I'm skimming the Internet looking for recipes. I'm just curious if there's any key ingredients I should pay attention to that will make a good cake or cupcake
For me it's not the ingredients, it's the baker's percentages (ratios) that make a cake.
sugar =/> flour by weight
eggs =/> fat by weight
liquids (including eggs) =/> sugar
In a commercial kitchen, the "recipe" binder is a list ratios. If you research bakers percentages you will gain a better understanding of ratios. You'll be able to look at a recipe and determine if there is too much egg, or not enough fat, or to much sugar, or too much liquid. Published recipes frequently contain errors, so in reading a recipe, you'll recognize an error.
I found that once I understood ratios, I didn't need a recipe. Now i make up my own recipes when I see or eat something that inspires me. Recently I had a wonderful ice cream that inspired me to create an almond cardamon cake with white chocolate chai tea ganache, and mocha Italian meringue buttercream.
A pie class I recently attended was designed for the home baker, so everything was presented in volume measurements, and when I asked the instructor if it was based on 4.25 oz of flour she said, "nope, it's based on a cup as written." When I got home, I set the recipes aside and went to work on pie crust using ratios. It took four tries, but I found the ratios to produce the all butter flaky crust I wanted.
Also ratios allow for easy and consistent scale in production--doesn't matter if you need 20 cake layers or four, the ratios are the same. A chef recently gave me a cake formula that started with 6 pounds of flour and said adjust the ratio to the number of layers you need.
Hmm thanks for the insight
Shockolata, yes it's invaluable for tweeting. theres a very popular white cake recipe that a lot of CC bakers rave about. i tried it dozen times, but thought it too wet and did not like the center cupping. But I liked the diverse use of fats. So I created a new recipe using the combination of fats, but changed the ratios. I also changed the flours, the leavening and sugar ratios. Adjusted it for the sheet cake method I prefer. It's a completely different formula, but uses the fat combination I liked about the original formula. It's my standard 2 step butter cake.