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Odette Williams' Plain Vanilla Cake

Odette Williams' Vanilla Cake

Bruno's fourth birthday was this past weekend. For months, he's been planning on whom to invite, painstakingly listing the names of his little buddies from KiTa on his adorable little fingers. Of course, ultimately, no one could come, but our sunny boy bore that with his signature good humor, which we have been leaning on so much recently that I feel almost badly about it. So we focused on the cake instead. After all, Hugo has never been particularly interested in birthday parties, much preferring to spend time thinking about which cake to request. Bruno, by contrast, couldn't have cared less about the cake, and only after much prodding by his brother and me, grudgingly gave in and said his cake it should be a yellow cake with, very important, pink and purple frosting.

Hugo was much chagrined, having hoped that his preference for a chocolate cake would be shared by his brother. But I was excited, because a couple years ago, I made the discovery of the best vanilla cake ever and I'm always thrilled to have an excuse to make it and I've been meaning to tell you all about it for, well, years. It comes from Odette Williams's book Simple Cake and is, in my mind, the very best plain yellow cake I've ever had. It's got buttermilk for a bit of tang, and quite a bit of vanilla (which is why, in the book, Odette calls it Very Vanilla Cake), and the batter, which comes together quickly with a mixer, has a gorgeous silky texture. But mostly, it's just a delight to make, as easy as easy can be.

I've made it as frosted cupcakes, as a simple round cake dusted with confectioners' sugar, baked in a tube pan and served plain, and split and filled and frosted, and it has been a slam dunk every single time. It's my forever yellow cake. I mean, I love the recipe so much that I have it taped with washi tape to the side of my fridge, an honor bestowed on only two other recipes! (One is Elise's buckwheat pancake recipe, the only pancake recipe I ever make, shall I tell you about it sometime? And the other is Diana Henry's mustard-panko baked chicken.)

Odette Williams' Plain Vanilla Cake

This time, I baked the cake batter in an 8-inch round pan that I had lined with parchment paper. I knew I was going to cloak the whole thing with swaths of whippy frosting ultimately, so I didn't really care what the sides looked like, and the parchment-as-sling really is just so easy. But obviously, if you want neater sides, you should cut the parchment to fit the bottom as well as make a collar and also possibly use a spring form rather than a regular cake pan.

Once the cake was fully cooled, I split it in half and spread about 3/4 of a jar of storebought lemon curd on one half. You could, of course, also make your own lemon curd! But I was grateful to have the shortcut. I placed the other half back on top of the cake. Then I made frosting out of whipped cream and ricotta, only because my husband didn't buy enough whipping cream and I had ricotta that had to be used up anyway. (It was 200 ml of heavy cream and a little less than 200g of ricotta whipped together with enough confectioners' sugar to make it sweet, but not too sweet.) I really don't like buttercream very much and making a meringue frosting was just not going to happen this time (though I think it'd be perfect here, honestly!), so the whipped cream frosting was where I ended up.

Odette Williams' Plain Vanilla Birthday Cake

I divided the cream frosting in half and tinted each batch pink and purple, then did a bit of swirly cake spackling. I will never win any beauty awards for my cake decorations, and ultimately, generously speaking, the cake looked more a cloudy sunset than anything else, but it tasted wonderful—the combination of tender cake, sweet-sour filling and whipped cream frosting worked absolutely perfectly—and everyone loved it and Bruno, our darling boy who is the cuddliest, loveliest, funniest little bunny, was happy. What more could I ask for?

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Plain Vanilla Cake
Makes one 8-inch/20-cm round cake
Print the recipe!

1⁄2 cup (120ml) buttermilk
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla extract (or the scraped seeds of 1 vanilla bean)
3⁄4 cup (150g) granulated sugar
1 1⁄2 cups (195g) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1⁄4 teaspoon baking soda
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (115g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 tablespoons mild-flavored vegetable oil

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C. Grease an 8-inch/20-cm round pan with butter and line the bottom and sides with parchment paper. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs together. Set aside. If using the vanilla seeds, use your fingers to work the vanilla bean seeds into the sugar in a small bowl. Remove any bits of pod that may have come off with the seeds. Set aside.

2. Place the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl and mix with a fork.

3. Using an electric mixer with beaters or a paddle attachment, beat the butter for 30 seconds on medium speed and then gradually add the sugar. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Continue beating on medium speed for another 4 minutes or until light in color and fluffy. If using the vanilla extract, add to the bowl and beat until combined.

4. With the mixer still on medium speed, gradually add the eggs. On low speed, add the flour mixture and then the oil and milk; mix until just combined. Don’t overbeat. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl.

5. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake in the center of the oven for 40-50 minutes. When a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, and the cake bounces back when lightly pressed, remove the cake from the oven and let it stand for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the cake to gently release. Invert the cake, peel off the pieces of parchment paper and cool on a wire rack.