Recipe of the Week: Old-Fashioned Pound Cake
A slice of the two-pan version with brandied cherries
Otis Spunkmeyer? Sara Lee? Entenmann's? This is what pound cake has become? Even the recipes available on the Internet contain all kinds of fillers, stretchers and leaveners. My grandmother, may she rest in peace, must be rolling in her grave like a bullet train axle. Her pound cake was a model of simplicity.
Pound cake has exactly four ingredients: a pound of butter, a pound of sugar, a pound of eggs and a pound of flour. A pinch of salt will amp up the flavor if you like, and for a vanilla cake you'll want two teaspoons of vanilla extract, but that's it. No baking powder, no buttermilk, no sour cream, and absolutely no vegetable shortening (Paula Deen, how COULD you, ma'am?).
So if baking powder is not allowed, how does the cake get its lift?
Through technique. Somewhere in the mists of recent history, American cooks lost the knack of how to cream butter and sugar together. Maybe it's because it takes a little bit of time, though with modern equipment like a hand mixer or a KitchenAid, that's no excuse. I've made this by hand with a wooden spoon and it still only takes a half an hour to get into the oven.
The other thing is to use light cake flour if you want a lighter cake, and sift the flour. All-purpose flour is not created equal; Gold Medal and Pillsbury have less protein than King Arthur, and while I love King Arthur and it's a staple in my house, it's not the right choice here. If I happen to have a bag of White Lily in the house, I use that; since White Lily is rarer than hen's teeth in Southern California, look for a regular flour with 3g protein per serving rather than 4g.
Buy the absolute best ingredients you can. Cultured (European-style) butter will give you the tang of buttermilk without adulterating the recipe; culturing your own butter is even better, because you'll know how fresh it is. It's surprisingly easy, though it does require that you start the night before you want to make the cake. (If you make your own, don't salt it; salt the cake instead.)
This cake has two forms: one huge cake made in a large loaf pan, or two smaller, half-height cakes made in regular loaf pans.
If you put the cake in one large pan, it will take a long time to bake through, but you'll be rewarded with a crunchy, sweet outside and a dense crumb that will soak up absolutely any syrup you want to put on it. This is my favorite preparation, though it takes almost three hours to bake.
If you divide it into two pans, it will bake in half the time and will be more like what pound cake has become: soft, buttery, and light in color. If you go this route, it's still far better than the packaged garbage at the store.
1 pound butter, at room temperature
1 pound plain white sugar
8 USDA-graded large eggs, at room temperature
1 pound low-protein (2g or 3g per serving) flour, sifted
Large pinch of salt
2 tsp. pure vanilla extract, optional
1. Preheat the oven to 275ºF (for one single cake) or 300ºF (for two cakes).
2. Whip the butter in a large bowl until it is thoroughly soft; there should be no individual hard lumps at all.
3. Whip in the sugar until it's completely absorbed, and then let it whip for a full three minutes on medium speed.
4. Whip in the eggs and salt and let it combine completely. Scrape down the sides and bottom and whip it for three minutes on medium speed.
5. Reduce the speed to the lowest setting and stir in the flour a bit at a time. You can do this by hand; it will take longer but the cake may be slightly lighter. Once the flour is incorporated, turn off the mixer.
6. Butter one or two loaf pans, and do it heavily; if using one large pan, sprinkle a tablespoon of sugar in the pan and tilt to coat after buttering. This will help it come out more easily.
7. Bake for 2 1/2 to 3 hours for a single pan, or 1 to 1 1/4 hours for two pans. A knife or toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean but not dry.
8. Let sit 10-15 minutes and then turn out onto a rack to cool completely. Don't eat this cake warm from the oven; it gets unappealingly greasy. If you want warm cake, take thick slices of cool cake and grillthem; the butter content is such that you shouldn't need to grease a well-seasoned, clean grill.
9. For a glaze, squeeze a lemon, a lime, a sour orange or a grapefruit into a bowl and whip powdered sugar into it until it's the correct thickness.
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