In addition to all the scheduled festivities, the holiday season always delivers delightful surprises: a last-minute invitation to a neighbor’s open house, an unexpected visit from an old friend, a rare evening when everyone happens to be home in time for dinner. For times like these, I go back to my roots as a baker and pull out my favorite snack cake recipes. Their flavors are perennial favorites: cocoa, vanilla, spice, and banana. And they’re so simple that you don’t even have to plug in the mixer. All you need is a bowl and a whisk.
These humble, comforting cakes—just one delicious layer—are terrific plain, but they can be dressed up, too, with a dusting of confectioners’ sugar if you want to take them to a party or give them away. Best of all, they’re so easy, you don’t need to wait for a special occasion to make them.
So, why a bowl and a whisk rather than a wooden spoon or an electric mixer? Every cook has a favorite kitchen gadget or tool. For me, it’s a worn, rather flimsy whisk that I bought at a discount store. It’s the perfect mixing tool for these cakes: The thin tines blend very soft butter, sugar, and eggs with great ease and efficiency. And when it’s time to mix in the dry ingredients, the flour disappears quickly so there’s little danger of overmixing the batter and toughening the cake.
Cakes for every occasion
I love the versatility of these cakes. The streusel-topped sweet potato spice cake is a satisfying afternoon treat, but I also love it with my morning coffee. The same is true for the cranberry upside-down cake, which started out in my house as a casual dessert, but now appears at brunch and at teatime as well. The dark crumb of the coffee-cocoa snack cake is very elegant, but it’s so rich and moist that even the most sophisticated adults ask for a tall glass of cold milk. You can enhance the cake’s kid-appeal by cutting a stencil out of parchment and dusting on confectioners’ sugar. And if you want to dress it up even more, a simple frosting of thick ganache or whipped cream is all it takes.
Shortcuts for bakers
Over the years, I’ve formed a few habits in the kitchen to speed up baking preparations.
Eggs at room temperature. No one has time to wait for ingredients to come to room temperature. I soak cold eggs in warm water to speed thema long.
Softened butter. I often soften butter by placing it on the range while the oven heats up. The microwave is great for softening butter, too, and also for bringing milk to room temperature and melting chocolate, as long as you keep a close watch to prevent overheating. Instead of using extra butter for greasing the pans, Iuse what’s left in the wrapper or a bit ofwhatever fat I’m using in the recipe.
Sifting flour. When it comes to sifting, I use a strainer held right over the bowl. And, if cocoa powder isn’t involved (its lumps are small and stubborn) and I’ve measured my flour carefully on a scale, I sometimes don’t sift at all—instead, I just whisk the flour, salt, and leavens in a bowl until fluffy and wellcombined.