Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Donut Cake

Over at A Subtle Revelry, this cake was brilliantly adapted to look like a giant glazed donut. I love people.

Maybe it's really just frosting I don't like, which is nuts. Even a frosting-shunner like me can see how crazy that is. Frosting! Who doesn't like frosting but a grayly parched crone in a gloomy, turreted house, the one who gives neighbor kids the evil eye while she's outside calling to her dozens of many-toed cats? I know. Believe me. But I tend to think it's desserts altogether I don't like, but then I go completely wild for plain cake. Pound cake, angel food cake, unadorned cakes of just about every persuasion. I am not trying to be quaint or flexing my old-fashionedness, I swear. It's just frosting, which makes me feel like some weird aerosol sweetness is dripping into my lungs and asphyxiating me, if you'll pardon my drama.

So this cake, talk about quaint and old-fashioned, is a riff on the justly famous Busy-Day Cake of cookbook author and local-food pioneer Edna Lewis. Foodie types tend to be a little in love with themselves for being in love with Edna Lewis, and I suffer from that myself. It's partly because she was this fierce little old Southern woman with her hair in a gray bun, a mysteriously hunky young male housemate, and not a pretentious bone in her body; her mystique and forthrightness feel pleasantly infectious. And partly it's because her recipes exalt plainness in a really beautiful way--the simple pleasure of simple, perfect flavors.

But okay, enough--I'm sure you're here to get dinner on the table, not to wade through the confessions of a compulsive cookbook reader. "Busy-Day Cake" really says it all, doesn't it? As if you were having such a busy day that you had time to bake only the world's plainest cake. As opposed to the more obvious no cake at all. While it's baking you will be glad that, busy as you are, you sensibly left five minutes in your day to get this cake into the oven. It fills the house with such a wonderful aroma. "That's a totally classic cake smell," Ben said, sniffing deeply as he bolted inside from somewhere or other, and he's right. It is. Not that the kids wouldn't mind if great mounds of frosting were to spill in fluffy drifts across their cake, mind you. But they do love this unfrosted cake.

We renamed it "Donut Cake" because the combination of nutmeg and vanilla really tastes like donuts. Also so that Homer Simpson might stumble on it via Google. The cake is beautifully moist, with just enough cornmeal to give it a slight sandiness (the cornmeal is not in the original recipe, and you can omit it if you like), and it's the perfect accompaniment to summer fruit, sliced up raw and barely sweetened, with a big dollop of whipped cream. It's the kind of cake you can't stop eating: if you have any left, you will stand in the kitchen in your pajamas eating skinny wedge after skinny wedge, pulling the Saran Wrap optimistically back up over it and then realistically back down again, while you wait for the water to boil for coffee. Ben and Birdy cried, "Oh, Mama! Can we have cake for breakfast too?" And so we finished it. And then I baked another one. Seriously. That same day. Even though I was pretty busy.

Donut Cake
active time: 10 minutes; total time: 45 minutes

In the original "Busy-Day Cake" recipe of Edna Lewis, there is no cornmeal, but I like it here. Also, there is no spelt. There also used to be less of salt, vanilla, and nutmeg, but hey--I am what I am.

1 stick butter, at room temperature
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 cups sifted flour (White, spelt, or a combination. I use all spelt and love it so much!)
2 tablespoons cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, or more, ideally freshly grated
1/2 cup buttermilk, at room temperature

Heat the oven to 375°F. Butter and flour a 9-inch springform pan, and set it aside. As I must always confess, I use my weird Pam baking spray "with real flour!" But if it knocks out one of the barriers between me and baking (my dread of greasing pans), then I figure it's worth it.

Beat the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer until light and fluffy, about two minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating to incorporate after each addition, and add the vanilla. You may want to periodically scrape down sides of bowl with a rubber spatula.

Meanwhile, whisk together the flour(s), cornmeal, salt, baking powder, and nutmeg. Add the flour mixture to the batter in 3 parts, alternating with the buttermilk, starting and ending with flour. Make sure each addition is incorporated before adding next, but don't over-beat it at the end. Spread the batter in the prepared pan and smooth the top.

Bake until the top is puffed and golden brown and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, about 35 minutes (Honestly, I just push the top gently with my fingertip and make sure it seems inclined to spring back). Serve warm or at room temperature, with lightly sweetened fruit (I added about a tablespoon of sugar to a pint of sliced strawberries and two sliced nectarines) and whipped cream. And don't be dismayed if the cake sinks significantly upon cooling: it might, and that's fine.


  1. I make some delicious donut-muffins that seem vaguely similar to this. I'll have to dig out my recipe when I get home.

    The main difference seems to be, that with my muffins, when they come out of the oven you dunk the top in melted butter and then roll it around in cinnamon sugar.

    I think I need to bake tonight.

  2. Hey, have you moved all your recipes from the Dalai Mama cooks old blog to here? Or have these been here in your archive all along? I remember when you started this blog... after you left Baby Center, no? OK, I ask way too many questions. Maybe I should have been a reporter (dying profession, though... sigh...)

  3. Allyson1:59 AM

    Hi, Catherine! Thanks for compiling your old recipes here! I don't have spelt flour. Will whole wheat pastry flour work?

  4. Dana in Sonoma County5:07 PM

    I can’t believe I’ve never left a comment on this recipe Catherine. Donut Cake is my son’s favorite cake. It has been his requested birthday cake (with strawberries and whipped cream a la shortcake - but better) since he was tiny. He’s 15 now and I bake this cake for whenever. Rainy Sundays. Blue Mondays. Whatever. Today I’m adapting it to be GF with Bob’s 1:1 plus almond flour. We’ll see how it goes. So THANK YOU for this recipe and for so many recipes and much hilarity over the years.
    Love, Dana
    PS: Not sure how it came to pass that Birdy is in college. She was just a wee thing just a moment ago.