Always baked by Mother, and flavored to the preference of the celebrant, this "simple old receipt, a stand-by in every family" was the base of every birthday cake in the Campion household.
Caroline and her sister, Kitty, were fond of a chocolate version (made by substituting some flour for cocoa powder), while eldest Emily preferred Almond. Maud chose lemon; Molly, orange; Father, raisins; Aunt Sophie, citron; Uncle George, nuts and spices. As Emil and Anna's birthdays were separated by just a week, Mother would bake a large cake flavored "in true German fashion with anise" for them to take to Anna's for a private celebration. Caroline does not record what flavor Mother herself was fond of, though for some reason i like to think that she would have chosen coconut.
In a time before wide-spread literacy and standard measurements, the 1,2,3,4 Cake was about as democractic a cake as one could get. The ingredients few, the taste fantastic, it really was, and is, the classic yellow cake. The birthday cake. (Alice Waters agrees. See The Art of Simple Food.) And let it be known that this is not the last time you will see 1,2,3,4 Cake here, I love it that much.
Adapted from the 19th c. (and Victorian Cakes by Caroline B. King)
1 c (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 c (400 g) sugar
3 c (375 g) all-purpose flour
4 eggs, at room temperature
1 tbsp baking powder
1 c (240 g) whole milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350° and prepare a large capacity loaf pan (like a Pullman) and set it on a baking sheet just in case.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour and baking powder and set aside.
Add the vanilla to the milk and set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl if using a hand mixer), cream the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy, about five minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating each in fully before adding the next.
Stop and scrape the bowl!
On low speed, mix in the flour mixture and the vanilla milk in three additions, beginning and ending with the dry.
Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and slide into the hot oven.
Bake for 70 minutes or until a cake test comes back clean and the sides of the cake begin pulling away from the pan. Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes before removing to a rack to cool completely.
Serve dusted with powdered sugar.