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A Cake You Can’t Mess Up

Perfect for the beginning baker, loaf cake is both simple and celebratory

Overhead image of glazed chocolate loaf cake on wooden board, two slices cut to show interior of cake.
Behold, a cake you can’t screw up.
Istetiana / Getty Images

Welcome to Ask Elazar, a column in which Eater staff writer Elazar Sontag answers your highly specific and pressing cooking questions.

My second birthday-within-quarantine is coming up (:sobs:) and while I am a very novice baker (emphasis on VERY NOVICE) I would at least like to make myself a cake. Do you have a suggestion for what to bake that feels festive but also not huge, since I live in a two-person household and don’t want to be eating cake for a week?

Happy birthday! Hopefully this is your last pandemic celebration, and next year we’ll all be back to spending birthdays surrounded by loved ones in very busy restaurants. In the meantime, as a fellow novice baker, I know the anxiety of trying to make a not-sad birthday cake happen from scratch. Of course, for those of us lacking confidence and know-how, heading to a favorite bakery is the best way to guarantee a successful outcome. But if you’re determined to bake at home, perhaps no dessert is more forgiving and rewarding than the loaf cake. A loaf is just enough of a project, without sending the beginner baker into a layering- and glazing-induced spiral. Though not overly elaborate or frilly, a really good loaf is just as elegant and impressive as any round, stacked masterpiece. And no matter what anyone says, a loaf is a cake.

I’m sure if you searched hard enough, you could find a complicated loaf cake out there. But for the most part, when a recipe calls for a loaf pan, it signals that the process will be approachable for the novice baker, and that the ingredient list won’t make my head spin.

As such, plopping batter into a loaf pan and sliding it into the oven is one of the few forms of baking I willingly take on, and I have a loaf for almost every occasion to prove it.

Like everyone, I spent the early months of 2020 making endless banana bread (which, really, is just breakfast-y cake). For dinner dates — or just because I’m craving it — I make a variation on a pumpkin tea cake. I’ve made this particular one so many times that it’s slowly morphed into another dessert: roasted and mashed sweet potato now replaces the pumpkin puree, and olive oil gives the cake a grassier flavor than the vegetable oil originally called for. Admittedly, this loaf, while perfect, is more Pumpkin Spice Latte than Perfect Birthday Weekend.

Equipped with a loaf pan, you could go for a summery one-bowl lemon crumb loaf, a fresh citrus olive oil cake, a carrot loaf cake, a one-bowl cornmeal pound cake, or a poppy seed cake. There are a lot of great loaf cake recipes out there, but for a birthday vibe, I say stick with chocolate, the most celebratory and recognizable of cake flavors. I recently made a chocolate loaf for a friend who lives just a few blocks away, but I haven’t seen much of during this pandemic. I wanted to be with her on her birthday, and bringing over cake and waving through my car window was as close as I was going to get. For some reason, my non-vegan friend requested a vegan cake, and I landed on this eggless chocolate loaf, shared by an AllRecipes user named Angel.

Though the recipe didn’t call for any add-ins, I dumped a mountain of chocolate chips into the batter, and made a mental note that if my cake was a total disaster I’d have no one to blame but myself. But of course, like so many recipes published to AllRecipes by cooks with no last name and no headshot, this loaf proved to be virtually indestructible. With 743 five-star ratings, Angel delivered a god-tier cake that I was able to make in one bowl, with very little anxiety — and even less clean up — during my lunch break. It was moist and rich (I scraped up some crumbs from the pan with my finger), with a beautiful crackly top.

Because making a loaf is so low-stress, it leaves room for the nervous baker (me) to have fun with decoration. For this one, I settled on a very simple powdered sugar glaze, to which I added a heaping tablespoon of smooth almond butter, a generous scoop of tahini, and a big pinch of flaky salt. I poured the golden glaze over my warm, beautiful baby, and frantically fanned it until the sugary mixture set. When I was done licking the glaze out of the bowl (chef’s treat), I topped the cake with some crushed roasted peanuts, slid it onto foil-wrapped cardboard, and shuttled it to my friend’s apartment. The next day, I received a photo of the loaf looking very festive, very celebratory, and — in my humble opinion — just as impressive as the fanciest birthday cake. A loaf might not win you a spot on the next season of the Great British Baking Show, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s about the only way it falls short.