Everything you need to know about how to make a cake: step by step instructions and notes on ingredients, utensils, baking, flavouring, icing and filling.
If I had a pound for every time somebody said to me ‘I can’t make cakes’ or ‘I wish I could bake – it always goes wrong’, I’d be… well, not exactly rich, but I’d have a big pile of pound coins.
If you’ve ever uttered either of the above, don’t despair: here is how to make a cake – an easy, step by step, foolproof guide to the perfect light, spongey sponge cake, complete with tips, dos, don’ts and ABSOLUTELY DON’Ts thrown in for good measure. I’m not saying this is the ONLY way, but it’s a great way to start. And once you’ve got your baking confidence, there’ll be no stopping you.
It goes without saying that the best ingredients will make the best cake. Baking is a feel-good endeavour. A sponge cake made with lovely ingredients, and lots of love, will be the best cake in the world. I know I’ve said it before, but don’t bake when you’re tired, fed up or in a hurry. It’ll go wrong – well, mine always does anyway.
Fresh, free-range eggs with those startling golden yellow yolks will make better cakes than those awful, sad, battery-hen ones.
Likewise, gorgeous fresh farmhouse butter will make a cake taste much better than horrid, greasy margarine. Okay, it might be higher in fat, but hey we’re making a cake. If you don’t want fat, don’t eat cake! Moderation in all things, I reckon.
You don’t have to have self-raising flour. In fact, self-raising soon loses its raising power if it gets old. It’s easy to make your own self-raising with plain flour. Just add a level teaspoon of baking powder per 100g of plain flour.
Plain old supermarket caster sugar is fine. Don’t use granulated if you can help it as the grains are a bit too big and you can end up with a gritty texture (you could always give it a whizz in a grinder or blender to break down the grains). Golden caster sugar is less refined than the white stuff – it’s lovely (if a bit more expensive) and gives a subtle hint of toffee too.
Room temperature eggs will whip better and incorporate more air into your mix, as will softened (not melted) butter. Take everything out of the fridge a good hour before you intend to start baking. If you need to bring your butter up to room temperature quickly, cut it into squares and plop it into some tepid (not warm) water. It’ll soon soften up.
The easiest way to make a plain sponge cake is to just weigh your eggs in the shells (this sort of cake is also called a pound cake as it used to contain a pound of each ingredient – how anyone ever ate a cake that big, I’ll never know). To make an average sized cake, use three eggs. Whatever the eggs weigh will be the measurement you use for the butter, flour and sugar too. If you want to make it a chocolate cake, take out 1 tablespoon of the flour and replace it with cocoa powder (not hot chocolate powder – that’s different). Giving it all a quick sieve will remove any lumps and incorporate more air.
Here we go with the basic method, then…
- First weigh out all your ingredients. It’s easiest to crack the eggs into a separate bowl after you’ve weighed them. You never know when you’re going to get a bit of shell dropping into your cake mix. So say your eggs weigh.. 180g. Weigh out the same amount of butter, flour and caster sugar.
- Cream the butter and sugar together. You want it really light and fluffy, which is a sign that there is lots of air incorporated, so keep going until it’s considerably lighter in colour. You can do this in a food mixer, or just with a wooden spoon.
- Now start to add in your eggs… dribble them in a bit at a time giving the mixture a good beat in between each dribble. Don’t worry too much if it starts to look a bit curdly. You can always add a spoonful of flour to bring it back to a creamy consistency. If you’re adding liquid (ie vanilla essence or lemon juice), now is the time.
- Once all the eggs are mixed in, just fold in the sifted flour (and cocoa if you’re using it). Remember just to give it the minimum amount of folding. You’re not making bread so you don’t want to work the gluten too much and lose the lightness. Next, spoon the mixture into a prepared cake tin.
Any old medium sized cake tin will do. If you use three eggs you’ll find that this amount of mixture is perfect for two 22cm tins (perfect for sandwiching together with cream or jam), or one 26cm tin (remember it’s the depth of the cake mix not the size of the tin that governs how long it will take to cook). Cake tins are measured by their diameter (the straight measurement from one side to the other, measured through the middle). I have Bake-o-glide cut ready to fit my favourite tins, but baking parchment is fine too. For a circle, just take a square of parchment bigger than your tin, fold it in half, then keep folding the outsides in (keeping one point which will be the middle of your circle) again until you’ve got a triangle. Hold the triangle point roughly where the middle of the tin is, then nick the end off at the outside edge of the tin. When you unfold it you’ll have a rough circle. You can also just brush the surface with butter, then add a tbsp of flour and shake it all around the tin, tapping out the excess. Smooth over the surface but don’t worry too much.
I use the middle of my oven and as it cooks slightly unevenly, I turn the cake around half way through cooking. A cake this large will take anything from 30 – 45 minutes at 180/gas 4 – depending on how wide/deep your tin is. Smaller ones will take less time. Check them after 20 minutes.
If you think your cake looks done, gently touch the top of the cake – if there’s any wobble, or it feels really soft and leaves a dent – leave it a bit longer. You can check by popping a knife into the middle – if it comes out clean, it’s done.
Leave your cake to cool on a rack, then you can ice, decorate or fill as you fancy.
Let’s take a minute here though – LOOK! YOU BAKED A CAKE!
If you want to make ganache to fill or cover your cake, just melt half a large bar of chocolate (about 100g) in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water (just a couple of inches of water – you don’t want it to touch the bowl). When it’s melted, just whisk in enough double cream to get a nice spreading consistency. If you chill it down now, you can whip it go make it more airy too. Up to you.
Buttercream’s really easy to remember as it’s just double icing sugar to butter. Add a splosh of milk, a teaspoon of vanilla extract and whisk until light and fluffy. It makes great piped swirly things on cupcakes too.
So what’s next?
Once you’ve got to grips with making cakes you can start tweaking the recipe a little – maybe adding vanilla…dried fruit… lemon zest… chocolate chips or some chopped nuts… You can make the two smaller sponges (reduce the cooking time) and sandwich them together with jam or cream, or layer them up with some yummy ganache or buttercream… the sky’s the limit! For an easy pudding, try using brown sugar, for a more toffeeish flavour, and adding chopped dates. Serve warm with a quick toffee sauce made by melting 100g each of butter and brown sugar, then adding about 100ml of cream and stirring and bubbling until you have a lovely sauce.
If you’ve liked this post, feel free to try some of my other step by step guides, including: