In this month of freshly fried doughnuts, Christmas cookies and yule logs swathed in buttercream, it’s easy to forget the charms of the simplest cakes, the ones that sit on the kitchen counter unadorned and out of the spotlight. Everything that makes these cakes deeply satisfying is baked right into them.
The term kitchen cakes sometimes refers to cakes at weddings set aside in the venue’s kitchen. I think of them as easygoing cakes that make holidays sweeter and easier. Rarely frosted and never elaborately decorated, they offer so much pleasure in their simplicity. A warm welcome, too. Having a cake within reach of everyone who passes through the kitchen (and everyone will) is a way to make the people you care about feel truly at home.
These three recipes are among my favorites. Like all of the best kitchen cakes, they’re good keepers, meant to stay out to be eaten over a few days. Since they’re self-service treats, they slice easily and hold their good looks as they get smaller and smaller. (Should they last long enough to go a bit stale, they can be warmed or toasted.) And, of course, they’re easy to make — the last thing a baker needs now is a cake that calls for coddling.
This tall and tender cranberry spice Bundt is a textbook example of a kitchen cake: beautiful straight from the oven, a little spiffier with cranberry icing and tempting either way. It has the look of a classic, but it holds a surprise: it’s flavored with cardamom, coriander and ginger, spices that ping and stand up to the pucker of fresh cranberries. With a combination of butter and oil, and the addition of yogurt, it has a soft crumb. But the yogurt can be sour cream or buttermilk, and the spice can be warming cinnamon. You can even swap the cranberries for berries or a mix of dried fruit.
The Bundt is a morning to midnight cake, good with coffee, tea or even milk, and so is this baked-in-a-skillet gingerbread. The secret ingredient here is apple butter (you can make your own, or buy a jar), a great companion to the trio of ginger, cinnamon and cloves and part of the reason the cake holds so well. It’s another recipe you can riff on, skipping the cinnamon and cloves and going with some grated or chopped fresh ginger. You can add pieces of fresh apple, raisins or bits of prunes to the batter, and you can glaze it. Chocolate and gingerbread are an unbeatable combination (think about ganache for a topping). No matter what you do, whenever you bake it, you get a bonus: Your house will smell like Christmas for hours.
Because there’s no rule book for kitchen cakes, there’s nothing that says that they can’t be savory. This loaf, speckled with roasted red pepper, ham and three cheeses (fontina, mozzarella and Parmesan), can be cut into slices, fingers or little squares for nibbling along with a glass of wine (try it with a sparkler) or grabbed as a go-along for soup or a salad. If you keep the basic proportions, you can play with the elements: Swap the olive oil for something that tastes neutral; trade the chives for scallions or chopped shallots; skip the herbs or change them; use pancetta instead of ham; and don’t think twice about rounding up a different assortment of cheeses that soften, melt and get delectably gooey in the oven.