“It’s just one of those plain cakes you think you can’t see the point of, until you start slicing and eating it,” Nigella Lawson writes of Madeira cake in How to Be a Domestic Goddess. As is the case with most of Lawson’s thoughts on food, this couldn’t be more spot-on, so allow me to introduce you to Food52’s best Madeira cake. A simple sponge cake without frosting, filling, bells, or whistles, you may not think much of this one-layer cake at first blush. (That said, if you want to fill it with something creamy, it’s sturdy enough to handle the extra moisture.)
But sometimes, simplicity is what makes the best snacking cakes: There need not be much more in a great one than butter, sugar, flour, and eggs. Typically found in British and Irish cooking, Madeira cake is named not for an ingredient within the bake, but for the drink with which it was historically served (Madeira wine, if you haven’t already guessed). Even the sweet varieties of this Portuguese fortified wine tend to have a dry finish, and they were often served as a digestif in 19th-century Britain; though the cake is now more typically found as an accompaniment to afternoon—or morning!—tea, the name stuck.
Most recipes for Madeira cake are scented with lemon zest and juice, but any citrus you have on hand—from grapefruit to lime—will do well here. Whatever you do, don’t skip the sprinkle of sugar on top pre-bake, which makes for a crackly textured top and a sweet foil to the tangy cake. Madeira cake is often made in a loaf pan or a deep round cake pan; I found a 9-inch springform pan works nicely for cutting fat wedges to serve alongside a strong cup of English breakfast. While many classic recipes for this cake call exclusively for butter, after much testing, I found that a bit of vegetable oil made for the the most tender version of this cake. Its crumbly, super-light texture is all thanks to DIY cake flour (all-purpose and cornstarch—because who has cake flour in their pantry at all times? Not me!) The addition of flaky salt at the end is not traditional, and it’s optional in the recipe, but trust me: once you start salting your desserts, you’ll never go back.
This cake will keep, tightly wrapped and stored at room temperature, for 3 days (then it starts to dry out); you can push this to a week by storing it in the refrigerator. —Rebecca Firkser
- Nonstick cooking spray or a knob of unsalted butter
- 2 1/2 cups minus 3 tablespoons (312 grams) all-purpose flour
- 3 tablespoons (20 grams) cornstarch
- 1 1/2 teaspoons teaspoons (5 grams) baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- Juice and zest from 1 lemon (or 1 tablespoon zest and 3 tablespoons juice from orange, grapefruit, or lime)
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar, plus more, for sprinkling
- 3 large eggs, at room temperature (place cold eggs in a bowl of hot water for 5 minutes to do this quickly)
- 1/4 cup (55 grams) vegetable oil
- Flaky sea salt, for serving, optional
- A glass of Madeira wine, for serving, optional (tea is OK, too)
- Heat the oven to 325ºF and grease a 9-inch springform pan with cooking spray or butter. Line the bottom of the cake pan with a round of parchment paper, then grease the paper.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
- In a large bowl with an electric hand mixer, or in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the lemon zest, butter, and sugar at medium speed, until light and fluffy, about 3 to 4 minutes, scraping down the bowl periodically.
- Add the eggs one at a time at medium to medium-high speed, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition. (Should the mixture start to look curdled, do not fear! This is OK, and will be resolved once the dry ingredients are added.) Continue beating until the batter gets incredibly fluffy, about 5 minutes.
- Whisk together the oil and lemon juice in a small bowl or liquid measuring cup. With the mixer on low, beat one-third of the dry ingredients into the batter, then half the liquid. Scrape down the bowl, then beat in another third of the dry ingredients and the remaining liquid. Scrape down the bowl again, then gently beat in the remaining dry ingredients. The batter should look like really thick buttercream frosting.
- Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top gently with an offset spatula. Shower the cake very generously with more granulated sugar. Bake, rotating the pan halfway through, about 45 to 50 minutes, until the cake is pulling away from the sides of the pan, springs back slightly when pressed, and/or when a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. The cake should be cracked and sparkly from the sugar topping.
- Shower the top of the cake with flaky salt, if using. Let the cake cool completely before turning it out of the pan. Serve with Madeira wine or tea.