, but not necessarily — cakes with lots of whipped egg white use no fat, for example. Quick cakes, like muffins, often use less sugar, especially if they contain other sweet ingredients like blueberries.
Most recipes that use butter start by telling you to beat the sugar with it till the mixture’s “light and fluffy”. That sounds more like cotton candy than butter and sugar, but think of frosting and you’ll be on the right track. Eventually, you’ll add the egg and any liquid flavoring you’re using, like vanilla.
You’ll also probably be told to mix the flour and other dry ingredients before you add them to the wet mixture. Lots of recipes still call for “double-acting baking powder” though that’s pretty much the only kind you can get anymore. About a teaspoon is needed for every cup of flour. You may also have to use baking soda, especially if your liquid is buttermilk or something else sour. In some recipes, baking soda is the only leavening you need. Another dry ingredient may be cocoa, which will replace some of the flour in a chocolate cake.
Pay attention to whether you’re supposed to mix “thoroughly” or “until just blended”. It makes a difference to the texture of the cake. Either way, you’ll end up with a thick liquid batter. Pay attention also to the size pan you’re supposed to use and get it greased unless you’re told not to (which is rare, but does happen in those fat-free cakes).
Cakes are usually baked at 350 degrees. It’s a good idea to check on yours a few times in case it’s done before the recipe says. If it’s dry on top and smells done, stick a clean knife or toothpick in the center and see if it comes out clean and dry.
Now all you need is frosting — but that’s something for another week.