About the best cake recipe I learned in my long cooking career is “lightening cake”, a favorite of American settlers for its simple ingredients and one one-bowl ease. Its eggy, tender and fragrant with a fine texture that belies its ease. Recently a reader shouted out: “Hey Sally, why don’t you post the Brown Sugar Lightening Cake on Improvised Life?”, so here it is.

I first learned of it from watching my friend Kathy Mailloux in her kitchen in the West Virginia Appalachians stir eggs, butter, sugar and flour into a batter to pour over peaches for a cobbler; I suddenly realizing that she’d made it in 15 minutes, without an electric mixer, all while shooting the breeze with me.


Home in New York, I fooled around with Kathy’s basic batter, plugging in brown sugar for white, and flavoring it with both vanilla and bourbon (a flavoring common to old-fashioned pound cakes) and baked it in a 9-inch cake pan.

Turned out onto a pretty plate and dusted with powdered sugar, it looks and tastes like the lovely butter cakes of French country cooking, and makes a fine dessert for a dinner party or a tea.

It also takes well to improvisation both with the batter AND by using the baked cake as a fill-able, ice-able layer.

Turn it upside down as it comes out of the pan, and you’ll end up with the class shape of many provincial French cakes…ready to dust with powdered sugar.

Sally Schneider

Ideas for Improvising:

Fragrant Olive Oil Cake. Replace some of the butter with fruity olive oil, 1 teaspoon each of grated orange and lemon zest and 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme. Recipe here.

Raspberry Cake. To add 1/2 pint of berries to the batter, use 2 tablespoons less butter and 1 tablespoon more flour.

Orange Flower Cake. The grated zest of lemons, clementines, tangerines, Meyer lemons and oranges – 1 tablespoons worth – are potent flavorings that turn Brown Sugar Lightening Cake into citrus-scented cakes. One teaspoon orange flower water will amplify the citrus flavors.

Brown Sugar Coconut Layer Cake with Lemon or Dulce de Leche. One Brown Sugar Lightening Cake can be split and filled or frosted with various creamy icings and fillings to make a simple sensational layer cake. My favorite is filled with crème fraiche and a quick uncooked lemon jam and topped with crème fraiche and sweetened coconut. Recipe here.


Vivienne Chen


Recipe: Brown Sugar Lightening Cake

Use this basic recipe to make any of the ideas above. Or take liberties with these:

Flavorings offer the simplest opportunities for improvising. Replace the vanilla and bourbon with any extracts or flavorful alcohols you like, including rum, almond extract (it’s strong, use sparingly), rosewater, orange flower water and so on. Grated fruit zests – lemon, orange, tangerine, Meyer lemon – can be used alone or in tandem with other flavorings to make citrus-scented cakes. Lace the cake with a bit of sweet spices – nutmeg, mace, allspice, cinnamon, clove, coriander, fennel seed, cardamom, even black pepper – or herbs; use any of the thymes and rosemary used sparingly – can add a lovely counterpoint of flavor. Old-fashioned pound cakes were often baked with rose geranium leaf in the bottom of the pan before the batter was poured in to gently scent the cake.

Makes one 9-inch cake; serves 6 to 8


8 tablespoons unsalted butter (one 4-ounce stick), melted

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 plus 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

2 large eggs, at room temperature

1 cup light brown sugar

1/2 cup buttermilk OR 1/4 cup whole milk mixed with 1/4 cup plain yogurt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon bourbon

Confectioner’s sugar

Prepare the pan. Preheat the oven to 350’. Brush the inside of a 9-inch straight-sided cake pan with a little of the melted butter. Spoon a teaspoon or two flour into the pan and tilt it until it is completely coated. Invert and tap to release excess flour.

Sift together dry ingredients. Place a sifter or a strainer over a bowl and sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Stir again with a fork and set aside.

Beat the eggs with the sugar. Crack the eggs into a medium bowl and whisk until blended and frothy. Whisk in the sugar and beat until well blended, 1 minute.

Mix in dry and wet ingredients. Whisk in the flour using as few strokes as possible until mostly incorporated. Then, whisk in the milk, melted butter and flavorings. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake and cool the cake. Bake the cake 35 to 40 minutes until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool the cake on a rack 5 minutes, then invert onto the rack. Cool completely and invert onto a platter. Sift some confectioner’s sugar over the top.



I never seem to have the presence of mind to take a photo of the cake SO, I’ve borrowed one (and applied a bit of Hipstamatic to it) with thanks, from The Gold Lining Girl, whose cake, from above, looks similar.


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5 replies on “Simple Best: Brown Sugar Lightning Cake

  1. Thank you, Sally. I’m sitting here enveloped in the aroma of a freshly baked Lightning Cake—mmm!

  2. Baking powder listed in ingredients, when sifting dry ingredients, baking soda is mentioned

  3. Thanks for alerting me. The baking powder in the ingredients list is correct. I’ve made the correction, though baking soda would work as well.
    I hope this didn’t cause a problem for you.

  4. you are right Brown Sugar Lightning Cake is so simple and simple is always best thanks for sharing cake i appreciate your work…

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