I'm a very confident cook, but the prospect of baking a cake can strike terror in my heart. When you cook, you are constantly tasting, stirring, poking, prodding. But baking requires blind faith: You follow the directions, put your cake in the oven and hope for the best. If your cake doesn't rise, if it refuses to come out of the pan ... you're out of luck.
And so over the years, I have assembled an arsenal of cake recipes that are pretty much idiot-proof. My criteria for dead-easy cakes are:
* No separating of eggs
* No melting of chocolate
* No more than one appliance (if that)
* No fancy techniques or ingredients
* No frosting necessary
Here are three cakes that meet all five requirements: an orange-almond cake that uses a whole, unpeeled orange; an apple cake made in one bowl; a chocolate cake almost as easy (but infinitely better) than one from a mix. All are delicious as is, but no one would complain if they were gussied up with a dollop of freshly whipped cream.
This unorthodox cake contains one whole navel orange, peel, pith and all. It has a moist, creamy interior and a dark, crunchy exterior. Baking it in a Bundt pan makes for a beautiful presentation, but you must carefully butter the pan's every nook and cranny. I've found powder-free latex or vinyl gloves (available at any drugstore) unbeatable for this task.
1 navel orange
8 ounces slivered or sliced almonds (Trader Joe's lightly toasted slivered or sliced almonds are perfect)
1 cup sugar, divided
1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, plus 1 tablespoon for greasing the pan, at room temperature
1. Place orange in a small saucepan and cover with water. Put a heatproof glass plate or pot lid on the orange to keep it submerged. Place over medium heat, bring to a boil, turn down heat and simmer 30 minutes. Remove orange and cool. (You can immerse it in cold water to hasten this.) Cut orange in half, each half into 4 to 6 wedges, and the wedges into chunks. Set aside.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter either a 9-inch Bundt pan, an 8-inch tube pan or a 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan.
3. Place almonds in a food processor with 2 tablespoons of sugar and process until nuts are finely ground. Remove from the processor bowl. Pour a handful of ground almonds into cake pan, then shake pan to evenly distribute almonds. Bang out any excess almonds and return them to the rest of the nuts.
4. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in small bowl. Cut butter into pieces.
5. Place orange chunks - peel, pith and all - into the bowl of a food processor with the remaining sugar. Process until orange is pureed. Add the ground almonds and the butter and process until well mixed. Add eggs and process until they are integrated. Add dry ingredients and process until just combined. Immediately pour batter into cake pan and bake until cake is nicely browned and starting to come away from the edges, about an hour. A wood skewer inserted into the center should come out clean. When pan is cool enough to handle, loosen the cake with a thin, narrow knife (a grapefruit knife works well here) then unmold cake and let it cool out of the pan. Makes 8 to 12 servings.
FARMHOUSE APPLE CAKE
This thin, elegant dessert, adapted from "Four Seasons of Italian Cooking" by A.J. Battifarano, is somewhere between a cake and a tart. The apple slices are bound by a custard that gets wonderfully caramelized on top. Cooking it in a springform pan allows you to unmold it for an impressive presentation, but you also could bake it in a 10-inch round pan; you just won't be able to unmold it.
1/2 cup whole milk
7 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus 1tablespoon for greasing the pan
5 Golden Delicious apples
2 large eggs
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons baking powder
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 10-inch springform pan and wrap the bottom in foil so it doesn't leak.
2. Measure milk into a microwavable measuring cup. Cut butter into pieces and add to milk. Microwave for a minute or two, until butter is just melted. Set aside to cool.
3. Peel, core and quarter apples. Slice apple quarters into thin slices, 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. This can be done by hand or with a food processor.
4. Beat the eggs and sugar in a large bowl with a wire whisk until sugar is dissolved. Stir in flour, then add milk-butter mixture and vanilla. Blend thoroughly. Quickly stir in baking powder, then fold in the sliced apples.
5. Pour mixture into pan and place pan directly on the gas oven floor for 10 minutes. Transfer pan to the center rack and bake until cake is well browned on top and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean, about an hour longer. (If you have an electric oven, place the pan on the lowest rack for the entire cooking time.) Place the cake on a cooling rack. When cool enough to handle, run a thin knife around the cake and remove springform ring. Serve warm. Makes 8 to 12 servings.
SEMI-WACKY CHOCOLATE CAKE
Wacky Cake is a famous recipe in which the dry ingredients are sifted directly into the cake pan, then three holes are poked therein. Into one goes the vanilla, one the vinegar and the other the oil. Then milk is poured over all and the batter is mixed right in the pan. You could certainly make this recipe ... wackily, but mixing the batter in a bowl allows you to line the pan with parchment paper, and that makes unmolding the cake much easier.
This eggless cake also can be made pareve by substituting water for the milk and vegetable oil for the butter. Milk makes the cake richer, but water bestows a more chocolaty intensity.
1 cup milk
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the pan
1 1/2 cups flour
1/3 cup natural (i.e., not Dutch-process) unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon white distilled orcider vinegar
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 9-inch round cake pan and line the bottom with parchment (see note).
2. Measure milk in a microwavable measuring cup. Cut butter into pieces and add to milk. Microwave for a minute or two, checking often, until butter is just melted.
3. Place flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt into a sifter (or sieve). Sift into a large bowl. Add sugar and combine with a large whisk.
4. Add vanilla and vinegar to the butter-milk mixture and add to dry ingredients. Whisk until everything is just combined and there are no large lumps. (Small lumps are OK.) Pour into pan and bake until the top is springy and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out dry, 35 to 40 minutes.
Note: To line a round pan with parchment, place pan on parchment paper and trace a circle around the bottom. With scissors, cut inside the circle you've drawn so the parchment circle fits inside the pan. Grease the pan, bottom and sides. Place the parchment circle inside the pan and press it to the bottom. Then turn it over so that the greased side faces up.