Buttermilk Cake with Mixed Berries (and a Secret Code)

One of the best things I like about the summer season is the abundance of fruits and vegetables. The fresh and diverse choices in the markets are so tempting; I invariably end up buying an excessive amount. Then I have to find new and creative ways to use them. Hence the genesis of this cake: a buttermilk cake filled with all kinds of berries: blackberries, raspberries and blue berries.

More than a recipe, I am presenting a rough guide which has helped me to master the world of quick cakes. The general ingredients to bake a cake are widely known. They are: flour, eggs, sugar, butter and liquid leavened by baking powder. (To simplify the current discussion, I’ll leave out leavening for the time being. The rule for baking powder is shown in the cheat sheet below.) No surprise there.

The surprise is how simple it is if you’d just follow a few codes that would start to unshackle you from looking up hundreds of similar quick cake recipes. Remembering this simple set of guideline for quick cake has empowered me to bake more confidently and efficiently — from quick cakes, to muffins, pancakes to waffles. Baking without the use of recipes is liberating. Rather than following recipes, you have the capacity and freedom to create your own recipes. That enables me to be a better baker.

Let’s step back to the buttermilk cake. Grab a cup of all-purpose flour, one egg, one stick of butter and 1/2 cup of buttermilk on a tray. Call it tray A. That’s enough to bake a 9-inch cake. These are the fundamental building blocks for the buttermilk cake or any quick cakes. The ingredients do not generally change much. You might substitute using different kinds of flour or milk. All you need to remember is the relationships between the amounts of each ingredient in terms of ratio. Roughly, most quick bread recipes follow the working ratio in weight (ounces or grams) terms of:

Two parts of flour/ one part of egg/ one part of butter/ two parts of liquid (or 2-1-1-2).

Let’s start with one egg which weighs two ounces, you need to use four ounces of flour (two parts), two ounces of butter (one part) and four ounces (two parts) of milk to make a 9-inch cake. This is exactly what you have put together in tray A above. The only difference is tray A is quoted in volume terms and here they are measured in ounces. Identical but with different units of measurement, if you will.

I left out sugar in this general cake code for good reasons. The amount of sweetness varies widely depending on what other ingredients are added to the cake. You’d need more sugar in cakes with berries or apples and less for bananas. If you want the batter less sweet, use less sugar. The general rule is to add as much sugar as butter.

One of the best practices for any bakers: use a scale and weigh your ingredients. It is more accurate to weigh your ingredients on a scale than to measure them in cups. Even when using calibrated spoon and cup measures, it is nearly impossible to measure volumes with precision and accuracy. How finely the food is processed, how firmly it is packed, how rounding was done to get to the nearest common fraction can throw off volume measurements by up to 15%, enough to diminish the quality of some recipes.

The rule for cakes works the same way for muffins. The difference is the shape of the vessel used in baking them. Cakes are baked in cake pans and muffins are baked in muffin tins. The batter used for cakes works for muffins as well.

Pancakes are thin muffins made with half the amount of butter. Similarly, pancake code is a variant of quick cake code and follows the working ratio in weight terms of:

Two parts of flour/ one part of egg/ 1/2 part of butter/ two parts of liquid (or 2-1-1/2-2).

If you are making pancakes for the entire family and want to double the recipe, you choose to do a two-egg batter. You would need 8 ounces of flour, 4 ounces of egg, 2 ounce of butter and 8 ounces of milk at the ratio of 2-1-1/2-2.

There you have it.  The 2-1-1-2 code would get you through myriad of quick cakes, muffins and pancakes without referencing any recipes. All you need is a scale. Should you decide to scale up or down, the control dial is at your fingertips. If you want to use 200 grams of flour, the amount you need for sugar, butter and milk are 100 grams, 100 grams and 200 grams, respectively. You are going beyond basic baking to a more creative style once you understand and apply this ingredient ratio. It’s a powerful tool, indeed.


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