My mom was an expert cook. She could dissect a recipe at first glance and know exactly how it would taste. She didn’t hesitate to improve it and almost always did by opening her cupboard for spices and herbs, the refrigerator for sauces and juices. Her prime cooking years spanned from the ’50s to the ’80s so a lot of times she pulled out cans of Campbell’s cream soups or blocks of frozen vegetables and added them, too.
What was particularly startling about her skills was that she could bake, as well. I adhere to the opinion that what makes a great general cook never really translates into being an incredible baker. This is because soups to main course recipes happily accept some improvisations while baking firmly does not. One accepts mishaps and a cook’s personal foibles. The other demands it’s instructions are followed with exacting discipline.
Mom was both improvisational and a scientist. My sister is, too. And I hear her middle daughter is similarly gifted. I’m incredible with savory recipes and a disastrous dunce with sweets, particularly anything baked.
This is the reason why it took me about a year and a half to attempt to bake my mom’s 1 2 3 4 cake. This cake is one of my foundational food memories, right up there with Sunday roast beef (followed by Monday roast beef and gravy), spaghetti and meatballs, ham and bean soup, and Irish soda bread. These are the dishes that bring my mom back into my kitchen, reminding me of the best of her. They are the recipes I make for my own family, the food that instills a sense of safety and being loved no matter what hell on wheels is happening around me.
1 2 3 4 cake shared my lunch bag with baloney or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from kindergarten to senior year in high school. I’d pull out that square of wax paper or baggie and inevitably I’d be asked who’s birthday it was (why else would anyone make a cake?) and could they have a taste (no). But my sister claims this is wrong. Mom also baked angel food cakes from scratch. She’s right but it’s the 1 2 3 4 cake that I remember most. Even though angel food cakes are trickier, it’s this one I marvel at that Mom took the time every Sunday to make sure her family had something sweet for their lunches. It’s not a very special cake and everyone in its hey day seemed to have known the recipe by heart if only because it’s name tells you everything you need to know about it. (It’s peak popularity seems to have been in the ’50s but one food historian claims it goes as far back as the 1880s.)
You’ll find the recipe in a ton of cooking sites but they’re pretty much the same. Some substitute vanilla extract for almond or lemon. I found one that separates the eggs and beat the whites to soft peaks then fold them in the batter at the last moment. Buttermilk takes the place of milk in another. I’ve been having an off week and wasn’t up to follow anyone but Mom. So I took her basic recipe out of her old cookbook and pressed onward.
Every recipe on-line calls for the cake to be two or three layers. My track record on layered cakes is particularly horrifying. Mom saved me because she always used a tube pan. I had to drag out the ladder and climb almost to the ceiling to get my pan out but it was the right thing to do.
1 2 3 4 Cake
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 cups sifted self-rising flour (Mom never used self-rising/cake flour in her life but I had an old box, so I did.)
1 cup milk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Grease and flour a tube cake pan.
Cream butter until it’s light and fluffy then add the sugar. Blend well. With the mixer running, add the eggs one at a time, making sure each is thoroughly incorporated into the batter before adding the next egg. Mix in vanilla. Next alternately add the flour and milk, beginning and ending with the flour (NOTE: Can anyone tell me why this is insisted upon? It doesn’t make any sense to me what order you put the flour and milk in which is, as I said above, why I am not a good baker.)
Pour batter into the tube pan and bake for about 35 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.
(NOTE: This recipe is suppose to make enough for at least 2 pans. It was barely enough to fill the tube pan half way up. this happens a lot to me. What do I do wrong??)
Once the cake is done, immediately invert the cake until it’s cool enough to frost.
Chocolate Buttercream Frosting
My sister says this is what Mom did but I remember only a dusting of confectionery sugar. As you may be noticing by now, I talked to my sister a lot while attempting this cake and I know enough after all these years that she is 99% always right.
2 sticks of softened butter
3 1/2 cups confectionery sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3 tablespoons heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon salt (if you’re using salted butter nix this)
2 teaspoon vanilla
Mix the butter at medium speed until it’s creamy and light. Scrape down the bowl then, with the motor running on slow, begin to add the confectionery sugar and the cocoa. Slowly pour in the cream and the vanilla. Continue to mix at a fairly high speed for about another minute or three to make it fluffy.
(Note: Like the cake batter, this is suppose to make enough frosting for at least two layers. I don’t know if it does but it sure makes a nice thick coating for a tube cake.)
Ta Da! My 1 2 3 4 cake. Yes, it’s not tall. Yes, it’s not as light as I remember–in fact even though the skewer came out clean it looks like the middle didn’t cook through. Given that the husband and I didn’t want to raise our cholesterol any higher than it already is, I ended up giving a chunk to the sons and another to a friend with three young daughters. Everyone seems to think it’s good.
My sister says she made the cake a lot when her daughters were small and her middle daughter now bakes it for her family. I may never venture to make another 1 2 3 4 cake again but isn’t it comforting that two more generations keep their families feeling safe and loved through this recipe?
(Final note: There’s a lot of butter in this recipe and if you get any on your hands, do what M.F.K. Fisher suggested and don’t rub it off, rub it in. Will soften your hands right up.)