Pound Cake is one of my earliest food memories. My mom has been making pound cakes for family gatherings for as long as I can remember. And they have always been tall and regal with almost an architectural presence. She always used a straight sided tube pan and served it unadorned. It is the antithesis of fuss, visually.
My mom and I were making our pound cake recently and for some reason started talking about whether this recipe that we had turned to for eons was actually the best that we could do. We made a good pound cake but…given that we are exposing ourselves so thoroughly here…we wanted to make sure that we didn’t like for the sake of memory…as opposed to liking it because it was superior.
This led to a roller-coaster baking festival in which we tried just about every variation of pound cake (as far as the basics are concerned) that we could think of. We played with the measurements, we played with cake flour, we played with the eggs, we played with everything. And we kept coming back to this question of…well, what is a pound cake supposed to be? So many recipes have turned pound cakes into a totally different animal, albeit perfectly delicious animals. But we wanted a traditional pound cake. And so we backed up the whole endeavor and went back to the basics…I bought a kitchen scale (finally)…and I made a real, honest to God pound cake. And, it was perfect!
The name “pound cake” comes from the fact that the first pound cakes all called for a pound of butter, a pound of sugar, a pound of flour, and a pound of eggs. The eggs are extra important because you will notice there is no other leavening product such as baking soda or powder. The eggs are the leavening. I think that in the era of chiffon cakes and fluffy boxed mix cakes, this relatively heavy and firm soldier of a cake lost some luster. But I truly love it. I love it plain, I love it sprinkled with powdered sugar, I love it with a lemon icing drizzle, and I love that little bit at the top (which becomes the bottom) that is a trace less baked than the rest.
A note on the scale before we proceed. I have been resisting buying a kitchen scale. My heart told me that it was a fussy affectation, and that only hyper-perfectionists and portion control fanatics used them. But finally it made it though my brick of a brain that the only way, THE ONLY WAY, you and I are going to turn out a similar product is if I express it in weight. Your cup of flour is going to be different than mine. If you scoop and pack, if you sift and scoop, if you scoop and scrape with a knife…these three methods will yield different weights of flour. Two people who both scoop and scrape will still have slightly different weights. The same person scooping and scraping twice in a row will have slightly different weights each time. Both of our recipes might miraculously turn out good, but there is no doubt that they will be different if the actual weight of the ingredients that go in is different. I am considering trying to express my baking recipes in both weight and measure. We’ll see how I do. But I can tell you this. If you want an honest to goodness pound cake, you are going to need a scale.
1 Pound unsalted butter, room temperature
1 Pound fine granulated sugar (this was approximately 2-1/4 cups plus 1 Tablespoon)
1 Pound of eggs (6 whole plus 6 yolks, approximately–add some whites back to make a pound, if needed)
1 Tablespoon lemon zest
1-½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1-½ teaspoons lemon extract
1-½ teaspoons ground mace
1 teaspoon salt
1 Pound of all purpose flour (this was approximately 3-1/2 cups of lightly scooped flour, scraped with a knife)
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Thoroughly butter and flour a 10 cup capacity tube pan. In the bowl of an electric mixer beat the butter for about 30 seconds at a medium high setting. With the mixer running, slowly add the sugar. Once the sugar is incorporated, allow it to continue to mix on medium-high until it is light and fluffy…at least 4 to 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, whisk the eggs and yolks together in a container that has a spout. Slowly add the eggs to the butter and sugar in a thin stream, with the mixer on medium speed. This takes a while, but it is worth your patience. Once the eggs are fully incorporated, add the flavorings: zest, vanilla extract, lemon extract, mace and salt.
Remove the bowl from the mixer and with a large spatula fold in the flour. To do this, use a sifter to add about ½ cup at a time onto the batter. Scrape from the bottom of the bowl and fold in the flour. Continue to add flour in this manner until it is all incorporated. If you do not have strong wrists and a big scraper, you can also sift the flour and then add it, a bit at a time, to the mixer on low speed until it is incorporated.
Scoop the batter into the prepared tube pan and smooth it out with a spatula. Bake it for 50 minutes to an hour. Mine was thoroughly done at 55 minutes. Test with a toothpick. I would err on the side of slightly under-cooking, personally. An overcooked pound cake is not a pretty thing. Remove the pan from the oven and allow it to cool for 10 minutes and then turn it out on a rack to cool completely.
I have a hard time letting butter and sugar mix long enough in the beginning. I always want to hurry on to the next step. So when it actually needs to go for a long time, I set my oven or phone timer so I don’t proceed prematurely.
For some reason, lemon zest likes to stick to my beater so make sure to scrape it thoroughly when you take the batter off the mixer. Or, give it a little mincing after you zest it to break up the long bits.
Mace is a “lacy derivative of nutmeg.” If you cannot find any, you can use 2 teaspoons of nutmeg instead.
Cooks’ Illustrated Best Recipes provided a huge innovation here. Getting this many eggs into a batter can be tricky. It is likely that by the end you will have a batter that looks separated. To avoid this outcome, Cooks Illustrated suggests that you whisk the eggs in a container with a pouring spout, and add it to the batter in a slow stream. This allows it to incorporate into the batter without “breaking the emulsion.”
Check out the photo with the amazing tin foil cake ring…it looks like a foil “o.” I talked about this wonder in my Coffee Cake recipe. If you are taking a cake out of a tube pan that has a taller center, this will keep the cake from falling from a height. You just slip the “o” over the tube and invert the pan.
The pan in this recipe belonged to my Grandpa Virgil, who was a great cook. It makes me happy beyond compare to cook with his tools. I feel like he is with me in the kitchen.