The 3 life lessons of baking: Vanilla Butter Cake

The 3 life lessons of baking: Vanilla Butter Cake

Patience, focus and peace ... all in a recipe

Tea cake from
Vanilla Butter Cake. Picture used for illustrative purpose only. Image Credit: Werner Pfennig/

Many find baking a daunting task, something that needs elaborate steps, detailed measurements and skills equivalent to that of Newt Scamander. I guess a lot like life and the many curve balls it throws our way. But, when it comes to baking that’s a myth. All it needs is logic and the ability to follow basic instructions, the rest will follow.

A personal lesson for me over the years was the need for patience. It is almost meditative – you cannot rush a cake or a cookie. It will either collapse or crumble. And it needs focus, which means you cannot be mentally multi-tasking while measuring up for a fruitcake. It is not going to happen.

Peace is what it is guaranteed to bring, as you watch the crust rise and turn golden from the fogged up pane of an oven. A sense of satisfaction from time well spent.


Let’s start with a basic cake – eggs, flour, sugar, butter, spatula, whisk and a springform pan. Nothing too dramatic but enough to create something delicious.

First things first, wait for all the ingredients to be at the same temperature, patiently. Why? The butter will be soft and easy to whip, the eggs mildly cool, so will trap air beautifully and the flour will not curdle the batter when added. You’ll get a wonderful creamy texture guaranteed to rise well.

Also, use this stage to figure out the ingredients – such as do I need butter, cream or clarified butter? The type of flour needed – all-purpose or self-raising? Should it be sultanas or Afghan kismish? Each decision will impact the final taste.

Might not seem like much but this stage is essential to baking right.


Next is something that is imperative when we bake – be it a muffin or choux pastry. Get the measurements right. Invest in a digital kitchen scale. Go for one that measures even less than 10 grams. Speaking of which, units can be a bit confusing in recipes. This is especially true when some people go for cup measures, while others prefer grams. It is better to go with the latter, as there’s less room for error, in my experience.

Here are a few quick conversions to help you out:

• 1 large egg – 60+ grams

• 1 cup of all-purpose flour – 120 grams

• 1 tsp of baking powder – 4 grams

• 1 cup of butter – 226 grams

• 1 cup of confectioner’s sugar – 114 grams

I find The Calculator Site really helpful in this conversion. They help you convert based on type of ingredient.

Coming back, stay focused on the recipe, read the steps carefully, visualise them (unless you struggle with aphantasia) if you can and measure everything out. It is really helpful if you organise, what you have measured out, in sequence.

This stage also includes pre-heating your oven – go with a lower temperature. Why? Well, it might take longer to heat and bake but the probability of your cake collapsing becomes negligible.


Finally, the last and most important part. Once you pour the batter into the mould, let it stand for a few minutes, to settle. Then place it in the pre-heated oven, set the timer and settle down.

Don’t keep opening the oven door, you are disturbing the temperature building up and it is bound to ruin your cake. Stay calm and let the oven do the rest. Recognise and appreciate the fact that you cannot do anything anymore, other than hope that you did all the steps right. And if it does go wrong, it’s just an opportunity to try again.

Ideally most cakes can be baked from 150C to 170C, depending on the heat distribution within the oven – those with fans tend to bake equally well no matter where you place the cake pan. However, in most ovens, there will be a sweet spot where it bakes evenly. You can only find out with trial and error.

Here’s a basic butter cake recipe that will help you put all of these baking life lessons into practice with a sweet result:

Vanilla Butter Cake

Preparation time: 40 minutes

Cooking time: 50 minutes

Serves: 8


225gm of all-purpose flour sifted with 1tspn baking powder and 1tspn baking soda

225gm unsalted butter, soft

225gm caster sugar

4 big eggs

2 tsp of vanilla essence or vanilla extract

3 tbsp of milk or 2 tblspn cream

Oven pre-heated to 170°C


Beat butter and sugar till light and airy. Add eggs one by one. You can always separate the yolks and white. Add the yolks initially, let the whites cool in the refrigerator for about 10 minutes, then whip into a meringue after adding a pinch of sugar. If you hold the container upside down, the meringue stays put and stiff peaks that bend ever so slightly form at the top. Keep aside.

Add vanilla essence to the butter, sugar, egg mix.

Add flour sifted with baking powder and soda, in parts, along with the milk or cream - alternately.

If you separated the eggs, now is the time to mix in the whites, using the spatula - in the shape of the infinity symbol. Mix well but don’t overdo it, otherwise all the air bubbles will be lost.

Lightly butter the springform pan. Pour in the batter. Let it stand for a few minutes, tap the pan on the counter, gently, a few times.

Bake at 170° for 50 minutes or more depending on your oven.

Check for doneness. Once the wooden pick pushed into the centre comes out clean with a few crumbs sticking to it, it is ready.

Gently release the cake from its pan, a springform allows for easy removal. Let it cool upside down on a cake rack. Can be eaten at any time after that!

- The writer is the founder Food Editor of the section

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