This is the recipe for Grandma Helen’s legendary 1-2-3-4 Cake. Not only is it the best pound cake in the world, it has the best cake story in the world. Well, actually it has a few good stories. There’s nothing I like more than a good recipe with a good story!
The cake is named 1-2-3-4 Cake because it has 1 cup of butter, 2 cups of sugar, 3 cups of flour, and 4 eggs. Lots of old fashioned cakes had formulas for them before formal recipes were used. Pound cakes traditionally had a pound each of the main ingredients. I’ve never weighed the ingredients for this cake but they may have the same kind of ratio.
The History of a Cake
Grandma Helen was my husband’s grandma. I called her Grandma from the very first time I met her, she was one of those Grandmas. I hadn’t been in the family long when she made this amazing pound cake and of course I asked for the recipe.
It turned out that she had two recipes, each a bit different but both called 1-2-3-4 Cake. One was from her mother Rowena and one from her mother-in-law Lalie. The only difference was that Rowena’s called for “sweet milk”, as plain milk used to be called, and beaten egg whites, and Lalie’s called for buttermilk and whole eggs. I’ve always used Lalie’s recipe because I avoid beating egg whites if possible.
A Perfect Cake, Finally!
Not long after I started making 1-2-3-4 Cakes, I became the official family 1-2-3-4 Cake baker. Every time I made one I would send some over to Grandma and Grandpa. This went on for 5 years or so. One day not long after a cake delivery, Grandma called me to thank me for the cake. She said, “I don’t know what you did different but you finally got it right! The other ones were good but not quite right. Now you finally did it!”
I still laugh about that. Every time I make one I ask myself if this one is right or if it’s like those first ones. Of course I can’t tell anything different between them but Grandma had eaten both Lalie’s and Rowena’s 1-2-3-4 Cakes so she knew what she was talking about.
The 4th Generation of 1-2-3-4 Cake
So, here is the recipe as I make it today in honor of Grandma Helen, Lalie, and Rowena. The original recipe called for shortening and butter but I use only butter. I haven’t made anything with shortening in eons. I also never buy buttermilk so I use a substitute that is very easy, I’ll share that after the recipe. The other change I made is to increase the salt from 1/2 teaspoon to 3/4. In my experience pound cakes don’t have enough salt so I adjusted that.
Tips and Tricks will follow the recipe.
1-2-3-4 Cake Recipe
- 1 cup butter, room temperature
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 Tablespoon pure vanilla extract
- 4 eggs, room temperature
- 1 cup buttermilk (see substitute below in Tips and Tricks), room temperature
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
In a large bowl with a hand mixer or in the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the room temperature butter with the sugar, baking soda, and salt until it’s smooth and fluffy. It takes about 5 minutes with my stand mixer. Make sure you scrape the bowl down a few times so you don’t miss anything.
Add the vanilla and then add the eggs one at a time. Mix and then scrape down the bowl after each egg. The mixture may look a bit curdled but it will come together when you add the flour. Having the butter and sugar nice and fluffy will help incorporate the eggs.
Now it’s time to add the flour and buttermilk. Follow the classic cake method of alternating the flour and milk, adding a cup of the flour, add half the milk, add the second cup of flour, then the remaining milk, and finally the last cup of flour. Between each addition you should scrape down the bowl to make sure it’s all incorporated.
The key is to not beat the batter, just mix it until all the flour or milk is smoothly incorporated. My mixer bowl always has a spot at the bottom where the beater doesn’t reach so I always scrape down the bowl a lot.
Baking the Cake
Once the batter is luscious and smooth, pour it into a buttered and floured bundt pan. Bake in a 325 degree oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes. The most reliable method to tell if a cake is done is to check the temperature with an instant read thermometer. When it’s done the internal temperature should be 200 degrees. You can also see if the edges are pulling away from the pan and if the cake springs back when you gently press on the center. If your cake is dry you probably over baked it. My cakes have turned out so much better since I started checking the temperature.
Cool cake in the pan for at least 15 minutes then turn out to cool on a wire rack. Alternatively you can cool the cake completely in the pan. That’s what I’ve been doing lately and my cakes have been fine. Like a lot of things in life, it can always be simpler.
Tips and Tricks
- For the buttermilk substitute pour a tablespoon of white vinegar in a glass measuring cup and fill with milk to the 1 cup mark. Let this sit to acidify while the milk comes to room temperature.
- The butter, eggs, and milk need to be a room temperature for most cakes so they will combine smoothly.
- Serve the cake plain or with berries and whipped cream.
- Toast slices of cake for breakfast the next day or to have with coffee in the afternoon.
- Use as a base for a trifle.