Long before I had a professional interest in cooking, I had the curiosity of someone hell bent on figuring out how things worked, why things are what they are and why this did that. That curiosity didn’t stop after I ditched projects like taking apart the family’s electric toothbrush or making absolutely noxious concoctions with a chemistry kit I got for Christmas one year (What were they thinking?).
When my attention eventually shifted to the culinary world, there was a whole new set of questions that needed answers.
Are there really grasshoppers in grasshopper pie? Do eggplants taste like eggs? And what in the heck makes white chocolate, well, chocolate? I soon discovered that answer, and it still troubles me.
Among the many unknowns in my new corner of the culinary universe was the burning question, “Why is one of my favorite desserts called pound cake?”
I imagined all sorts of reasons. Maybe you had to pound all the ingredients together in the bowl to mix them, or you gained a pound of weight for each slice you ate (actually, that one may still be true), or it was only baked in 1 lb. loaf pans. I have a good imagination.
As it turns out, it was none of these. Rather, in the days long before Crisco, a pound cake was simply one pound each of four ingredients: butter, sugar, eggs and flour.
The French have their own version of this cake called Quatre Quarts, which translates to four-fourths, meaning each of the four ingredients just mentioned are equal fourths of the final batter.
Now, I mentioned that this four-ingredient original was in the days before Crisco.
What does Crisco have to do with it?
Well, before high-ratio shortenings (which Crisco is), we had lard and butter, neither of which allowed you to add more sugar than there was fat in a cake recipe. Hydrogenation changed all of that. Not only could you add more sugar than fat but more liquids too. And guess what? You’ve just invented the modern cake. Light, tender, moist, and drum roll please, a MUCH better shelf life!
That’s what sugar and liquids can do, not to mention one other thing the old-fashioned pound cake didn’t have: a leavener like baking powder or baking soda.
All told, hydrogenated shortenings (although they’re on the not-so-good-for-you list) were a panacea for pastry chefs and dessert lovers.
Pound cakes are still around but today’s pound cakes typically have milk and a leavener added. You may not recognize that the ratio of those four main ingredients remains pretty much the same. They do, but no one really weighs ingredients anymore.
Still, 4 sticks of butter (1 lb.), 2 cups of sugar (1 lb.), 8 eggs (1 lb.), and 4 cups of sifted flour (1 lb.) make a good ol’ pound cake in modern terms.
One of the beautiful attributes of the traditional pound cake recipes is that unlike modern formulas, you can’t really screw it up by adding other stuff like spices, nuts, dried fruits, some extract, and oh, what the heck, throw in a ripe banana!
It’s a dense, tight crumb brick of a cake. A banana can’t hurt it.
Once baked in either a loaf pan or a Bundt mold, it can be dusted with powdered sugar, lightly glazed, soaked with liquor or drizzled with a coat of sweet icing.
The new and old-fashioned pound cake recipe methods are nearly identical. You beat together the sugar and fat until it is light and fluffy, beat in the eggs, and then fold in the combined dry ingredients, alternating with the wet (eggs and milk).
Modern “Traditional” Pound Cake (Makes 1 loaf or about 6 servings)
3 Cups All-Purpose Flour
1 tsp Baking Powder
¼ tsp Salt
2 ½ Cups Granulated Sugar
1 Cup Butter or Margarine, softened
1 tsp Vanilla or Almond Extract
5 Extra-Large Eggs
1 Cup Milk or Evaporated Milk
1. Heat oven to 350°F.
2. Grease bottom, side and tube of a 10” x 4” loaf pan or 9” diameter Bundt pan. Then lightly flour it.
3. In medium bowl, mix together flour, baking powder and salt. Then set aside.
4. In large bowl, beat together granulated sugar, butter and vanilla with an electric mixer until light and fluffy.
5. Add eggs in two stages and continue to beat until light.
6. Scrape down bowl and beat in flour alternately with milk. Use low speed, and beat until just smooth after each addition.
7. Pour into pan, place into the oven and bake about 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
8. Cool about 15 minutes and unmold.