Instagram and reality TV can crush your confidence. I'm talking about your baking confidence here. While endlessly looped video of buttercream smoothing over the sides of spinning six-layer cakes can be deeply soothing, they can also skew your expectations for your own baking. The same goes for binge-watching the Great British Baking Show — possibly worse than the fondant-fests of American baking competitions because the modest enthusiasm of its contestants can make you forget how much skill and experience they have as they attempt multi-tiered masterpieces.
Previous generations of home bakers, whether state fair winners or beginners, may have struggled with perfectionism in the kitchen, too, but they did so without mentally competing with the Instagram highlights of some French pastry chef in Vegas. The baking industrial entertainment complex has brainwashed us into thinking we've got to be professionally trained or stick to the box cake aisle.
Box cakes are fine and convenient — they exist for a reason. But here's my thing: You're still measuring and mixing. You're still greasing and flouring pans. You're still washing up mixing bowls and frosting. Really, you're doing quite a bit but Betty Crocker is stealing your shine. Not cool, Betty. Truth is, you're a couple of easy scoops away from fully gloating that you have baked a cake.
You may get hooked on the focus and satisfaction of baking. I personally find it relaxing to forget the rest of the world beyond the oven window and the batter rising in the pans inside. Does it make me a more chill or pleasant person in general? I doubt it. But it makes me a person who sometimes has cake and people will put up with a great deal when you've brought cake.
The recipe I share here is one I've modified from a cookbook I got in an office free pile. I remember it as a mostly unillustrated postwar Fanny Farmer tome but I was only interested in the cake section, and so I tore it out and discarded the rest. (Yes, rend your garments at my crime, but I was not paying to ship that crumbling monstrosity when we moved overseas.) Is this the cake that wins a reality TV show for you? It is not. It's an everyday chocolate snack cake (no occasion, no pressure) that you don't even have to crack an egg for. What they say about baking being science is true but this is easy, fun science — Styrofoam planet mobile science that you don't actually have to understand.
If you want a glaze to pour over top, you can simply stir up ¾ cup confectioners sugar with 1 tablespoon of cream and 1-2 teaspoons of vanilla extract (or Bourbon, rum or whisky, if you want a little hooch in there). It's no big deal. Bake a cake already.
Everyday Chocolate Cake
This recipe uses Bourbon or rum instead of vanilla because it's cheaper and won't make much difference here.
1 ⅔ cup all purpose flour
1 cup sugar
½ cup cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup sour cream
¾ cup milk
¾ cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons Bourbon or rum
Heat the oven to 350 F. Grease and lightly flour a bundt pan.
With dry fingers, break up any lumps in your baking soda. In a large bowl, whisk together all dry ingredients. In a medium bowl, stir the sour cream, milk, oil and Bourbon or rum. Add the wet ingredients into the dry and beat the batter until smooth.
Pour and spread the batter in the pan evenly with a spatula. Bang the pan on the counter a couple times — not too hard — and tap the sides to get any trapped air bubbles out. Bake for 25 minutes before checking for doneness by poking it with a wooden skewer at the center to see if it comes out clean. If not, bake another few minutes before checking again.
Let the cake sit in the pan for about 10 minutes. Then flip it over and release it from the pan to cool completely on a wire rack. Once it has cooled, sprinkle it with powdered sugar and/or serve it with whipped cream or ice cream.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal and prefers she/her. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.