Baking, Summer

Pound Cake

“Cake” is a culinary term with a long and varied history. Currently, the definition of cake is a baked flour confection with a porous texture resulting from the mixture rising during baking. It is sweetened with sugar, honey, molasses, or other products, mixed with eggs, and usually milk and fat, often butter or oil. Since their invention in the mid-nineteenth century, chemical leavening agents such as baking soda and baking powder are usually added to assist with the rising process.[1] Mary Randolph’s recipes predate these innovations. Therefore, her cake recipes rely on the leaveners available during her lifetime: yeast, pearlash, and eggs.[2]

The earliest European settlers brought cake to North America in the form of great cake, a lightly sweetened and spiced bread studded with dried fruits and nuts. Early in the eighteenth century, three new varieties of cake joined the repertoires of American bakers. Imported from Europe, plum cake, pound cake, and sponge cake expanded the possibilities for sweet baking. Plum cake, produced by beating air into butter and eggs, made fruitcakes much sweeter and richer than their yeast-raised predecessors and made the cakes popular choices for weddings and other celebrations. Pound cake relied upon the same beating technique to create a rich, light cake. A pound cake was essentially a small plum cake without dried fruit.

Recipes for Pound Cake, Amelia Simmons, American Cookery (Hartford, CT: Hudson & Goodwin, 1796)

In American Cake, Anne Byrn dates the first American reference to Pound Cake to a 1754 recipe from Wicomico Church, Virginia.[3] The first printed reference appears in the first cookbook written and published in the United States, Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery. The name Pound Cake references the amount of each ingredient included. Pound cakes were favored not only for their taste and appearance but also for the ease of measuring ingredients since the basic recipe requires a pound each of flour, butter, eggs, and sugar. The resulting cake was large and dense, able to feed a crowd. Over time, bakers adjusted the proportions to create smaller and lighter cakes. [2]

Randolph’s Pound Cake relies on beaten eggs for leavening, much like Simmons’ first recipe. Since the yolks and whites are not beaten separately in this recipe, the resulting cake is quite dense but still a delicious accompaniment to fresh fruit and whipped cream. Simmons’ second recipe, “Another (called) pound Cake,” using creamed butter and sugar along with whipped egg whites would create a lighter cake more familiar to present-day pound cake enthusiasts, however, with considerably more work to cream the butter and whip the egg whites by hand.


Pound Cake

Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife (1838), p. 133.

Adapted by RA Snell

Ingredients

  • ½ lb unsalted butter (two sticks or one cup)
  • ½ lb flour, sifted
  • ½ lb granulated sugar
  • 6 eggs, beaten until frothy
  • ½ tsp lemon zest
  • ¼ tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 325°.

2. Beat the butter until creamy.

3. Fold into the butter half the flour, half the sugar, and half the eggs. Repeat with the remaining flour, sugar, and eggs.

4. Gently mix in the lemon zest, nutmeg, and vanilla.

5. Pour the batter into a greased loaf pan or bundt pan.

6. Bake 35-45 minutes until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool for ten minutes on a wire rack, remove cake and place on the rack until thoroughly cooled.

Yield: 10-12 servings

To serve: This cake is delicious plain but can also be iced with a simple icing made from confectioner’s sugar, milk, and lemon zest.


Sources

Kate Williams, “How pound cake became a southern classic,” Southern Kitchen 23, Jan. 2018, https://www.southernkitchen.com/articles/eat/heres-how-pound-cake-became-a-classic-cake-that-anyone-can-bake (accessed 19 Aug. 2021).

[1] Alan Davidson, The Penguin Companion to American Food and Drink (New York: The Penguin Group, 1999, 2002), 147.

[2] The first chemical leavener, pearlash, stemmed from the Native American technique of combining potash, produced by leaching wood ashes, with cornmeal. This process, called nixtamalization, created an alkaline solution that released amino acids and niacin in the grain, making the resulting product more nutritious, although this was unknown at the time. Since corn will not react with yeast, the potash provided a small amount of leavening. Innovative American cooks developed a concentrated form of potash called pearlash that, when combined with an acidic substance like sour milk, citrus, or molasses, would create a quick and reliable leavening agent. Simmons’s American Cookery contains the first printed references to this ingredient in two cookie recipes.

[3] Anne Byrn, American Cake (New York: Rodale Press, 2016).

[4] Stephen Schmidt, “Cakes” in Andrew F. Smith, ed., The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 83; Davidson, The Penguin Companion to American Food and Drink, 146-148; Nicola Humble, Cake: A Global History (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2010), 12-24.

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