Mastering the butter cake

A twist on the basic butter cake ... This one is flavoured with lemon and topped with thick cream and kiwifruit. Recipe ...
A twist on the basic butter cake ... This one is flavoured with lemon and topped with thick cream and kiwifruit. Recipe at the bottom of this article. Photo: Quentin Jones

With a butter cake in your baking arsenal, you'll never be short of options for serving up a delicious sweet treat. One of the most versatile of cakes, butter cakes can move from simple to sophisticated with the addition of rich icings, fillings and decorations.

You'll find a butter cake recipe in most baking books although in some older cookbooks you might find them under the title "pound cake". Pound cakes include a pound each of butter, eggs, sugar and flour, but you can easily reduce these quantities as long as you keep the 1:1:1:1 ratio.

Butter cakes lend themselves to a range of flavours: add lemon, lime or orange juice and rind; swirl melted and cooled dark chocolate through the batter; or add a shot of espresso and finely ground coffee beans (just reduce the amount of milk in the recipe to accommodate the extra liquid).

Butter cakes make an excellent base for trifle and are perfect for layer cakes. Firmer than a sponge, a layer cake takes well to being doused with alcohol or syrup and will bake well in a variety of cake tins, so you can also experiment with shapes and designs.

Head chef Stuart Fischer from Brisbane cake shop Jocelyn's Provisions makes cakes and pastries every day and butter cake continues to be a popular staple at this classic cake shop.

Rich with butter, eggs and milk, Stuart says the success of your butter cake will depend on the quality of your ingredients as much as the mastery of caking baking skills. Use the best butter you can afford, quality vanilla extract and fresh eggs for an optimum result.

Jill Dupleix's little apricot cakes with sugared almonds (recipe below).
Jill Dupleix's little apricot cakes with sugared almonds (recipe below). Photo: Marina Oliphant

High in fat, butter cake will keep well for several days and Stuart says making the cake a day in advance will allow the flavours to improve. Un-iced, a well-wrapped baked cake will keep well in the freezer for 1-2 months.

The cake recipe below uses 10 egg yolks – use the whites to make meringues or macarons or freeze to use later.

Tips for success

Butter: If you've taken your butter straight from the fridge you'll need to soften it before you can start creaming the butter and sugar. Cut the butter into small cubes and gently microwave until soft or place the butter on a dish in your pre-heated oven, leaving the oven door open, until the butter is soft (2-3 minutes). If the butter melts, you'll have to start again.

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Dry ingredients: Sifting the dry ingredients is essential as it helps aerate the mix and prevents lumps. Sifted flour is easier to mix into the batter and will help you avoid beating the air from the creamed eggs, butter and sugar. It will also give you a finer crumb.

Troubleshooting

Burnt cake: If you've scorched the cake, remove it from the oven and allow it to cool completely. Trim the scorched areas of the cake with a sharp knife then decorate the whole cake with icing to disguise the trimmed areas.

Eggs won't mix: Adding a liquid to a fat can result in a split mix. To avoid this add the egg yolks one at a time and beat well after adding each egg. Don't add the next egg until the mix is fully integrated. Patience is a virtue during this process.

Cake top has split: This is often the result of a too hot oven or opening the oven during baking but it won't affect the taste of the cake. If a split top bothers you, drench with icing sugar to disguise the split or trim the cake then cover with a thick buttercream icing.

Equipment 

  • Electric beaters: when creaming butter and sugar it takes time to reach the desired light and fluffy consistency – if you don't have electric beaters this process will take up to 20 minutes by hand.
  • Scales for weighing ingredients
  • Rubber spatula, for scraping down the bowl
  • Sift or fine sieve for sifting the flour
  • Cake rack
  • Cake tin: a basic round cake tin works well but this recipe easily adapts to a range of tin shapes and sizes

Butter cake recipe and method 

(serves 6-8)

  • 200g soft unsalted butter
  • 215g caster sugar
  • 10 large egg yolks (use 70g size eggs)
  • 230g plain flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 160ml buttermilk (or use ordinary milk)
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Pre-heat your oven (150c for a fan-forced oven, 175c for a conventional oven) and prepare your cake tin: Grease the tin with soft butter then shake 1-2 tablespoons of flour over the inside of the tin then shake out excess flour. Alternatively grease the cake tin and cut out baking paper to fit the bottom of the tin.

Beat your butter and sugar using electric beaters until the butter and sugar is light and fluffy (about 10 mins). The butter and sugar mix will change colour during this process and will have incorporated lots of air, increasing in volume.

Add eggs yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition. Pause your beating once or twice to scrape down the sides of the bowl to make sure all the creamed butter and sugar is incorporated into the mix.

Sift flour, baking powder and salt together. Add vanilla extract to buttermilk or milk.

On low speed, add 1/3 of the flour to the mix. When it has been incorporated add half the buttermilk mixture and beat. Repeat until you have 1/3 of the flour left. Turn off the beaters and mix the last of the flour into the batter by hand using a spatula.

Scrape the batter into the prepared tin and gently smooth the top. The mix will make two 6 inch cakes or one large cake. Bake two small cakes for 35-40 minutes, a large cake for 1 hour and 10 minutes. Set your oven's alarm for the correct time.

Avoid opening the oven door in the early stages of baking. The finished cake should be golden brown with the edges coming away from the tin. The top of the cake should be springy to the touch. Take a skewer and test the middle of the cake – if the skewer comes out sticky, give the cake a little more time in the oven. If it comes out clean, the cake is ready.

Remove the cake from the oven and rest in the tin for 10 minutes to allow the cake to set. Run a knife around the edge of the cake then turn it out of the tin onto a cake rack and cool. Remove baking paper if using. When completely cold, ice and fill as desired.

Ideas to spruce up your butter cake

These recipes from the goodfood.com.au database all use a butter cake as the base.