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Cake-Baking Secrets from Alton Brown

Detail from the cover of Alton Brown's <i>I'm Just Here For More Food</i>.
Detail from the cover of Alton Brown's I'm Just Here For More Food.

Why do some cakes seem to go so well on the way into the oven, but come out as sinkhole disasters? Are there fool-proof ways to prevent a cake from imploding?

Culinary wizard Alton Brown solves the mysteries of cake-baking in the second of our series of holiday baking tips. Host of the Food Network show Good Eats, Brown is also the author of I'm Just Here for More Food. He talks with NPR's Jennifer Ludden.

Chocolate Pound Cake Recipe

I have no idea where this recipe came form, but since it calls for "sweet" milk, I have to think that it's at least forty years old, if not older. If you want to kick up the chocolate "a few notches," then consider making a slurry of the milk and cocoa powder and bringing it to a boil in the microwave (a couple of minutes does it in mine). The boiling liquid "opens up" the chocolate, giving you more bang for your nib, so to speak. That said, this cake is just dandy the way it is described below.

Note: Sweet milk is simply regular whole milk. In the days when people churned their own butter, buttermilk (the natural residue of the churned butter) was much more common on this country's tables. In fact, it was so common that many recipes – especially southern recipes – distinguished whole milk from buttermilk by referring to it as "sweet."

The Creamed Ingredient:

227 g / 8 oz. (2 sticks) Unsalted butter (softened)

595 g / 21 oz (3 cups) Sugar

The Eggs Ingredient:

5 large Eggs, beaten

9 g / 1/3 oz (2 teaspoons) Vanilla extract

The Dry Goods Ingredient:

404 g / 14 ½ oz (3 cups) All-purpose flour

18 g / 5/8 oz (6 tablespoons) Cocoa powder

3 g / < 1/8 oz (1/2 teaspoon) Baking powder

2 g / < 1/8 oz (1/8 teaspoon) Salt

The Liquid Ingredient:

227 g / 8 oz (1 cup) Sweet milk

The Extras:

Baker's Joy or AB's Kustom Kitchen Lube for the pan


Place an oven rack in position B and preheat the over to 325 degrees F.

Prep a 10-inch tube pan and set aside.

Assemble the batter via the Creaming Method*, alternating additions of the flour/cocoa mixture with the milk. Given the amounts involved, start with dry and end with dry.

Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 1 hour and 20 minutes until the internal temperature hits 212 degrees F, or the cake leaves the sides of the pan.

Remove the cake from the oven and allow to cool 15 minutes in the pan then turn out onto a rack to cool thoroughly.

It will keep, tightly wrapped at room temperature, for 1 week.

Yield One 10-inch cake

*Here's how the Creaming Method works:

Sift together the Dry Goods. That means any and all flours, your chemical leavening, salt and other dry spices – basically, everything but sugar.

Cream the solid fat and sugar(s), preferably with a stand mixer using the paddle attachment on medium speed, until light and fluffy. Okay, there I go using those vague terms of "light" and "fluffy." Here's when to stop: when you're no longer able to see sugar granules, but you can still feel them if you rub a bit of the creamed fat between your fingers. Although you can overcream (and you'll know that you have when your mixture moves from a smooth and homogeneous mixture to something akin to curdled milk), inadequate aeration (i.e. undercreaming) is far more common. As a rule of thumb, I like to see the volume of the fat increase by a third.

Add the eggs slowly. Many recipes call for adding eggs one at a time. I think that's kinda silly, because in most cases that means adding water (in the form of egg whites) directly to the fat. Since fats and water don't get along very well, batters mixed this way tend to come together slowly. To get around this, mix the eggs together first so that the water in the egg whites can hook up with the emulsifiers in the yolks. Add them in aj steady stream and the eggs will be absorbed in no time.

Drop the mixer speed to low and add the dry goods slowly, alternating the addition of the dry goods with any other liquid ingredients. Then stir in any bits and pieces like chocolate chips at the end.

Depending on the amount of liquid involved, the mixture produced may be a pourable batter (a cake) or a thick paste (a chocolate chip cookie). So your final step would be to pour the batter into or "drop" the cookies onto a pan and bake.

Excerpted from 'I'm Just Here for More Food,' 2004. Used by permission of Alton Brown and Stewart, Tabori & Chang.

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Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.