The 1-2-3-4 Cake: Let me count the ways I love you - No. 7
And the best-ever chocolate pan frosting
You may know the 1-2-3-4 Cake as the yellow cake with chocolate frosting baked for every birthday. But did you know how this simple, unassuming, and utterly delicious cake got its name?
A little backstory.
While researching my book American Cake, the first reference I found to the 1-2-3-4 was in a Michigan newspaper, the St. Joseph Herald, printed in 1870. It called for 1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour, and 4 eggs - thus the name - plus a little baking soda and sour milk. That was pretty much the formula for making a 1-2-3-4 for the next 50 years, even when baking powder and cake flour came into the picture in the early 1900s and the cake got even lighter.
The late Edna Lewis called the 1-2-3-4 a “Sunday cake,” a cake you could bake to feed the preacher when he’d come calling and then stay all afternoon. This was the cake my grandmother made, too, back when a cook was judged on how light and delicate a cake you could bake. Do you have any 1-2-3-4 cake memories as well?
Baking when you can’t read or write
Today it seems like we’ve done a 360 and all the cakes we bake are heavy, rich, moist, and slathered with frosting. There’s nothing wrong with that! But to bake a 1-2–3-4 is to step back into a different time when cakes were lighter, sugar was more expensive, and cooks didn’t have a library of books or online recipes at their fingertips. To bake a 1-2-3-4 is to get out of your comfort zone.
I wanted a fuller picture of this cake, not just from my memories or research. I was curious about the African American perspective of it because of the tremendous impact of enslaved women on Southern baking and cooking. And I knew the right person to call, my friend Leni Sorensen, culinary scholar of Monticello, Colonial Williamsburg, Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House-wife, and the list could go on of her many projects. I got to know Leni while I was working on American Cake, and in fact, Leni was the one who urged me to ask myself “who could afford this” with each recipe I tested. Because of Leni, I saw cake differently and my book evolved not into a collection of recipes, but a look at our country’s history through the lens of cake.
Leni said in hot, crowded plantation kitchens it would have been helpful for a cook to know a recipe by heart, especially if you couldn’t read or write. And recipes like this would also have appealed to professional bakers who shared recipes with each other.
Malinda Russell was one such enslaved baker who would publish in 1866, A Domestic Cook Book, the first cookbook written by an African-American woman. An accomplished baker, she shared short recipes that were often only two or three sentences long, enough to instruct women who had cooked in plantation kitchens and would after the war earn their living as domestic help. “It was cryptic writing in those recipes,” Leni said. “Women didn’t write about themselves confessionally back then. They didn’t feel comfortable doing that.”
The 1-2-3-4, Leni added, feels like that type of instructional recipe, shared from one cook to another. It was verbal, fast, and you likely had all the ingredients at hand. It could have originated on a busy farm where there were fresh eggs as well as sour milk and soda. It could be assembled at a moment’s notice and baked swiftly in a cast iron wood-fired oven. But more than anything, this cake spoke to busy women who worked in the kitchen, she said. “It was a way of communicating with women who already knew how to bake.”
But what does it taste like?
It’s not hard to find a multitude of 1-2-3-4 cake recipes all over the internet. So how did I settle on my favorite? I tested this cake without leavening, and also with baking soda and baking powder. I tested it with all-purpose flour and with cake flour, with buttermilk and with what my grandmother used to call “sweet” milk, - whole cow’s milk.
What I love about the 1-2-3-4 is that it is a blueprint sort of recipe, and it works with whatever you’d got in the pantry and fridge. I also love the fact that it bakes quickly. I don’t know about you, but birthday dinners are always chaotic and if I don’t bake the cake a day ahead, it is in the oven at 5 o’clock! This cake, thankfully, comes together quickly, bakes in just 25 to 30 minutes, and the frosting is stirred while the layers cool.
And true to its blueprint nature, this cake can be frosted with pretty much anything you like! Caramel, strawberry, orange, but especially chocolate. Our mother’s chocolate pan frosting is a family treasure, and it is the recipe I pick to frost this cake. Its deep chocolate flavor plus its nostalgic texture just seem right. But feel free to use whatever frosting you prefer - but not store-bought frostings!
I like to think the cooks who baked this cake and came before us would appreciate our preserving it and would also understand that we’re adapting it to our kitchens. This is a recipe where you can take some liberties. That might not be true with Sarah Polk’s Hickory Nut Cake or Julia Child’s Queen of Sheba Cake, cakes you follow to the letter because they’re named after someone famous, but it’s true here.
The 1-2-3-4 is the cake without fame or ego. It hasn’t gotten noticed, doesn’t care about attention, is just plain cake. But then you smell it baking. The simple scents of butter, sugar, and eggs in action waft around your kitchen. It’s cake pure and simple. Nothing better.
Coming Friday for My Wonderful Subscribers!
In this week’s Subscriber Friday weekend notepad, I’ll share my obsession with Costco… my top-10 favorite things to buy, how I once hosted a Costco cocktail party, and a fabulous recipe that starts with a carton of Costco cherry tomatoes! Last week’s Subscriber Friday was all pink - peonies, how to cook salmon, and a curated list of must-sip rosé. You won’t want to miss, so why not subscribe today?
The Recipe ... The 1-2-3-4 Cake
I like to say flour is the deal breaker in this cake. And after testing this recipe with various flours I prefer cake flour for a lighter crumb. If you use all-purpose flour, sift it once before measuring. A few other things are important, like the room temperature temperature of ingredients and making sure the cake is cool before frosting. I let the butter come to room temperature on the counter, but if the kitchen’s cold or you’ve forgotten, you can zap the butter - briefly! - in the microwave to soften. Also, I let the eggs come to room temp for greater volume. As a shortcut, place them in a bowl of warm water while the oven preheats. Make sure the whole milk is at room temperature or warm it slightly. And use good vanilla. If you want to be fussy and go for slightly more volume, separate the eggs and blend the egg yolks with the creamed butter and sugar mixture. After adding the flour alternately with the milk, fold in beaten egg whites and vanilla.
Makes 12 servings
Prep: 20 to 25 minutes
Bake: 25 to 30 minutes
Butter and flour for prepping the pan
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
3 cups cake flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Chocolate Pan Frosting (see below)
1. Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease two 9-inch round cake pans with butter and dust with flour. Shake out the excess flour, and set the pans aside.
2. Place the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl and blend with an electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until each is well incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Set aside.
3. Stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium-size bowl. Add a third of the flour mixture to the butter and sugar, beating on low speed, until incorporated. Add half of the milk, and blend, then another third flour mixture, then rest of the milk, and finally the remaining flour mixture and vanilla and blend until combined and smooth, 30 seconds.
4. Divide the batter between the two prepared pans, and smooth the tops. Place the pans in the oven, and bake until they are lightly browned on top, and the cake springs back when lightly pressed in the center, 25 to 30 minutes.
5. Place the pans on cake racks to cool 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edges of the pans and give the pans a gentle shake to release the cake. Invert the layers once, then again, so they rest right-side up on the racks to completely cool, 30 minutes. Make the frosting, see below.
6. To assemble, place one layer on a cake plate or platter, a spoon about 2/3 cup frosting over the top. Place the second layer on top, and frost the top and sides of the cake with the remaining frosting. Slice and serve.
Chocolate Pan Frosting: Melt a stick of butter (salted or unsalted) in a medium-size saucepan over low heat, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in 4 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder, a pinch of salt, and 1/3 cup whole milk. Cook, stirring, until the mixture thickens and just begins to come to a boil, 1 minute longer. Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in 2 cups of powdered sugar, a bit at a time, adding up to 1/2 cup more sugar or more milk if needed, until the frosting is smooth and just begins to thicken. It will set once it gets on the cake.
Coming in June! American Cake in paperback!
American Cake is coming in spiffy navy June 15. It’s the same trim size as American Cookie, so they make the cutest set! Same recipes and stories, too. You can preorder now!