Pound cakes have proven the test of time. Originating in England, they were popular by the mid 1700’s. The name refers to the ratio of butter to sugar to flour—a pound of each. Old recipes called for lots of eggs to balance all that butter. Modern recipes, though still rich, call for less butter.
It’s interesting to note that most home bakers in the 1800’s had kitchen scales and that most recipes referred to weights, not volumes. Weights are much more accurate than volumetric measures. We predict that the coming trend will be recipes that show both weights and volume measures.
Leavening for pound cakes was created by creaming the butter and sugar and then whipping eggs into the creamed mixture until light and airy. (One old recipe that we looked at called for beating the mixture for an hour—by hand, of course.) Today’s recipes still call for aeration to provide leavening though some will slip in a bit of chemical leavening. (The recipe included in this article uses a dab of baking soda.)
In this article, we will demonstrate the steps to making a successful pound cake and provide a recipe, a very good recipe, to apply these principles.
Steps to Making a Pound Cake
1. Cream the butter. Using the paddle attachment and your stand-type mixer, beat the slightly softened butter until it is light and fluffy, about one minute. The temperature of the butter is important. It should be firm but not hard, about 70 degrees. We use a thermometer to measure the temperature but if it feels waxy and dents slightly when softly pressed, it is ready to be creamed.
2. Beat in the sugar. Add the sugar to the whipped butter a little at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. In this step, the sharp sugar grains cut through the butter and create the tiny air pockets that aerate the batter and cause leavening. Beat a total of five or six minutes. We recommend that any flavors or extracts be added at this stage.
3. Add the eggs. The eggs contain water; the yolks and the butter, fats. Oil and water will not mix without an emulsifier, a substance that suspends fat molecules in water making a smooth mixture. The yolks act as that emulsifier. Without an emulsifier, oils and waters separate in a recipe into a curdled mixture. For a smooth mixture, add the eggs one at a time beating well after each addition. (If there is a slightly curdled appearance to the batter after adding the eggs, don’t be alarmed. The emulsification is usually complete enough that the batter will become smooth with the addition of a little flour as the flour absorbs some of the excess water.)
4. Add the dry ingredients. Turn the mixer on the slowest speed. Add the dry ingredients a little at a time and mix only until smooth. If the recipe calls for a liquid, add the liquid in additions alternately with the dry ingredients. It is important to add a portion of the dry ingredients first, not the liquids first. Adding the liquid first may overload the emulsion and create a curdled appearance while adding the flour first absorbs water. Beat no more than is necessary. Even though you are using a low protein pastry or cake flour, excess beating will develop the gluten and create a tougher cake.
5. Bake the cake. With all that sugar, pound cakes tend to stick to the pan. If you use a bundt pan, grease it very thoroughly. A non-stick pan helps as does a light dusting of flour though the flour may show on the surface of the finished cake detracting from the appearance. Loaf pans are easier to work with. They release easier and the bottom can be lined with parchment paper. Spoon the batter into the pan carefully so as not to reduce the amount of air entrapped in the batter. Pound cakes take a long time to bake. When done, a wooden skewer inserted in the center of the cake should come out clean.
Pennsylvania Pound Cake Recipe
2 cups pastry or cake flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, slightly softened but still firm
3 cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
6 large eggs
1 cup sour cream
powdered sugar for dusting the cake
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
1. Prepare a ten-inch bundt pan by carefully greasing the pan, especially the flutes.
2. In a medium bowl, mix the dry ingredients together.
3. In bowl of your stand-type mixer and using the paddle attachment, beat the butter for about one minute or until it is fluffy. While the mixer is still running, add the sugar in a slow stream. Scrape the sides of the bowl and continue beating for several minutes. Add the extracts.
4. Using the slowest speed on your mixer, beat in the eggs one at a time, beating after each for a minute or so. Beat the egg-sugar mixture for about eight minutes in total so that the mixture is very light and fluffy.
5. Add the dry ingredients and the sour cream alternately starting with the dry ingredients and adding about a fourth of each at a time. Using the slowest speed, mix after each addition just until combined. Use a spatula to assure that the mixture is evenly distributed. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan.
6. Bake for 50 to 65 minutes or until the cake tests done with a skewer. Let the cake sit in the pan for ten minutes on a rack and then remove it to complete cooling on a rack. After the cake has completely cooled, with a fine sieve, dust the top with powdered sugar.