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Pound cake is the workhorse of the tea cart, able to withstand drowning in fruit syrups and whipped cream, or it can be easily tarted up with a citrus glaze. It’s the perfect thing to toss in the oven when you find out the new vicar is coming to tea in a couple of hours.

Back in the mists of time, the closest most people had to a cookbook was a kitchen notebook in which they would keep track of things they had made in the past, in order to be able to make them again. But of course, that assumes the person in question could read and write, which most people couldn’t until the industrial revolution made paper and books affordable. Before there were cookbooks, recipes were passed on orally from mother to daughter or auntie to niece. Pound cake is a perennial favorite because the recipe is so easy to remember. Even if you’re not the kind of person who likes to cook without a recipe (sort of like tightrope walking without a net), you can manage this one.

It’s called pound cake because it uses one pound each of the four main ingredients, butter, sugar, eggs, and flour. It originated in northern Europe where ingredients for cooking were (and still are) measured by weight. The French have a similar cake called quatre quarts or Tôt-fait which means “four quarters” or “soon made.” The “four quarters” refers to the 250 grams of each ingredient which adds up to one kilo.

Being an old recipe, this pound cake contains no chemical leaveners, relying only on eggs to help it rise. Consequently, you must cream your butter and sugar very well, and beat in the eggs one at a time. This is still a pretty dense cake, but all that beating will help prevent you from ending up with a doorstop. If you’re not convinced about using a scale to measure your ingredients, read this article from the Los Angeles Times by one of my favorite food writers, Michael Ruhlman.

Pound cake is plain but quite rich, and easily dressed up with a bit of stewed rhubarb, homemade preserves, or for something really special, soak it in a bit of Grand Marnier and drizzle some chocolate sauce over it. Next time you need to impress someone with last minute baked goods, don’t reach for a cookbook, just grab the kitchen scale and get to work.

Pound Cake

Adapted from Fannie Merritt Farmer

This makes a rather large cake. If you like, halve the recipe and bake it in a 9 x 5 x 3 inch loaf pan.

1 pound unsalted butter, softened
1 pound sugar
1 pound eggs by weight without their shells (9-10 large eggs), room temperature
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 pound all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt

Pre-heat oven to 325 F.

Grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan.

In a mixing bowl use a fork to stir the flour and salt together.

Put the butter in a large mixing bowl and use either a stand mixer or a portable hand mixer to beat the butter starting at a low speed and slowly increasing to a higher speed. Stop when the butter is the consistency of mayonnaise (about 30 seconds with a stand mixer or 1 minute with a portable hand mixer).

Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the sugar and beat for 2 minutes at medium with a stand mixer or 3 minutes at medium with a portable hand mixer. The mixture will be soft and whitish, but still granular looking.

Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each one. Stir in the vanilla.

While beating at medium speed gradually add the mixture of flour and salt, scraping down the bowl as necessary. Continue to beat until the batter is smooth and homogenous. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and even out the top with a rubber spatula.

Bake in the center of the oven for 1 – 1¼ hours, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Put the cake pan on a wire cooling rack and allow it to cool for about 5 minutes. Then remove the cake from the pan and allow to cool on the rack completely before serving.

Variations: Add the grated zest of one lemon, or 4 ounces of raisins soaked in rum, or ¼ teaspoon of ground mace.

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