Cakes are such grand and wonderful affairs, almost always the celebratory signal of a festive occasion or fanciful feast. Lush and indulgent, they proudly present themselves as something of an anachronism these days, flouting the modern-day naughtiness of cream, butter, sugar and eggs.
Their forms are myriad: Tiered affairs stacked together with sweetened berries and pouffy clouds of whipped cream; sugar-spun layers bound for glory with puckery lemon filling and a shower of coconut; simple, homey loaves; unforgivably rich chocolate tortes; and, as Easter approaches, one of the sweetest of all: the endearingly old-fashioned bunny- and lamb-shaped cakes.
Tradition doesn't always adapt to the modern-day tale, though. Baking takes time and a certain amount of skill that some cooks claim not to possess. These jarring realities make it hard to resist turning to a boxed mix or a bakery. Except, of course, it's just not the same.
For those who say it's too hard to bake a cake, or that it's a job best left to others, Flo Braker, author of "The Simple Art of Perfect Baking" (Chapters Publishers, $19.95), begs to differ. Her book has been described by one reviewer as "the perfect book for imperfect bakers," so who better to sift through all the layers of intimidation and turn the science of baking into a piece of cake?
A cake recipe, Ms. Braker said, is a simple formula that anyone can follow, and the results are worth the effort.
"Even if you're busy, you'll find time if you're motivated," Ms. Braker said from her home in California.
"Baking is about creating memories. It says that someone cares enough to do it," she said, adding that the "not enough time" excuse is a lame one.
With Easter as a motivation, we asked Ms. Braker to demystify each step of a homemade cake and provide the perfect recipe, one that's open to variations in flavoring, shape and size. She proposed a never-fail, completely unfussy, lusciously textured yellow cake, and offered reassurance for those who doubt their baking skills.
"Cooks don't have to know any of the science of baking," she said. "All they have to do is follow the recipe. It's not so much skill as it is concentration."
Ms. Braker offered more comforting words for those who think they lack baking abilities:
"Older recipes were a little less precisely written and assumed a certain amount of familiarity." she said. "It's comforting to know that, today, they're written with a tremendous amount of accuracy, so they're easier to follow and there's no guessing."
Ms. Braker's offering is her own finely tuned rendition of a time-honored classic. Called 1-2-3-4 Cake, its name was once the same as its ingredient list: 1 cup of butter, 2 cups of sugar, 3 cups of flour and 4 eggs. Modern tastes prefer a lighter cake, so it has been amended by adding liquid and leavening.
The results are sweetly satisfying.
Some cake-making tips from Ms. Braker:
* The first time you make a recipe, prepare it exactly as it's written. Ms. Braker warned that your own prejudices shouldn't influence you. For instance, if you don't like salt, she said, don't be tempted to omit it. If it calls for flavors you think you don't like, make a different recipe rather than improvising.
"Once you know how the recipe is meant to taste, there's room to make changes, but until you have a frame of reference, there's nothing to build on," she said.
* Start with high-quality ingredients and use exactly what's called for. For example, the size of the eggs, whether butter is salted or unsalted and the type of milk make a big difference in the taste and success of the final product.
"It was an enormous shock to me when I was able to get unsalted butter," Ms. Braker said. "For the first time, I was able to isolate and really taste delicate flavors like orange rind and vanilla."
* Read the recipe before you begin. Assemble all the ingredients and equipment you'll need.
* Ms. Braker's preference is to measure ingredients such as flour and sugar by weight instead of volume because it's more precise. She admitted, though, that most cooks won't do this. But, she said, if you measure everything by volume, the margin of error will be consistent and, therefore, compensated for.
* Follow the directions. If it says to sift the flour and leavening three times or to beat the sugar and butter 8 minutes, do exactly that.
"I want people to be able to make the best possible cake in the world and that's how I write instructions," Ms. Braker said. "If you only beat for 2 minutes, your cake will be fine but it won't be as good as it can be. It's not a matter of right or wrong but of good, better, best."
* Make sure the pan, including all the nooks and crannies, is thoroughly greased. Ms. Braker swears by the old-fashioned method of using solid vegetable shortening rather than spray-on coatings. Cakes release more easily from the pan and have a more evenly colored crust.
* Although the toothpick test for doneness is most common, Ms. Braker said that a cake can be overdone by the time the toothpick comes out clean. A better gauge is when the cake just begins to pull away from the sides of the pan.
* Let the cake cool in the pan for about 10 minutes before removing it. Then, cool it completely on a wire cooling rack before frosting it.
* "Professionals always freeze layers before frosting them," Mrs. Braker said. "When they're frozen, they're much easier to work with. They'll thaw pretty quickly with the icing on."
* Wisdom comes from experience. Although the supply of enticing cake recipes is seemingly endless, Ms. Braker said, a cook has to master only a few basic ones. "You'll be very accomplished and people will think you're a genius."
She also suggested writing notes on every recipe you make: whether you liked it, what pan you used, if it baked as directed and so on. "This starts a long process of learning and perfecting."
Ms. Braker said that anyone, even if he has never done so much as added eggs and water to a boxed mix, can go forth confidently.
"If you follow the instructions, almost anything you get probably will be very good," she said. "And certainly, it will be better than a package."