Some thoughts on pound cake and a recipe too.
I love the idea of pound cake. It makes me think of American pioneers and stout pink-cheeked women warming their buns in front of cast-iron stoves; winter homecomings where the family bursts in through the door, hungry as wolves, stomping the snow off their boots; and southern porches where women sit on swing seats, gossip and eat tall wedges of it á la mode.
Pound cake’s lusciously tender crumb has fed some of my favourite literary people too. As a child, Almanzo (Laura Ingalls Wilder’s husband) was partial to a slice or ten and in To Kill a Mocking Bird, Miss Maudie’s pound cake recipes are jealously guarded in case the other ladies get hold of them. She is generous with the finished cakes though, sending Scout home with an entire one, fresh from the oven. Pick up any of the Anne of Green Gables books and you’ll find pound cakes galore, including one which contains 36 eggs (although eggs were much smaller then). Miss Ellen’s recipe was an old English family recipe according to Aunt Chatty who wished that she could get her hands on it but “they’re so exclusive about their recipes,” she complained.
This is the simplest of cakes from a time before baking powder existed and thus, it is in possession of alchemical properties; its crumb has both lightness and substance and the whole cake is far more than the sum of its humble parts. I think it knocks the Victoria Sponge into the middle of next week.
These cakes should be served in great hunks for they are not shy and retiring types and they MUST must have a sad streak in the middle (as says James Villas who is basically GOD of the southern pound cake). The sad streak is a damp, slightly underbaked section which we should all fight over: it really is the right and proper thing to do. Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry wouldn’t understand the beauty of the sad streak because of their peculiar obsession with uniformity of bake, an attitude which condenses the alchemy of baking into a boring exercise in chemistry and geometry. If you want uniformity of bake, buy Mr Kipling or a confection from one of those places where taste is sacrificed upon the altar of appearance. Some cooks regard the sad streak as a flaw and I suppose it is really but as James Villas points out in his recipe for Millionaire Pound Cake, many southerners prize this part of the cake, much as a Valencian prizes the soccarat which forms on the base of a paella.
Pound cakes are the pack horse of the cake world. They can carry most flavours, adapt to anything and are able to bear the weight of chunky ingredients. They are so sturdy that they can even withstand a little roughhousing. In one of my favourite books, What Katy Did at School, Professor Seecomb procured two slices of pound cake after responding to an entreaty from Rose-Red who was spying on a school symposium she had not been invited to. He made his way to the buffet and wove his way through the crowds with a slice of pound cake in each hand then contemplated throwing them instead of handing them over to the eager hands poking through the bannisters. A good moist pound cake is capable of withstanding transporting in a pocket sturdily wrapped in foil, and for this reason it makes a great choice for kids party bags.
They can be classic in their simplicity, flavoured with vanilla, chocolate, lemon or simple buttermilk. Or they can reflect the fashions of the times and contain matcha, cardamom, pistachio, blood-orange and fruits foraged from hedgerows such as stewed crab apple or blackberries. I’ve had pound cakes layered with jewelled,candied fruits and shavings of darkest chocolate (basically a cassata in cake form); quirky peanut butter & jelly ones; pound cakes spiked with enough booze to lay you out or glazed with extravagant frostings like a glittery christmas wreath.
All pound cakes have presence and dignity whether they are baked in a towering bundt or simple loaf tin. They are never boring and if you use the highest of quality ingredients, this will guarantee you a cake that like a classic genoise, tastes exquisitely and perfectly of itself. And much like a genoise, a good pound cake is proof of a competent baker. It is the omelette of the cake world.
So whose recipes do I rate? James Villas always includes great pound cakes in his books (My Mothers Southern Kitchen/Desserts; Southern Cooking) and Mama Dip’s buttermilk version is simplicity in form but not flavour. Molly Wizenberg’s pistachio-citrus from her Orangette blog is very special and a spiced pecan adapted from Paul Prudhomme’s recipe is the south distilled into a cake. There’s a black walnut pound cake in the Black Family Reunion Cookbook which I am partial to although I have yet to eat this cake in situ, (in the south after the walnut harvest- I long to do this) and I hanker after a hickory nut version I once came across in a tearoom in Bradenton, Florida. Elvis liked pound cake too, (no surprise there) although his version contains a carton of double cream (again, no surprise there).
Although the pound cake is believed to have originated in Northern Europe, it will always feel American to me. This cake first appeared in recognisable form in the 17th century and when the first Europeans arrived in North America they brought the recipe with them. Pound cake became especially popular in the south where its truest form calls for a pound of butter, sugar, flour and eggs although Eliza Leslie added the juice from oranges and lemons. Other early cookbooks (The Virginia Housewife, 1838; Seventy Five Receipts, 1832; Amelia Simmon’s American Cookery, 1796) contained recipes where brandy, wine, spices such as nutmeg and even rose water were added.
Predating the settler versions, an Indian pound cake recipe uses cornmeal and wheat flour. Eliza Leslie published a version of this in Miss Leslie’s Directions for Cookery (1837) which Richard Sax also featured in Classic Home Desserts. The first known cookbook written by an African-American called Abby Fisher ( What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking) also contains two recipes for pound cakes. As centuries rolled by the cake evolved into the loveliness we still enjoy today although many recipes no longer stick to the classic 1/1/1 ratio.
In the UK, you might know pound cake as the very similar Madeira cake. In France, the pound cake has its parent in the “quatre-quarts”and in Mexico it is called panqué. I have eaten panqué for desayuno (breakfast) in northern Mexico where its spongy crumb was flavoured with local cinnamon and sometimes chile. This cake is its best dipped into hot chocolate made from tablets of cacao nibs and spices dropped into a pan of steaming milk. Adding rum and other spirits to pound cakes is a most excellent idea. Copy the South Americans and shower it with wine, cream and nuts or add rum like the Jamaicans do. I have used Caribbean hibiscus syrup in a frosting and I am partial to a pineapple and brown butter pound cake which takes the whole upside-down thing and runs with it. The pineapple is lightly roasted in rum and muscovado sugar-spiked butter then added to the base of the bundt tin so that when the cake is inverted, it is crowned with the heavenly gooey fruit. I have made a blood-orange and chile version, combined cherry with buttermilk, tried coconut and rum and used the British steamed pudding as inspiration and glazed my pound cake with sticky marmalade.
What I love most about pound cake recipes is their affability. It’s not a problem if you want to add your own twist as long as you keep the flour/fat/sugar proportions the same. There’s a few other things you need to know too.
- When you make it, don’t substitute with finer cake flour as it is too light to act as scaffolding for this sturdy cake. Remember, you need to be able to throw and catch it in one piece!
- Add eggs to the batter slowly and not all at once so the albumen in the eggs doesn’t end up forming a thick film over the other ingredients and prevent you obtaining a proper rise when it bakes.
- If you don’t want that sad streak, avoid over-beating.Creaming the eggs, sugar and butter should be done slowly, no higher than medium speed and once the flour is added, slow up some more. If you overdevelop the gluten in the flour you will get a cake that rises like a kingly audience but sinks when it is removed from the oven. And this sagging is what can cause that dense moist sad streak.
- Buttermilk or sour cream tightens the crumb whilst keeping it moist because they help break down the long chains of gluten which form. They add a lactic tang and act in tandem with baking soda to give the cake loft by generating carbon dioxide bubbles.
My version uses sour cream to lighten a classic chocolate flavour. I have added Frangelico to the glaze because I adore its hazelnut-chocolate taste but you can leave this out if you don’t like booze. If you like mint or orange with your chocolate instead, try adding a teaspoon of pure extract to the glaze: it’s an affable cake, after all but remember to bake in a tube pan or bundt tin to get the best texture and looks. Along with the fancier Rebecca Rather’s Tuxedo Cake and Nigella’s chocolate cloud cake, this is another of my fail-safe chocolate cakes because it is easy to knock up and therefore perfectly suited for baking as a birthday cake when you don’t need any kitchen aggro. It’s a recipe I have used for twenty or more years and I can’t recall where I originally found it but what I do know is that over the years I have tweaked it to arrive at what I think is the perfect example of an ageless recipe and one suited to every occasion.
Sour cream, Frangelico & Chocolate Pound Cake
Baking time: 45 mins.
Ingredients for the cake:
8 oz unsalted butter and extra for greasing the tin
6 oz cocoa powder (Dutch processed is best)
1 teaspoon salt
8 fl oz water
16 oz plain flour, plus more to flour the tin
14 oz soft brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
2 large eggs
4 fl oz sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the chocolate glaze:
5 oz dark chocolate, finely chopped into small chunks (I don’t go above 60% cocoa solids because I don’t like it too bitter) plus another 1/2 oz of grated chocolate to decorate
2 tablespoons corn syrup (Karo), golden syrup or agave nectar
4 fl oz double cream
1 1/2 tablespoons caster sugar or soft brown sugar
1 tablespoon Frangelico
- Heat your oven to to 350 degrees F / 180 degrees C.Butter and flour your Bundt tin and set aside.
2. Take a small heavy saucepan and add to it, the butter, cocoa powder, salt, and water then place the pan and its contents over a medium heat and cook, stirring, just until the ingredients are melted smoothly together. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
3. Take a large bowl and whisk together the flour, sugar, and baking soda. Add half of the melted butter and cocoa mixture then whisk it in until completely blended. The mixture will be thick and this is what you want it to be. Now add the remaining butter and cocoa mixture then whisk this until fully combined. Break the eggs into a small bowl and whisk them until blended then add the eggs to the cake batter in three lots, whisking until everything is blended. Now whisk in the sour cream and the vanilla extract. Whisk until it is just amalgamated.
4. Pour the batter into the prepared bundt tin and bake until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. This will take 40 to 45 minutes. Let the cake cool in the pan for 15 minutes and then invert the cake onto a rack. Let it cool completely before glazing.
5. As the cake is cooling, you can make up the chocolate glaze. Put the chopped chocolate and corn syrup (golden syrup/ agave) in a medium bowl and set this aside. The syrup will ensure you end up with a chocolate glaze that clings to the cake instead of running straight off. Mix the cream and sugar together in a small saucepan whilst gently heating them, stirring all the time until the cream is hot and the sugar is completely dissolved. Let the cream mixture cool slightly then add the Frangelico to it and whisk until thoroughly mixed. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate chunks and whisk until smooth and shiny.You might need to heat the chocolate and cream mixture in a pan and give it a whisk if it looks too lumpy but it should be fine without this extra step.
6 When the chocolate glaze is ready, gently pour it all over the cake (the cake must be cool to do this). Let it run down the sides a little. I scatter pearlised or maple sugar over the top and chocolate stars or extra grated shards of chocolate also look great. Go to town on the decoration or leave it crowned with the glaze only, then cut, slice and devour. This cake easily feeds a crowd. The one in the photos above fed ten hungry eighteen year-olds and left enough for their families to have some too. It’s rich so slices can be cut smaller and even the thinnest of slices hold their shape well.