On Being Vaguely Obsessed With Pound Cake

When it comes to food and drink, I tend to lean towards the simple. Or, more accurately, I tend to lean towards the simple and well-made.

One of my favourite memories of the Dominican Republic, for example, was the coco loco - literally just a coconut with the top sliced off and rum mixed into the milk, served with a straw and maybe a squeeze of lime. When the coconut is fresh, the drink is amazing.

Another example would be Marcella Hazan's (in)famous tomato sauce. It literally has only four ingredients (canned tomatoes, butter, onion and salt) and notably no garlic or herbs, so the sauce doesn't really have anywhere to hide; it tastes like buttery, slow cooked tomatoes which is, well, you know, delicious.

Simple Yet Difficult.

Which brings us, somewhat awkwardly, to the subject of pound cake (or quatre-quart in French), so called because it's traditionally made with one pound each of eggs, flour, sugar and butter.

I am somewhat obsessed with this dessert. Of course it's scrumptious - rich, buttery, dense, not too sweet - but it's the utter simplicity of it that really launches this cake into vaunted territory. It's like the cake version of the aforementioned tomato sauce - it doesn't really have anywhere to hide, so there's a certain elegance to it. It's not just cake, it's Cake, pared down to nothing but its essentials. It's the Platonic Form of Cake.

Okay, okay. Enough waxing.

As mentioned, a traditional pound cake has only four ingredients and, notably, no leavening agent; as such it benefits dramatically from a practised technique and quality ingredients. In fact, the technique isn't just important, it's crucial. Since there's no leavening agent, the cake rises solely from the air you beat into the batter - almost like a soufflé. If you're not careful, you'll turn an already dense cake into a tough, buttery mess.

If you wanted to be smug about it, an easy way to measure the ingredients would be to get a food scale, weigh the eggs, and then weigh out equal amounts of butter, sugar and flour. That being said, not everyone has a food scale, and this procedure doesn't really give you any guidance on big a cake you're going to get, so further instructions are usually necessary. Lucky for you, I do own a food scale and, as the fates would have it, the ingredients for a traditional pound cake are actually pretty easy to measure out. Please note that the goal here is more to produce easy to remember numbers than to be purely exact.

One large egg weighs roughly two ounces, or 1/8 of a pound (16 ounces). Four eggs, therefore, is eight ounces, or half a pound, and this will make enough batter to fill a standard 9 x 5 inch loaf pan.

Butter comes in one pound blocks, so half a pound of butter is half the block, which is roughly one cup.

Sugar, by a weird coincidence, appears to have a similar density to butter. Half a pound of sugar, therefore, is also roughly one cup.

Flour, as you may have guessed, is less dense than either butter or sugar. According to my measurements, one pound of all-purpose flour (measured by scooping it out of the bag and levelling it with a knife) is roughly three cups, so half a pound is roughly one and a half cups.

So there you have it. Here are the ingredients and the procedure for a standard 9 x 5 inch loaf of pound cake (I guess you'd call this a half-pound cake, but who's counting? Me, apparently):

  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1.5 cups all-purpose flour

Before starting, preheat the oven to 325 F.

The first step is to cream the butter until it noticeably increases in volume and becomes almost white in colour. This will often take several minutes, which may be longer than you're used to if you regularly bake cakes. A stand mixer definitely helps here (use it on medium high). Your goal is to incorporate a lot of air into the butter so that the cake will rise when it bakes.

Next, add the sugar and continue creaming for a few more minutes (maybe 5 minutes or so). The sugar tears little holes in the butter as it mixes in, adding more air and further helping the cake to rise.

At this point, many recipes will tell you to add the eggs one at a time, but instead I will usually separate the eggs and add only the yolks at this point, one at a time, mixing well between each one. After that, I'll add the flour to the mix, bit by bit, with the mixer on low, until it's just barely incorporated into the batter. You don't want to over mix the batter as doing so will activate the gluten in the flour and toughen the cake.

Then you beat the egg whites in a new bowl with a hand mixer until they form soft peaks. You fold the egg whites into the batter bit by bit until it's all used up.

Coat a 9 x 5 inch loaf pan with cooking spray, and scrape the batter into the pan. Smooth the top with a spatula and bake the cake for about an hour, until a knife inserted into the centre comes out clean.

Variations

Varying a pound cake recipe can be interesting from both a culinary and philosophical standpoint.

For example, consider Smitten Kitchen's recipe for cannoli pound cake. It's delicious, but it's low on the eggs and doesn't contain any butter, so can we really call this a pound cake at all?

Traditional pound cake is dense and slightly dry. Some recipes, therefore, add things like sour cream or buttermilk to the mix in an attempt to moisten and lighten it up. Other recipes "cheat" by adding baking powder to the batter to help it rise. Are those variations still pound cakes?

I'm neither a philosopher nor a cook, so I'm not really in a position to answer this question definitively. But I can say that, from my perspective, pound cakes are defined by a certain flavour and texture profile that's tough to emulate unless they are made a certain way. Basically, by my reckoning (your mileage may vary), a pound cake is meant to be both dense and buttery and I have trouble calling a "pound cake" anything that doesn't fit that particular bill. So the cannoli pound cake from Smitten Kitchen? Delicious, but not a pound cake, because it uses oil instead of butter. Swapping out some butter for sour cream, while still keeping enough butter that you can taste it? Still a pound cake since the resulting concoction is still recognizably dense and buttery. Adding vanilla or citrus rind or baking powder to the batter? Still a pound cake!

One of my favourite variations, for example, swaps out some butter for ricotta and adds lemon zest and juice to the mix.

The takeaway here is that pound cake, although delicious on its own, actually works very well as a template, a base for different cakes and toppings, because the flavour is so muted. I encourage you to experiment but, fair warning, the results tend not to last very long.