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baking American
1-2-3-4 Cake Recipe-11083

Photo by: Joseph De Leo
Comments: 3


This layer cake was a standard in our house. The recipe is a very old one that people could keep in their heads because of the utter simplicity of the formula that gave the cake its name—1 cup of butter, 2 cups of sugar, 3 cups of flour, and 4 eggs. Here baking powder is the leavening agent, so this is a very easy cake to make. You might like to try mixing it the first time with your hands, which will give you a good idea of the basic techniques of beating and folding. If you don’t want to use your hands to mix the cake, use a whisk, a rotary hand beater, or an electric beater or mixer to cream the butter and sugar and to beat in the egg yolks, milk, flour, and vanilla. Fold in the egg whites by hand.

Yield: Makes 1 3-layer cake


For preparing (3) 9-inch layer-cake pans, 1½ inches deep:

  • 1 tablespoon softened butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour

For the cake:

  • 3 cups sifted cake flour (if you can’t find cake flour, the same amount of all-purpose flour can be substituted)
  • 4 teaspoons double-acting baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 4 eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 cup milk, at room temperature
  • 1 to 1½ teaspoons vanilla extract

For the filling and topping:

  • ¾ cup strained orange juice
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • ¾ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated orange rind


Preheat the oven to 350°. Butter the bottom and sides of each layer-cake pan with the softened butter, using your hands, then sprinkle the flour inside and shake this around so you get a thin coating on the butter. Tip out any excess.

Now to sift your flour. Lay a large piece of waxed paper on a board, put a dry measuring cup in the center, hold a sifter directly over it, scoop cake flour from the package into the sifter, and sift the flour directly into the cup. When the cup is full, draw the back of a knife blade lightly across the top of the cup (don’t shake the flour down, or it will become dense) and then tip the measured flour into a mixing bowl. Repeat with the other 2 cups of flour (you can put any flour that spilled onto the waxed paper back in the sifter).

When you have 3 cups of sifted flour in the bowl, put the baking powder and salt in the sifter, holding it over the mixing bowl, and sift it over the flour. Then mix the baking powder and salt lightly with the flour, using your hands.

Next, Put the butter into a second, large mixing bowl. If it is very firm (it shouldn’t be, if you have left it out of the refrigerator), squeeze it through your fingers until it softens up. When it is soft enough to work, form your right hand into a big fork, as it were, and cream the butter—which means that you beat it firmly and quickly with your hand, beating and aerating it, until it becomes light, creamy, and fluffy.

Then whirl your fingers around like a whisk so the butter forms a circle in the bowl. Gradually cream the 2 cups of sugar into the butter with the same fork-like motion, beating until the mixture is very light and fluffy. As the sugar blends in it will change the color of the butter to a much lighter color, almost white.

Now wash and dry your hands thoroughly and separate the eggs, as you would for a souffle, letting the whites slip through your slightly parted fingers into a small bowl and dropping the yolks into a second, larger bowl. Beat the yolks for a few minutes with a whisk until they are well blended.

Then, again with your hand, beat them very thoroughly into the butter-sugar mixture. Now beat in the milk alternately with the sifted flour—first one, then the other—this time keeping your fingers close together as if your hand were a wooden spatula. Beat, beat, beat until the batter is well mixed, then add the vanilla and beat that in for a minute or two.

Put the egg whites in your beating bowl and beat them with a large whisk or an electric hand beater until they mount first to soft, drooping peaks and then to firm, glossy peaks. Do not overbeat until they are stiff and dry.

Tip the beaten whites onto the cake batter and fold them in with your hand. Slightly cup your hand and use the side like a spatula to cut down through the whites and batter to the bottom of the bowl and then flop them over with your cupped hand, rotating the bowl with your other hand as you do so—exactly the technique you use when folding egg whites into a soufflé mixture with a rubber spatula.

Repeat this very lightly and quickly until the whites and batter are thoroughly folded and blended. Once you have mastered this hand technique you can use it for a soufflé, too.

Again using your hand like a spatula, pour and scrape the batter into the three prepared pans, dividing it equally between them. Give the filled pans a little knock on the countertop to level the batter.

Put the three pans in the center of the oven, or, if you have to use more than one rack, stagger them on the two middle racks of the oven so they do not overlap.

Bake for 25 minutes, then touch the center of each cake lightly with your fingertip. If it springs back, it is done. Remove the pans from the oven and put them on wire cake racks to cool for a few minutes, then loosen the layers by running the flat of a knife blade around the sides of the pans, put a rack on top of each pan, and invert so the cake comes out onto the rack, top side down. Then reverse the layers so they are top side up.

Mix the orange juice, lemon juice, sugar, and orange rind together and drizzle the mixture over the still-warm cake layers, being careful not to let it all soak into one spot; then pile the layers on top of each other.

The juice mixture will give the cake a lovely, fresh, fruity flavor and it is not rich like an icing.

Leave the cake to cool.

© 1977 James Beard

Nutritional Information

Nutrients per serving (% daily value)

This recipe serves 10.

595kcal (30%)
162mg (16%)
12mg (19%)
206mcg RAE (7%)
139mg (46%)
354mg (15%)
13g (67%)
23g (35%)
4mg (21%)

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  • anitauwams

    01.20.16 Flag comment

    Hi, i love this recipe. but please is it okay to double the recipe...like 6cups of flour, 4sticks of butter, 8 eggs etc

  • ozprairie_at_yahoo-com

    04.30.15 Flag comment

    Want to try. Love trying new recipes. April 30th, 2015 Martha Towner

  • dedicooks

    04.12.11 Flag comment

    You're right-- this is an old workhorse. In my family, we refer to it as "Grandma's Recipe," and it is our favorite birthday cake. We like to pair it with lemon-flavored icing (follow directions on bo of 10-x sugar, butter, but use lemon juice and rind to flavor) between the layers, and then add flaked coconut to the top layer (top and sides).Looks like a cloud and tastes divine. For my children's birthdays, Is used to separate out some batter and mix each cupful with a different color (2-3 colors plus original batter work well), then marble the colors in the pan to create "Rainbow Cake."


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