Epicurious shares all the different varieties you can make!
Butter (or Oil) Cakes
These contain some kind of fat—often butter, but sometimes oil—and baking powder to leaven them or make them rise. If the fat is butter, the ingredients are usually combined using the creaming method, which means that the soft butter and sugar are beaten together in an electric mixer to partially dissolve the sugar and to incorporate some air. Then the dry and wet ingredients are added in alternating doses. This results in a light and airy crumb, though not quite as light as that of a sponge cake (see below). The best butter cakes have a moist buttery richness tempered by lightness. Included in this category are:
- Pound Cakes: This is the simplest type of butter cake. A classic pound cake is made with a pound each of butter, sugar, eggs, and flour. This produces a dense yet tender texture. Pound cakes are heavier than the types of butter cakes used for constructing layer cakes (see below). They’re easy to prepare, with the only trick being that the butter must be quite soft when you begin. These cakes are usually very lightly flavored and served plain or topped with a simple glaze or water icing. A pound cake is usually baked in a loaf or Bundt pan. Many coffee cakes, sour cream cakes, and fruit crumb cakes are variations of pound cake.
- Butter (and Oil) Layer Cakes: Many different types of cake can be arranged in layers. However, classic American layer cakes are usually butter or oil cakes. The birthday cake you ate as a child was probably of this type. These cakes are lighter than traditional pound cake, but more moist and flavorful than European-style sponge layer cakes (see below). Cakes in this category include: devil’s food cake (the classic chocolate layer cake), golden cakes (made with egg yolks, which add richness and a golden color), and white cakes (made with egg whites, which create a lighter, whiter-colored cake).
Sponge and Foam Cakes
These are notable more for what they are missing than for what they contain: They usually do not include fat, such as butter or oil, and they do not incorporate leaveners, like baking powder. Instead, volume is created by whipping the eggs or egg whites. The air whipped into the eggs expands during baking, causing these cakes to rise on their own without baking powder. However, the success of this method depends on not deflating the eggs after whipping them. To this end, dry ingredients are usually sifted over and gently folded in, and fat is often avoided, as it would weigh down the foamy batter.
This method produces extremely light, airy cakes with a spongy texture but generally less flavor and moisture than butter and oil cakes. The basic types of sponge and foam cakes are:
- Angel Food Cake: This type is made with egg whites alone and no yolks. The whites are whipped with sugar until very firm before the flour is gently folded in, resulting in a snowy-white, airy, and delicate cake that marries beautifully with fruit. Most angel food cakes have a spongy, chewy quality derived from their relatively high sugar content and the absence of egg yolks. Baked in ungreased two-piece tube pans, angel food cakes are cooled by being inverted, since this type of cake would collapse if cooled right-side-up in the pan or if removed from the pan while still warm.
- Genoise: This type of sponge cake is made with whole eggs rather than just egg whites, which gives it a richer flavor than angel food cake. The eggs are combined with sugar and gently heated over simmering water, then whipped (heating the eggs allows them to be whipped to a greater volume). Genoise lacks much assertive flavor of its own, but it is often used to construct layered or rolled cakes when a lighter texture than a butter cake is desired. To add flavor and moisture, genoise cake layers are always moistened with a flavored syrup, and they are often sliced into thin horizontal layers and stacked with rich fillings such as buttercream. These layer cakes, common in the coffeehouses of Europe, are called “European-style” to distinguish them from American-style butter layer cakes, which generally have fewer, thicker layers.
- Biscuit (always pronounced the French way as bees-kwee): This type of sponge cake contains both egg whites and yolks, but, unlike in genoise, the whites and yolks are whipped separately and then folded back together. This creates a light batter that’s drier than a genoise but holds its shape better after mixing. For this reason, it’s often used for piped shapes such as ladyfingers. If baked in a tube pan like an angel food cake, it makes a very chewy sponge cake that was popular in the early 20th century but has since fallen out of favor. However, it’s still known in a slightly different form as the classic Passover sponge cake, in which the flour is replaced by matzoh cake meal and potato starch.
- Chiffon Cake: This fairly recent American creation was invented by a salesman who sold the recipe to General Mills, which spread the recipe through marketing materials in the 1940s and 1950s. A classic chiffon cake is kind of a cross between an oil cake and a sponge cake. It includes baking powder and vegetable oil, but the eggs are separated and the whites are beaten to soft peaks before being folded into the batter. This creates a cake with a tender crumb and rich flavor like an oil cake, but with a lighter texture that’s more like a sponge cake. Chiffon cakes can be baked in tube pans like angel food cakes or layered with fillings and frostings.
Low- or No-Flour Cakes
Cakes made without flour (or with very little) generally have a creamy or silky texture. They can be baked or unbaked:
- Baked Flourless Cakes: These include baked cheesecakes and flourless chocolate cakes. For easy removal, they’re often made in a springform pan, though some can also be made in regular round layer cake pans. Often the filled pan is placed in a larger pan that’s half-filled with water to insulate the delicate, creamy cake from the oven’s strong bottom heat, which might give the baked cake a porous rather than silky texture. This is called baking the cake in a water bath.
- Unbaked Flourless Cakes: These types of cakes are typically molded in a dessert ring or springform pan then simply chilled before unmolding. They include unbaked cheesecakes and mousse cakes. They often have a crust or bottom layer that’s baked before the mousse is added. Sometimes other layers, such as genoise or biscuit, are alternated with the mousse.