|After trying thirty-one pound cakes, we found that the perfect version varies the “pound-of-each” formula and relies on an unusual mixing method.|
The solution: The simplest, most straightforward method of making pound cake involves beating the butter and sugar to a fluffy cream, adding the eggs (whole) at one time, creaming the batter some more, and then mixing in the flour. Not matter how we tried this method -- with and without liquid, beating the batter after putting in the flour (as some old cookbooks recommend) -- we got simply awful results. The cakes were rubber doorstops. Then we found a key to the answer in Flo Braker's The Simple Art of Perfect Baking (Morrow, 1985). Her classic pound cake is mixed in a way very similar to the above method except that instead of adding whole eggs one at a time to the creamed butter and sugar, she directs that the eggs first be lightly beaten in a bowl and then added by tablespoons to the butter mixture. Apparently, the butter and sugar mixture is incapable of absorbing whole eggs; the mixture "curdles" and all the air is let out, resulting in tough, shrunken, wet pound cakes. But dribbling in egg a little at a time preserves the emulsion and allows the air to be retained, making for a light, soft, tender cake. In baking, everything is in the details.
THE BEST POUND CAKE
Before making this cake, make sure butter and eggs are at the right temperature and flour is measured properly.
Be careful not to overbeat the butter-sugar mixture, especially on a hot day — you could rupture the air cells and cause the batter to be heavy. It’s important to beat in the eggs very slowly. If you don’t think you can pace yourself, set a timer or watch the clock. When you are folding in the flour, fold up from the very bottom of the bowl, otherwise some of the batter will have little flour in it, and this will either rise to the surface, never cooking through, or settle in hard, dense streaks near the bottom of the cake. You may double the recipe and bake the cake in a large nonstick bundt pan (fourteen cup capacity) the baking time remains the same. The recipe also makes four miniature pound cakes; use four two-cup pans and reduce baking time to forty minutes. Though best when freshly baked, the cake will keep reasonably well for four to five days.
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened (8 ounces)
1 1/3 cups sugar (9 ounces)
3 large eggs (5.25 ounces, without the shells)
3 large egg yolks (2 ounces)
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups plain cake flour, measured by dip-and-sweep (7 ounces)
1. Adjust oven rack to center position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 9-by-5-by-3 1/2-inch loaf pan (7 1/2-cup capacity) with vegetable shortening or spray. Line bottom and sides of pan with parchment.
2. Beat butter in bowl of electric mixer set at medium-high speed until smooth and shiny, about 15 seconds. With machine still on, take about 30 seconds to sprinkle in sugar. Beat mixture until light, fluffy, and almost white, 4 to 5 minutes, stopping mixer once or twice to scrape down sides of bowl.
3. Mix eggs, yolks, vanilla, and water in a 2-cup glass measure with a pour spout, set in a pan of tepid water until mixture is about 70 degrees. With mixer set at medium-high speed, take 3 to 5 minutes to add egg mixture to butter/sugar mixture in a very slow, thin stream. Finally, beat in salt.
4. Remove bowl from mixer stand. Turn 1/2 cup of flour into sieve or shaker; sprinkle it over batter. Fold gently with rubber spatula, scraping up from bottom of the bowl, until flour is incorporated. Repeat twice more, adding flour in 1/2-cup increments.
5. Scrape batter into prepared pan, smoothing top with a spatula or wooden spoon. Bake until cake needle or tester inserted into crack running along top comes out clean, 70 to 80 minutes. Let cake rest in pan for 5 minutes, then invert onto wire rack. Place second wire rack on cake bottom, then turn cake top side up. Cool to room temperature, remove and discard parchment, wrap cake in plastic, then in foil. Store cake at room temperature.
GINGER POUND CAKE
Add 3 tablespoons very finely minced candied ginger, 1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger, and 1/2 teaspoon mace along with the salt.
CITRUS POUND CAKE
Add any of the following along with the salt: the grated zests of 2 lemons, the grated zest of 1 orange, or the grated zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange. You may replace the water and vanilla extract with 1 tablespoon orange or lemon blossom water.
ROSE WATER POUND CAKE
Replace vanilla extract and water with 1 tablespoon rose water and add 1/2 teaspoon ground mace along with the salt.
Turn 1 teaspoon anise seed and 1/2 teaspoon caraway seed into a mortar and crush to a coarse powder. Add the seeds along with the salt. You may replace the vanilla extract and water with 1 tablespoon of brandy.
Original article and recipes by Stephen Schmidt
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