A pound cake likely means a specific kind of cake to everyone. Technically, it is so named because the recipe calls for an equal weight of flour, butter, sugar, and eggs. Beaten eggs, often separated, the white beaten and folded in just before baking, were relied upon to raise the cake. Pound cakes may never have been a top contender for any household. Humble and frosting-less, it was eaten, but few really could be excited about it. Angel Food was an easy substitute for many. Yet a pound cake has been a favorite in both the UK and USA for 200 years.
Pound cake is believed to have originated in the 1700s. It first appeared in an American cookbook published in 1796. But it was Abby Fisher, a mulatto born to a French father who was enslaved in South Carolina who increased its popularity. She had made her way to San Francisco after the Civil War and apparently was a consistent winner at local fairs with her pound cake, and she featured the cake in her 1881 cookbook What Mrs. Fisher knows about Old Southern Cooking. Her book, however, became a causality of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and it was thought that every copy had been lost until one resurfaced at an auction in 1984. Her recipe can be found under what she called a “Silver Cake.”
The German Sandtorte (cake of sand) is very similar to a pound cake. In France, it is known as the quartre quarts (four quarters). Unlike modern descendants, classic pound cakes contain no chemical leavener. Instead, they depends upon the innate puffing power of eggs for its lightness, and on the air incorporated into the batter through beating — lots of it. Pound cakes are generally baked in either a loaf pan or a Bundt Mold and served dusted with powdered sugar.
Pound Cake received its name from using a pound (16 oz) of each of its ingredients. The 8th and 9th Editions of the Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Cook Book has this recipe submitted by my high school German teacher, Miss Ella Gold. The German term is generally Rührkuchen (mixed-batter cake). It could very well be that Meusebach’s early settlers were familiar with this recipe. It too, generally required a pound of each ingredient. It was apparently an old favorite and can be found in the Williamsburg Art of Cookery submitted by Virginia’s Wicomico Church in 1754. In reality though, this recipe has proven not to be a good ratio.
Contemporary cakes must be relatively moist and soft. The problem with a pound cake is that it is asked to be moist and soft on the one hand, but also dense, light, and rich on the other. Creating the perfect pound cake has proven to be an art. The New Best Recipe from Cooks’ Illustrated suggests beating all the eggs lightly first. Then they must be added tablespoon by tablespoon to the butter mixture. Dribbling in the eggs a little at a time preserves the emulsion avoiding the “curdles” which then toughen and create a wet pound cake. Air must be allowed to be retained in the batter making for a light, soft, tender cake.
Classic Pound Cake
16 tbsp (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened, but still cool.
1 1/3 cups (9 1/3 oz.) sugar.
3 large eggs, plus 3 large egg yolks at room temperature.
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
1 ½ tsp water
½ tsp salt
1 ½ cups (6 oz.) plain cake flour (never use self-rising flour)
- Beat butter at medium-high speed until smooth and shiny, about 15 seconds.
- Sprinkle in the sugar slowly for the next 30 seconds.
- Continue beating until light, fluffy and almost white – 4 to 5 minutes. (stop to scrape sides 1 or 2 times.
- Separately, stir together the eggs, yolks, vanilla, and water in a 2- cup measuring cup.
- Add in a very slow, thin stream to mixer running at medium-high.
- Add the egg mixture to the butter and sugar in a very slow, thin stream.
- Beat in the salt.
- Place ½ cup flour in a sieve and sift it over the batter.
- Fold gently with a rubber spatula, scraping up from the bottom of the bowl, until the flour is incorporated.
- Repeat steps 8 and 9 twice more.
- Scrape the batter into a greased 9 x 5-inch (7 ½-cup capacity) pan fitted with foil or parchment paper on its bottom and sides, smoothing the top with a spatula.
- Bake at 325ºF for about 78-80 minutes or until a toothpick running across its top comes out clean.
- Remove and rest cake for 5 minutes, then invert onto a wire rack.
- Place a second wire rack on its bottom, then turn cake top-side up.
- Cool to room temperature and remove foil or parchment paper.
- If not serving immediately, wrap in plastic, then foil and store at room temperature.
Rebecca Rather’s Pound Cake
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
2 cups sugar
6 large eggs
1 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ tsp kosher salt
Preheat oven to 350ºF
Beat butter and 2 cups sugar on medium-high-speed using an electric mixed fitted with a paddle until fluffy. (about 2 minutes)
Add eggs, one at a time, beating on medium-high after each addition.
Beat in 1 tsp lemon juice and vanilla.
Add flour and salt and beat on low speed until thoroughly incorporated.
Evenly fill 12 Texas-sized muffing tines or 24 regular-sized tins.
Bake until tops are golden brown, and a toothpick inserted comes out clean.