There are a handful of storecupboard staples that are worth having on hand so you can rustle up a cake whenever you want one. Most of these have lengthy use-by dates so even if you're an infrequent baker you can still afford to stock up.
Baking powder is a raising agent. It's made up of bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar. Cream of tartar is an acid which activates the bicarbonate of soda causing it to release carbon dioxide and aerate the cake with the addition of moisture. It's often used in baking, especially in creamed cakes.
Bicarbonate of soda can also be bought separately but it's still necessary to add an acid and moisture to activate it. Common acids that you will find in recipes include cream of tartar, buttermilk and milk. Bicarbonate of soda has a strong flavour so care must be taken not to use too much. It's best used in full-flavoured cakes such as ginger cake.
We haven't included many fresh ingredients in our list as most, such as carrots for Carrot cake, you'll want to buy as and when you need them. However, butter is a must for many cake recipes and is a useful all-round item to have in your fridge. Butter imparts a distinctive flavour and is ideal for creamed cakes where it's beaten together with sugar to incorporate air into the mixture and produce a light cake.
It's worth having some plain chocolate in your storecupboard for making chocolate cakes; for breaking up to use as chocolate chips and for making rich chocolatey cake toppings. In most recipes a plain chocolate of around 40 per cent cocoa solids is adequate unless otherwise stated. You might also want to keep a stash of white and milk chocolate for your recipes.
Another key ingredient for chocolate cake recipes, cocoa provides an intense chocolate flavour. It has the benefit of not needing to be melted and is completely stable. A couple of tablespoons are often used in place of flour in addition to melted chocolate to give depth to the recipe. It is also used when making chocolate buttercream for icing and filling cakes.
Another all-round useful ingredient, eggs are used in cake batters to trap air in the cake as well as to bind the ingredients together. At Good Food we usually use large eggs unless otherwise stated in the recipe.
Plain flour, Self-raising flour
Plain flour and self-raising are white (refined) flours that are essential for baking. Self-raising flour is made from plain flour with a small amount of baking powder mixed in (1/2 tsp per 100g). If a recipe states plain flour, it will also specify a raising agent such as baking powder or bicarbonate of soda to ensure a good rise. Wholemeal flour is not generally used in cake recipes as it provides a denser texture so would usually be mixed with plain or self-raising flours.
Caster sugar, Icing sugar, Brown sugars
Caster sugar is the most popular sugar for cake making, particularly for creamed cakes as its fine texture blends well. Icing sugar, as the name suggests, is the key ingredient for both glacé icing (icing sugar mixed with water) and buttercream (icing sugar mixed with butter). It's also useful to have a variety of brown sugars; light and dark soft brown sugar and muscovado all have distinctive flavours and are commonly found in fruit and other richly flavoured cakes.
Common spices used in baking include ground cinnamon, ground mixed spice, ground ginger and nutmeg. It's worth having jars of these to hand and buying others as needed.
Sunflower oil has many culinary uses and it's ideal for baking as it has a mild flavour which allows the other ingredients in a cake to shine through.
Vanilla extract is a storecupboard essential. It's worth buying the real thing, made from vanilla beans, as opposed to the cheaper vanilla essence, as the flavour is much better.
There are other ingredients that frequently feature in recipes which you might also like to have at the ready if you bake regularly. These include:
This is often used in rich fruit cakes and other full-flavoured bakes.
Made from sugared citrus fruits, candied peel is frequently used in Christmas cakes, panettone and Florentine biscuits.
If you like coconut-flavoured cakes or cakes spread with jam and dipped in coconut then keep a packet of unsweetened desiccated coconut to hand.
If you're a fruit cake fan, it's good to have a bag of currants, sultanas and raisins in the cupboard. There are plenty of other dried fruits available so buy them as you need them or select your favourites to modify a recipe.
You can buy either the bright red glacé cherries which are dyed or the deeper red undyed cherries for use in fruit cakes, particularly Christmas cake.
Sticky and sweet, golden syrup makes a moist sticky cake and, like black treacle, keeps for a long time in the cupboard.
Ground almonds are often used in place of flour or as well as flour in cake recipes. They produce a moist cake and are suitable as a gluten-free option.
Honey is often used in addition to sugar and creates a moist and fragrant cake.
Smooth apricot jam is a must if you like to make celebration cakes as it's used to stick marzipan on to fruit cake. Strawberry or raspberry jam are also good as a filling for a Victoria sandwich.
Lemons, limes, oranges
A little bit of zest can liven up a plain sponge mix. Some recipes also require the juice to make a sugar syrup for drizzling.
Mixed chopped nuts, walnut halves, hazelnuts, flaked almonds and pecans are among the nuts you might want to have on hand. Again, choose the ones you like the best. Often one type of nut can be substituted for another in recipes. Store nuts in airtight containers once you have opened the packet, as they can go rancid.
Polenta is another flour substitute - cakes made with this ingredient tend to be denser, pleasantly textured and have a vibrant yellow colour.