September 15, 2017
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The Recipe Is in the Name
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The beauty of a pound cake is in its shelf life and its reliable, easy-to-remember ratios.

The pound cake is a cake that’s been through a lot. Wars, death, the invention of the hand mixer. It’s graced the tables of queens and been pulled out of modest larders to present to guests. The recipe is so simple that if you were suddenly air-dropped onto another continent or into another era with a totally different unit of measurement, chances are you could probably scare up a pound cake.

Back when pound cakes were first being made, in the early 18th century, home baking was an all-day, once-a-week affair. There were no standardized measuring cups, no hand mixers, and ovens had to be kept hot with labor and fire-building. Baking was time-consuming and required keeping an oven hot, and a lot of bakers preserved their sanity by getting all of the breads and cakes done for the week in one go. Since baking happened on a weekly schedule, it was key for cakes to keep well at room temperature—which more often than not meant they needed a lot of butter fat.

The pound cake became the all-purpose household cake for entertaining. Thin slivers could be nibbled on throughout the week or slices served to unexpected guests. To make the cake last a few weeks, it could even be wrapped in brandy-moistened cheesecloth and stored in a cool, dark cabinet.

Since these were the days before standard measurements, manufactured kitchen tools, and greater literacy rates, a recipe so simple lent itself to naming the cake, thereby making it easy for any baker to remember. The “pound” part of pound cake refers to its ingredients: a balanced combination of one pound each of butter, sugar, flour, and eggs. The traditional blueprint of a pound cake contained just those four things, with flavorings, spices, or additions such as liquor or dried fruits giving the baker some creative flexibility. Vanilla as a flavor did not become widely used until later in the 19th century, so bakers often added in a shot or two of wine or brandy, rose or orange flower water, almond extract, citrus zests and juices when available, or popular spices of the time, such as caraway, nutmeg, mace, and cinnamon.

Innovations and curiosity led to adaptations of the traditional formula, with the addition of chemical leaveners such as baking powder and liquids like milk or cream. Purists insist that once these alterations are made, you lose the dense texture and fine crumb of a “true” pound cake, giving you a plain old butter cake. Stick to this original formula for a sturdy, buttery cake that will last throughout the week, and revive it with a few minutes in the toaster and a bit of jam if it starts to go stale.

Traditional Pound Cake

Traditional Pound Cake

12-16 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 1 pound (400 g) sugar
  • 1 pound (450 g) all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt (optional)
  • 1 pound eggs (about 8 large)
  • 1 teaspoon rosewater or other flavored extract

Loaf cakes most likely come to mind when picturing a pound cake, but modern loaf pans are too small to contain all of the batter produced by the traditional recipe. This is a BIG cake, perfect for slicing up all week or serving a crowd. It also freezes beautifully. Note: I add a bit of salt to all older recipes unless they call for “washed” butter.

  1. Preheat the oven to 325°F. Butter or oil and flour a 10- to 12-cup tube pan.
  2. Sift together the flour and salt.
  3. Crack the eggs into a large bowl and add in the teaspoon of chosen flavoring.
  4. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or with a hand mixer and a large bowl), beat the butter on medium speed for a minute or so. Add the sugar, ¼ c (50 g) at a time, beating for one minute between each addition. Once all of the sugar is in, beat for two minutes until significantly paler in color, light-textured, and fluffy. Stop often to scrape the bowl.
  5. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating on medium speed for 30 seconds between each egg and scraping the bowl often. Once all of the eggs are in, continue to beat on medium for one to two minutes. The batter may appear curdled, but the addition of the flour will correct this.
  6. Add the flour and salt in three parts, mixing on the lowest speed. Stop the mixer when most of the dry ingredients have incorporated and finish mixing the batter using a spatula.
  7. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan. Once full, tap the pan twice with a serious gentleness on the counter to pop any air bubbles, then smooth the top with the back of a spoon. Bake for 80 to 90 minutes, until the cake begins pulling away from the sides and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes back clean or with just one or two straggling crumbs.
  8. Let cool in the pan set on a rack for 10 minutes, then remove the cake to cool completely. Dust with confectioner's sugar, if desired. Serve plain or with cream and fruit.
  9. The cake keeps well stored at room temperature for just shy of a week. Once it starts to go stale, toast individual slices and spread with honey or jam.
  10. If you’re really feeling adventurous, do as they did centuries ago: take a length of cheesecloth large enough to wrap around the entire cake, and thoroughly moisten (but not saturate to dripping) with brandy. Wrap the liquored cloth tightly around it, then wrap in plastic wrap. Store in an airtight container in a dark, cool spot. Do not refrigerate. The cake will keep well for a good few weeks. Remoisten the cheesecloth as necessary if it starts to dry out.

Jessica Reed

Jessica Reed is a writer, baker, artist, and historian obsessed with the history and culture of cake. She is the author of The Baker’s Appendix (Clarkson Potter, 2017) and just left the North East Coast after 15 years for the North West Coast. She is happy to still be baking at sea level.

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