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Basic American yellow cake: As easy as 1, 2, 3, 4

As easy as 1, 2, 3, 4 Your basic American yellow cake is made from flour, sweetened with sugar, given structure with eggs, enriched and tenderized with butter, leavened with baking powder and flavored with vanilla and a little salt. You may have all the ingredients to make a cake on hand right now. The most common recipe is known as 1-2-3-4 cake, because it uses 1 cup each of milk and butter (that's two sticks of butter), 2 cups of sugar, 3 cups of flour and 4 eggs. (Actually, it also needs one-half teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon vanilla and 2 teaspoons of baking powder, so I suppose it's really the 1-2-3-4 plus 1/2 -1-2 cake.) The usual technique starts by creaming the butter and sugar -- a complicated, impressive, highly technical process that consist of putting both ingredients in the mixer on high speed for maybe two minu tes (the butter should be at room temperature, neither cold nor melted). Then you add the eggs one by one and beat for a minute or two. Wow, how hard was that? Finally, you mix the flour with the baking powder and salt in one bowl, and add the vanilla to the milk in another, and slowly beat both mixtures into the butter and egg mixture, alternating the flour and milk, just until the flour is incorporated. For a lighter texture, many recipes add the yolks to the batter separate from the whites, which are beaten and folded into the batter after the flour (I rarely bother). Other recipes mix the sugar with the flour and add the butter, eggs and milk to it, or mix the sugar with the eggs first before beating in the rest. However you do it, the liquid should always be added to the flour last and the batter should be mixed just until the flour is absorbed. If you've turned your oven to 350 degrees, you're now half an hour away from having a couple of cake layers. As soon as they're cool, you can frost them and bask in glory. -- Charles Perry

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