Classic Cakes

Most celebrations, whether large or small, planned or spontaneous, elegant or casual, call for a cake. Indeed, at weddings and birthdays, a festively decorated cake is the culinary star. In other instances, it transforms an ordinary meal into an occasion.

Cakes are usually made from batters composed of flour, milk (or another liquid), sugar, eggs and often another leavener as well, butter (or sometimes oil or shortening) and flavorings. The batter is baked until its interior sets and becomes a crumb and a firm exterior crust develops. As is the case with all baked goods, the exact proportion of ingredients makes a significant difference in the texture, flavor and quality of the finished cake. (The term cake also may refer to any round, flat disk of food, such as a crab cake, a pancake or even a yeast cake. In fact, the earliest cakes, which date back at least as far as ancient Egypt, were nothing more than sweet breads; cake recipes featuring beaten eggs only began to be popularized some time around the 17th century.)

Cakes are divided into two main types: foam cakes and butter cakes. Foam cakes have a high proportion of eggs, sugar and liquid to flour, and the air trapped in the beaten eggs is the primary leavener. They contain very little if any fat, such as butter or oil, and so have a relatively dry, spongy texture. Popular foam cakes include angel food cake and sponge cake.

Butter cakes are richer and more velvety and rely on chemical leaveners—baking powder and baking soda. They are made with a comparatively high percentage of butter. Typical butter cakes are American layer cakes and pound cakes.

Some cakes, such as chiffon cake and the classic French génoise, combine elements of both types of cake.

Here you'll find recipes for classic cakes plus tips for baking and frosting cakes like a professional.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion: The A to Z Guide to Everyday Cooking, Equipment and Ingredients (Time-Life Books, 2000)