En español | This 19th-century classic cake, adapted from Susan G. Purdy's A Piece of Cake (Collier Books 1989), can provide a foundation for many variations. It is easy to remember — 1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour, 4 eggs — and simple and good. Some of Purdy's recommended variations are basic yellow, coconut, orange, lemon, almond and spice topped with your favorite icing. For the lightest texture, Purdy recommends following the recipe as written, separating the eggs and beating the whites stiff. A simpler method, resulting in a slightly more compact texture, is to beat in whole eggs in place of the yolks, omitting the beaten whites. The cake can be made in advance, wrapped airtight and frozen. Thaw before frosting.
3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs, separated (see headnote)
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Spread solid shortening all over bottom and sides of two 8- or 9-inch round cake pans or one 13-by-9-by-1 3/4-inch sheet pan, Dust evenly with flour, tapping out excess.
Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter until soft and smooth. Add the sugar and beat until light and smooth. Add egg yolks one at a time, beating after each addition. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl and the beaters several times.
With the mixer on low speed, alternately add the flour mixture and milk, beginning and ending with flour. Stir in the vanilla. At this point, add any personal flavoring choices (grated lemon zest, coconut, etc.).
In another bowl with a clean beater, beat the whites until stiff but not dry. Stir about 1/2 cup of whites into the batter to lighten it, then fold in remaining whites in several additions.
Divide the batter evenly between the pans. Smooth the batter level, then spread it slightly from the center toward the edges of the pan so it will rise evenly. Bake in the preheated oven for 30 to 35 minutes for layers, slightly longer for sheet or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean and the cake tops are lightly springy to the touch.
Cook the cakes in their pans on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Top with a wire rack to invert, and lift off pans. Completely cool layers on the rack before frosting. You can leave a sheet cake it its pan to cool, and frost and serve from the pan.
Coconut: Before adding the flour and milk to the basic 1-2-3-4 cake, stir in 1 cup shredded sweetened coconut and 3/4 teaspoon coconut extract. Frost cake with a coconut icing.
Orange: Stir in grated zest of 1 orange before adding flour and orange juice (replacing milk). Bake cake in a 10-inch tube pan, greased and floured. Use an orange-flavored frosting.
Almond: Add 1 teaspoon almond extract along with the vanilla. Use any icing but press sliced almonds into the icing around the sides.