Basically, there are two different types of cake: butter cakes and sponge cakes. Each type then just varies depending on the flavorings that are added to them. Either is delicious and each can be easily made with a bit of practice.
Let's take butter cakes first. These rich, light, and creamy cakes are a long-time favorite and are usually considered the classic cake to order. Butter cakes are made with butter, margarine, or shortening giving them their volume as they are beaten to a light foam with sugar. After the addition of eggs, the dry ingredients are slowly sifted in, alternating with milk or sour cream to create a light batter. After pouring into a buttered and floured pan, it's baked until a skewer comes out a bit dry when poked into the middle.
There are lots of variations on the butter cake, the most popular being the yellow cake that is normally sandwiched together and iced with a deep fudge frosting. A pound cake is another variation, as is the typical British fruitcake served for everyday. Different types can be made by changing the flavors and fruits or nuts mixed into the batter. Your only limit here is your imagination, once you've mastered the basics.
Sponge cakes use eggs as the leavening, with whites providing most of the volume. This is a very simple cake to make and also one that can be very easily spoilt. Basically, the eggs are separated and the yolks are beaten with most of the sugar until very thick and light-colored. If there is shortening mixed in, it's added at this point, alternately with the dry ingredients.
Beat the egg white with the remaining sugar until it forms a very thick meringue. Fold in the meringue very quickly using a metal spoon so you lose as little volume as possible. It's ok to leave some egg white streaks here. Pour the batter into an unbuttered pan or one that has been buttered and lined with parchment paper. Bake until the top is a dull color and very springy.
Some variations on the sponge cake can be made by adding different types of flavorings to the batter or by soaking the cake in flavorings after it's baked. A popular type of sponge cake that uses no fat at all is the angel food cake.
The size of the cake will tell you how many people it will approximately serve. The most common sizes you'd encounter are:
eight to nine inch rounds or layers, which serve twelve to sixteen
eight or nine inch square cakes serve only six to nine people (think brownies here)
thirteen by nine inch rectangular sheet cake serves twelve to sixteen people
ten by four inch tube cake serves sixteen to twenty people
a twelve-cup Bundt cake serves sixteen to twenty people
The type of cake you choose will also determine what kind of decorations can be placed on it. Usually, fondant and heavy sugar decorations require a dense butter cake to hold everything up. Several layers would need additional supports as well, using bamboo skewers the height of the layers to support the next one. Each layer should be on a cake round for maximum support.
Sponge cakes take light, airy frostings and equally light decorations
like fresh organic flowers or sprigs of sugar flowers.