gluten-free cake by ratio

This cake is nothing that special.

Cakes come in fanciful forms, covered in fondant or whipped into submission with frosting and sprinkles. In tiers and towers, trembling at the weight of themselves, celebration cakes are meant to make you say oooooh.

Yesterday, in the car, Lu told me about a cake she ate at school, in her imagination. “We had chocolate cake with pink frosting, vanilla sprinkles, and pistachios. Cherries on top!” Now that sounds like a special cake.

(Maybe I should make that one soon.)

I cannot frost a cake beautifully to save my life. Every time I try, I have a field of crumbs festooned across the top of the frosting. Try as I might, I just cannot make a cake that would make you say oooooh. My cakes might make you say, “Slumpy.” Or, “Hm. That looks a little unfortunate.

The taste, however? I can make a cake that will make your tastebuds hum along with the song that is tapping out its rhythm on your tongue.

In this way, this cake, adapted from Edna Lewis‘ Busy Day cake, is something special indeed.

Do you know Edna Lewis? Oh please say you do. Her cookbooks inspire me every time I browse through the pages. Quietly, she wrote about the food of her youth, in Virginia, where everything was eaten seasonally, fresh, and organic long before those were labels in stores. The daughter of a freed slave, Edna Lewis became a chef in New York, a respected author, and one of the leading authorities on Southern cooking. Many times, when I am reading her books, I wish that I could sit on the front porch with her, talking, then move to the kitchen to make something together.

(This children’s book about Edna Lewis, Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie , is one of Lu’s favorites.)

Her food is deceptively simple. Full of flavor and complexity of tastes, Edna Lewis’s recipe seem easy enough to entice you into the kitchen. Danny and I have been talking about this a lot lately, especially as we are making our new cookbook. It’s easy to make food that impresses, with recipes involving exotic ingredients and seven separate steps. But the best meal is the one on the table.

We just spent the weekend with Pam Anderson and her daughters, Maggy and Sharon, along with her husband, David. This is an extraordinary family: loving, funny, connected, and capable of letting go of each other too. I’ll be sharing some of the stories of Big Summer Potluck soon. Right now, my head is too full with memories and revelations to put it into words. But I will say that one of the most joyful mornings I have ever spent was in the wide-open kitchen at Pam’s house Friday morning. There were five of us in there, chopping and mixing, cooking and stirring. Lu ran up and down the stairs, chased by Maggy or Sharon, laughing. We blasted Stevie Wonder while we worked. Feet moved in rhythm to “Sir Duke.” We sizzled red onions, sifted flours, chopped scallions, and seared chicken in a big roasting pan. We were together, talking, connected through the food, the music, the shared experience. I looked up at one moment to see the trees outside the enormous windows, looked around at these women and my husband working together, and tears welled up. How did I find myself in this incredible place?

It’s food. Making food led me here.

When you have a busy day, you don’t need a fancy cake. You just want a bite of something slightly sweet and wholesome, with a little fruit or whipped cream. You just want to sit at the table with people you love and talk about the day over cake.

This is that cake.

We’ve been thinking about cake a lot around here. After all, it’s birthday month in the Ahern house. Lu turned three two weeks ago (three!) and I worked on a moist chocolate cake for weeks before it felt right for her party at the playground. (It’s also a recipe for our upcoming cookbook, so I’m afraid I can’t share here.)

Danny’s birthday party took place in Central Park, at Strawberry Fields, the night we arrived in New York. It was a surprise party for him (I love seeing that happy shocked look on his face), so I couldn’t arrive with cake. Luckily, Maggy brought an incredible birthday cake from Tu Lu’s Gluten-Free Bakery. People, I have been to gluten-free bakeries across the country. Tu Lu’s is, by far, the best gluten-free bakery I have ever encountered. Run, don’t walk. Run there to work off the cupcakes you are bound to eat.

And Saturday is my birthday (45!), so there is bound to be more cake on that day.

We’ve also been thinking about cake because it’s time for another installment of the Gluten-Free Ratio Rally. In the past few months, we have made pancakes, quick breads, scones, and pasta. This is an incredible group of cooks and bakers, making food for their families and the rest of us. Together, we’ve been talking about ratios, sugar, flours, and how to make the best cakes. Go on over to Kate Chan’s blog, Gluten-Free Gobsmacked, for the entire lineup of cakes meant to delight and entice you into the kitchen to bake. They look amazing.

Here’s the good news about making gluten-free cake by ratio: it’s pretty much the same as a gluten cake by ratio. In fact, in many ways, we’re lucky we don’t have gluten when we make cake. Recipes for traditional cakes caution us to “mix until just combined. Don’t over-stir.” Do you know why? Because you have to worry about activating the gluten too much. In fact, many cake recipes call for cake flour, which is lower in gluten than traditional AP flour. However, without any gluten? You don’t have to worry. Mix and combine and beat that batter until it’s light and fluffy. There’s no gluten in it.

What matters more in cakes than the gluten is the technique. Cream the butter and sugar together well, for quite awhile, until they are so well combined that the mixture contains air bubbles. It’s these pockets of air that will help to build the structure of the cake. Use room temperature butter, rather than cold butter or butter that has sat out on the counter so long it has taken on a shiny softness.

You might have seen that cake recipes request that you add your eggs one at a time, beating between each addition. I picked up a trick from Sarabeth Levine, whom I met in person last week (and I am still agog). In her wonderful book, Sarabeth’s Bakery: From My Hands to Yours, she wrote: “When adding eggs, take care that they are not added too quickly, or the creamed mixture will look curdles. After all, a cake batter is an emulsified mixture, and if one ingredient is added more quickly than another, the batter will ‘break.’ Many cookbooks say to add the eggs to the creamed butter and sugar one egg at a time, but even that seemingly small amount could cause curdling. For the best results, beat the eggs together. With the mixer running, add the beaten eggs about 1 tablespoon at a time to the creamed mixture.”

I started that practice with this Busy Day cake and I am going to keep doing it from now on. It made for a perfect crumb.

The traditional ratio for a sponge cake is 1:1:1:1 (1 part eggs, 1 part sugar, 1 part flour, 1 part butter). This ratio makes for that super-moist cake we like so much, such as the chocolate cake we made for Lu’s birthday. If you want to make a cake by ratio, all you have to do is cream together 8 ounces of butter and 8 ounces of sugar, then add 8 ounces of eggs, and 8 ounces of flour, along with the rest of the ingredients such as baking powder, salt, and vanilla extract.

This cake is a little different, however. It’s a little more flour, a little less butter, fewer eggs. This makes it a slightly drier cake than the super-moist cakes we associate with birthdays. It also means it’s an everyday cake, with not as much butter.

That’s the thing about baking by ratios. It’s just like learning grammar — study the rules, follow them for a time, and then make them your own. When you are confident in what you are doing, you can play.

That’s what Edna Lewis did, when she stood in the kitchen, creaming eggs and sugar together to make this cake. She played until it felt like the cake she wanted to serve.

You can make gluten-free cakes your own too.

Edna Lewis Busy-Day Cake, adapted from The Taste of Country Cooking

This cake is meant for baking. It wants to be made and sit on your counter for days as you nibble. It’s so easy to throw together that it would be a shame to not make it happy.

Here are a few notes for you. I’m sure that Miss Lewis didn’t have a stand mixer and made this by hand. If you’re without stand mixer, by all means use a rubber spatula and your biceps, or a hand mixer if you have one.

Since this is the kind of cake we’re going to be making often, we made this with our whole-grains mix. This makes it sort of wholesome brown, a little more dense than if you made it with our AP mix (or your favorite mix). Feel free to switch in the flours that work for you. Just be sure to use the same amount of grams — 280 — that you see here.

The plainspoken taste of this cake means you can play with the flavors a bit, if you want. The original cake had vanilla extract and nutmeg. I made ours with almond extract and a big pinch of cardamom. You could easily add lemon zest and poppyseeds or blueberry extract and thyme. Play with it. You’ll be making this cake again and again.

280 grams whole-grain flour mix
1 tablespoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
big pinch cardamom
115 grams (1 US stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/3 cups organic cane sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature, beaten together
½ teaspoon almond extract
½ cup whole milk, at room temperature

Preparing to bake. Preheat the oven to 375°. Grease a 9” springform pan with butter or cooking spray.

Combining the dry ingredients. Combine the whole-grain flour, the baking powder, salt, and cardamom. Set aside.

Starting the batter. In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until they are light and fluffy. Spoon the beaten eggs into the mixer, while it is running, 1 tablespoon at a time, pausing between each spoonful to beat the batter well. Add the almond extract and mix.

Finishing the batter. With the stand mixer running, add about 1/3 of the flour mixture to the batter, beating on low until the flour is incorporated fully. Add ½ of the milk and beat the batter. Continue alternating the flour with the milk, beating the batter after each addition. When you have finished, scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Then, let the mixer run, beating the batter until it is light and fluffy. (You don’t have to worry about the gluten!)

Baking the cake. Using the rubber spatula, scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Spread it evenly over the top. Slide the cake into the oven and bake it until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. (The top can brown quickly, as this one did, so you might want to carefully open the oven after 20 minutes and slip a large piece of aluminum foil over the top of the cake.)

Allow the cake to cool for at least 15 minutes before you release it from the pan. Serve warm, plain, or topped with fruit syrup or crème fraiche.

Feeds 8.


61 comments on “gluten-free cake by ratio

  1. Lucy

    Cardamom & almond extract sounds like a heavenly combination for an everyday cake. Oh for the busy days when we make cakes. Remember them.

  2. Gail

    Cake. You know you’re talking my language.
    This looks like a beauty.
    If you’d like, it would be my pleasure to help you ramp up your cake frosting game.


  3. Kate Lam Sam

    Yay! Your posts always make me want to immediately head to the kitchen and starting baking. It might have to wait a few hours though as the kids just woke up and need breakfast – unless…. Cake for breakfast!

  4. Donna

    I am new to gluteb free, but I will admit I am confused and perplexed by the measurements you use. While I know that others use grams and stuff to measure I cannot get the hang of it and always screw it up… can you help is there a converstion table you can share ?
    Thank you

    1. Courtney Simcox

      Forget about the conversion table, JUST GET THE FOOD SCALE!!! I cannot tell you how much easier it makes things, and the recipes always turn out. They are not that expensive. just go out and get one, you will never regret it.

      1. ellen

        Courtney is right. Baking should be as precise as possible and grams are the way to go. Get the scale. Signed, A convert. ps 28 grams to an ounce.

  5. Joan

    Thanks for the ratio cooking it’s been a helpful change for me.
    I was wondering though… generally you say you can substitute any flour according to needs and what’s on hand. However, I have often wondered if some absorb liquid more than others and how that might affect baking. For example, flax seeds would behave differently as do chia seeds in your breads. Thoughts?

    1. merrie

      Yes, different gf flours behave differently. That’s why I’m not sold on the ratio concept. Almond flour will absorb liquid differently from sweet rice flour from teff, etc. In reading through the ratio rally posts, I see that many people have to alter the starting ratio to get a recipe that works for the particular combination of flours they want to use. It seldom works from the start.

      In my own baking, I never add all of the liquid at once. I add 2/3 -3/4 of the liquid called for, see how the batter or dough is behaving, then add more liquid until it’s right. If I’m substituting flours, this method accounts for the different qualities of the flours. It’s easier to add liquid than to add flour.

  6. Heather Brandt

    I wish I could just bake this with eggs. Any tips for baking cakes without eggs? The last time I tried a gluten-free vegan chocolate cake recipe it tasted good but was drier than I wanted…wondering if I should just add another chia slurry (egg sub) to it…Baking without eggs & butter for my son’s sake has thrown my g-f baking for a curve sometimes….

      1. Heather Brandt

        No, I will try that to see if it makes a difference. I’m also considering using some coconut cream to add moisture to the cake. Thinking it might be kind of like sour cream is in cake recipes…We shall see.

      1. Dahlia @ A Foodie's Quest

        You can replace eggs with chia or flax meal. The general rule of thumb is 1 Tbs of meal and about the same in water or other liquid for each egg. It actually works, and in most cases, yo don’t really notice a change in flavour.

  7. Marla

    The GFRR has been a blast so far & even more fun now that we get to celebrate with cake. Simple cake is perfect 🙂

  8. brooke @B & the boy!

    It almost looks like gingerbread. I chose frosting this time since my monkey wants me to test various ideas for his birthday in November. 😛 Fruit on top is my choice though. 🙂 Thank you for starting this!

  9. Ina Gawne

    Shauna – you are so right about room temp. eggs, butter, yogurt, milk whatever – makes a huge difference! I love the 1111 ratio – again dead on. It took me years to make that oh so delicious yummy gf cake…finally got it and happy I did!

  10. js

    Frosting without crumbs: my cake maker freezes all of her cakes before she frosts them. I don’t know if that will cause any unique issues with GF cakes because I have not tried it, but that’s what pro cake makers do.

  11. Aurea @Survival Guide

    Thank you for your post! I was not familiar with Enda Lewis but that will have to change immediately! She sounds brilliant!
    I am always in awe of exotic recipes in pictures but am never even mildly tempted to try them, it is the plain and amazing that gets me. they are so approachable and can taste so old-world fabulous – and they are way easier to substitute and alter for food allergies!! Thanks again!

  12. Jen @ My Kitchen Addiction

    I was just thinking that I need to try my hand at some gluten-free cake next (now that I have experimented with cookies!). Love the sound of this cake… Especially the cardamom and almond.

    PS – I think Lu is onto something with that cake… Definitely one to try! 🙂

  13. Nina

    Although I generally avoid sugar, for special occasions I now rely on the cakes from ‘Red Velvet & Chocolate Heartache’ by Harry Eastwood. They work especially well for me because as well as using rice flour, they don’t have any butter at all. I don’t eat dairy and I’m highly suspicious of margarines etc, so unfortunately this cake ratio won’t work for me. The cakes in that book have only the fat from the eggs and ground almonds, and they all contain vegetables! Anyone with gluten and/or dairy problems should look it up. I promise I don’t work for the publishers!!

  14. Erin

    I love the way you don’t apologize for not being able to frost or ice a cake perfectly! I too used to have that problem. Then I found a few helps: pressing down with one of those Wilton wide spatula knife things, put a very thin layer of frosting on first. Then the rest goes on easy! I cover mine with toasted nuts or coconut or sprinkles if it looks messy 🙂 Also, you can freeze some cakes just til the tops are stable to not crumble under frosting. I tend to use a soft brush to whisk most of the crumbs off. And if all else fails…sprinkle a topping lol

  15. Lucy

    Edna Lewis is one of my all-time favorites. I love her recipes and books, along with Scott Peacock. And of course, their story. Will have to try Sarabeth’s egg trick for cakes. Thanks for your beautiful words.

  16. i-geek

    Mmm. I had a day off and it’s finally cool enough (after nearly 3 weeks of 90+ degree temps) to bake. I made this with half cane sugar and half brown sugar, vanilla, and extra-large pinches of cinnamon and nutmeg. It tastes a lot like the amazing coffee cake that my mom used to make when I was little, which I loved, except that this was a LOT less work. Also, mine totally looks “slumpy.” In fact, I was a little concerned at how the center sagged, until I scrolled up to the top of the post and saw that yours looked the same.

    I’ve given up trying to frost cakes neatly. Instead I make a bowl of really excellent buttercream, plop big spoonfuls all over the cake, and kind of smash them down and smear a bit to get the surface covered. I’ll never win any decorating awards that way, but as long as it tastes better than it looks, that’s all that matters.

  17. InTolerantChef

    An everyday cake just out of the oven doesn’t need to look beautiful. It needs to speak of love and home and comfort, a fancy-pantsy decorated cake isn’t the same. It’s like your mum getting dressed up for a special occasion- she looks and smells different and she’s so decorated with makeup and jewllry that you can’t wrap your arms around her and hug hard. She looks beautiful and special, but she’s not the mum you want everyday when you get home from school.

  18. Shuku

    Shauna, I cannot believe how good this cake is. I had some of your old AP flour mix (pre-tweaks), and had to add a bit of potato flour and sorghum to get it to 280g. I added 1/4 cup of cocoa powder, the grated rind of one orange and 2 tablespoons of poppy seeds. It is the best cake I’ve ever made, and quite possibly the best I’ve ever tasted! (There’s an adventure involved in this – the plug points in my kitchen short-circuited so I had to bake in the living room…but I’ll link you to the post and the photographs when I get them up later.)

    Thank you SO MUCH. I am crying right now, I’m so happy. I’ve never made a gluten-free cake I was happy with yet, and this is just PERFECT. I see a lot more cake baking in my future – when the damn plug points are fixed, that is. Moving an oven into the living room, however small, is still a chore!

  19. Cheryl

    Thank you! This is exactly what I needed as my beautiful daughter is turning 12 on Saturday. 🙂 Happy birthday to both of you!

  20. Dahlia @ A Foodie's Quest

    Crumb-free frosting is actually really easy to do. For one thing, professionals never frost a fresh cake: it’s always baked a day ahead, since fresh cake is moist and soft, and will crumb more easily. You can use a frozen cake, but for hygiene purposes, not recommended -especially if you intend to re-freeze the cake for storage. Secondly, always apply a crumb-layer of frosting. This is a thin layer used to seal in the cake. It doesn’t need to be perfect, just needs to cover the whole thing. Let the crumb layer set in the fridge for an hour, then slather on the final layer. Also, your frosting should be at room temp to make it easier to apply.
    It’s a little more time consuming, but it’s not rocket science!

  21. gretchen

    shauna, your cake looks delicious and your photos are simply lovely. thanks again for joining all of us rally-ers together… what a fun month!

  22. Brooke @ Food Woolf

    Yes. Cake.

    Happy almost birthday and a high-five to the other birthday people in your beautiful home. I’m wishing you all the happiest of days, filled with cakes that make you feel at home and tingling with excitement. Hugs, B

  23. None

    Just made this cake — and couldn’t even wait for it to cool before I tried the first piece. The verdict: fantastic!! The cardamom adds the perfect little zing that I always think is missing from plain vanilla cake. My suggestion for a topping is just fresh berries with whipped cream — no frosting required. Oh, and that method with adding the beaten eggs a little at a time did indeed produce the PERFECT crumb… and now I’m off to track down Edna Lewis’s cookbooks.

  24. Caneel

    Looks like another incredibly delicious gluten-free cake! I love the simplicity of this one and the color with the whole grains. Mmmm!

  25. Kate

    This looks like everything you want from a cake~moisture, a little crumb, a happy to be nibbled at all week type. I certainly would like this on my bench. Almond extract and cardamom have got me thinking, too. Thanks for the ideas and inspiration, and for creating our group of ratio bakers.
    p.s. I love that red table!

  26. amy

    How did you know I’d have the house to myself tonight and was looking forward to making cupcakes?? Just reading this recipe over made me realize what was wrong with the ratio of my last batch–thank you for unknowingly working out the kinks! I think these are going to transform beautifully into vanilla-buttermilk cupcakes with a dab of toffee icing.

  27. waggie

    I am SO grateful I stumbled across your website. My almost 3 year old son just got diagnosed with a wheat allergy/sensitivity. I’m trying to fix his favorite things in life which are noodles and waffles, but have not had much success. I have never cooked by ratio, but after reading a few of your entries am going to try it! I have a scale already just need to get it out, which I’ll do tonight when I get home! I have been almost to the point of crying myself to sleep thinking about my wonderful little son never having really good Christmas cookies or birthday cake again, but I will have no more tears. After reading your blog I know that I can give him wonderful things that actually taste good. I can’t want to start baking! Thank you for sharing so much of your time and talents.

  28. Britt

    The cake looks wonderful! I’m trying to learn more about GF since one of my friends has Celiac and I want to be able to make things she can eat. My birthday party is coming up, so the cake recipe comes at just the right time. Thanks!

    I looked through the comments to see what other people had said about frosting crumb-free cakes, and no one shared my favorite trick. Here it is:

    Put your frosting in a pastry bag and get a big, wide frosting tip. Squeeze icing down onto the surface of the cake, working in a circle or back and forth until the cake is entirely covered. Then all you have to do is smooth the surface. But the because the frosting knife glides so well over the frosting, it just takes the tiniest amount of pressure to smooth the frosting and the horizontal pressure doesn’t tear my cake apart. And since my knife never touches the cake itself, crumbs don’t get worked up into the frosting. I hope the trick works for you, too!

  29. Inna

    I think this recipe is great and simple to do. Looking at the picture it makes me want to start working on right away…But we can’t have gluten and we can’t have dairy. Did anyone try this recipe with almond milk or with coconut milk?

  30. victoria

    I love that there’s a children’s book about Edna Lewis! I had never seen that before. When I lived in Decatur we used to eat at Watershed a lot — the restaurant her friend and caregiver Scott Peacock ran. Absolutely wonderful place, and always very welcoming to a celiac. And the cookbook Peacock and Lewis wrote (The Gift of Southern Cooking) is quite possibly the book I’ve cooked out of the most. It’s a delightful read. I’m very keen to try this recipe! Thanks.

  31. jen

    thanks for bringing the ratio rally to the masses:-)
    my husband’s birthday is coming up next week and i make his favorite carrot cake every year – even the past 2 years since i’ve found out i can’t eat gluten. both of these years he asked me to make the cake GF so i can enjoy it with him – he says it’s no fun to eat birthday cake by himself (and i do see his point). i’ve done a couple of experiments, but none have turned out well enough to be “the” birthday cake. i know the secret is in the ratio method you use for the GF ratio rally, but i can’t look at this recipe and figure out how to convert it. any chance you can take a look at it and give me some pointers on how to figure it out?
    i’ve tried to figure it out from this cake gf ratio rally post, but this recipe doesn’t seem to be 1:1:1:1 – there are 2 cups each of sugar/flour, but 3 eggs & 3/4 cup oil……. any suggestions would be appreciated. thanks so much! recipe below:

    Carrot Cake
    2 cups sugar
    3/4 cup buttermilk
    3/4 cup vegetable oil
    3 eggs — beaten
    2 teaspoons vanilla
    2 cups flour
    2 teaspoons baking soda
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    2 teaspoons cinnamon
    2 cups grated carrots
    1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
    8 ozs crushed pineapple drained
    1 1/4 cups coconut

    Buttermilk Glaze:
    1 cup sugar
    1/2 cup buttermilk
    1/2 cup butter
    1 tablespoon light corn syrup
    1/2 teaspoon baking soda
    1 teaspoon vanilla

    Cream Cheese Frosting:
    8 ounces cream cheese — softened
    1/2 cup butter — softened
    1 pound powdered sugar — sifted
    1 teaspoon vanilla

    Cake: Combine first 5 ingredients; beat well.
    Mix flour, soda, salt and cinnamon; add to creamed mixture; stir well. Add carrots, walnuts, pineapple and coconut; stir well.

    Pour batter into 2 greased and floured 9-inch round cake pans.

    Bake at 350~ for 35-40 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean.

    Immediately spread Buttermilk Glaze evenly over layers. Cool in pans 15 minutes; remove from pans, let cool completely, then spread cream cheese frosting on top of cooled cake.

    Buttermilk Glaze: Combine first 5 ingredients in large saucepan. Bring to a boil; cook 4 minutes on medium heat. Remove from heat; add vanilla.

    Cream Chese Frosting: Mix cream cheese and butter; beat until smooth. Gradually add sugar, beating until light and fluffy. Stir in vanilla.


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