Perfecting the Pound Cake
For each holiday season, I make a few dozen pound cakes in heavy Bundt pans, most of which will be wrapped in cheesecloth and bathed weekly in Knob Creek bourbon, Amaretto, Grand Marnier, Chambord, or my homemade Limoncello or Peach Brandy over the course of a month before distributing them in fancy tins. Giving these “appointed” cakes as Christmastime nears has been my tradition for many years, and each year new requests for these cakes grow exponentially as they are shared with friends, colleagues and family.
Many years ago, I learned not all pound cake recipes are the same. Not by a long shot. The significant difference among the hoards of recipes out there is texture. Most use the “traditional” method of creaming the butter with sugar, adding eggs, adding the flour and folding in whipped egg whites. I find this method produces a tough, dry and heavy cake (sometimes downright rubbery) that wasn’t nearly rich enough for my palate. A lot of other recipes use significant amounts of cream or milk to improve the flavor, but these are heavy and dense as a water-logged sponge…and their “improved” taste leaves much to be desired. I have even found a short ton of pound cake recipes that call for baking powder to do its magic and lighten the texture, but baking powder is the Number One killer of a pound cake’s pure taste of butter and eggs.
When it comes to pound cakes, I give thanks sincerely and profoundly to having grandmothers who knew what they were doing, and did they ever do it well and often. The pound cakes they provided from their Confectionary in Aberdeen were famous and highly coveted…and the recipe they used was handed down to them by my paternal great-grandmother. From her recipe, I first discovered the magic of lecithin (in egg yolks), and pounded into me more than anything else was that technique is everything, especially in baking! The only change I made to this original recipe (other than modernization and translation) was in using modern cake flour because of its lowest protein content and much finer grind that I find indispensable in baking cakes with a high sugar-to-flour ratio.
I offer you the recipe for the very best pound cake you will ever produce and enjoy. It has produced the perfect pound cake – deeply rich in flavor, tender and toothsome, fairly dense, very moist and having a gorgeous golden color – for more than 130 years in my family.
The Perfect Classic Pound Cake
(Yields 1 large Bundt (14-cup capacity) or 2 traditional loaves)
6 large eggs, plus 6 large egg yolks (at room temperature)
3 tablespoons good vanilla extract (I suggest Penzey’s Madagascar)
3 teaspoons water 4 sticks butter (use unsalted), slightly softened
2 2/3 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups of cake flour
Place your oven rack in the very center of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees (F).
Next, prepare your baking pans.
If baking in a large Bundt, make certain the pan is heavy weight (never, ever use light-weight cheap baking pans, folks!) and non-stick. Regardless that it is non-stick, lightly coat the pan generously with an oil-flour spray, making certain to reach into any design crevasses.
If baking in traditional 9-by-5-inch loaf pans, make certain the pans are heavy weight. Grease generously the sides and bottom of each pan with shortening, then line the pan with parchment paper. (The easiest way here is to cut two sheets of parchment paper, one the size of the pan bottom, the other the length of the perimeter (which is 28 inches long by 5 inches wide). Place the long parchment paper along the interior sides of the pan, pushing the paper into the corners well and extending the bottom edge over part of the pan’s bottom. Add a light touch of shortening to the top of the parchment paper extending onto the pan bottom. Next place the bottom piece in place, pressing down well to seal.)
Now to make the batter…
In a medium bowl or large measuring cup, whisk the 6 eggs well until the whites are completely blended, then add the 6 egg yolks and whisk more until the eggs are smooth. Next, whisk in the vanilla and water until everything is well blended. The more you whisk, the better this will be for the cake. Set aside.
Place the butter into the bowl of your stand mixer and beat on medium-high speed, using the paddle, for about 30 seconds until the butter is perfectly smooth and glossy. With the mixer running at this same speed, begin adding the sugar to the butter by pouring it in SLOWLY and no more than 1/4 cup at a time, allowing the sugar to be blended exceptionally well before adding more. When half of the sugar has been incorporated, scrape down the sides of the bowl and resume beating. Be prepared to spend 5 minutes simply adding sugar to the butter. When the last of the sugar has been added, beat for two more minutes, scrape down the bowl sides, and beat for one minute more. The blended butter and sugar will be practically white in color, light and fluffy in texture, and absolutely not grainy in the least.
With the mixer still running at a medium-high speed, SLOWLY begin pouring the egg mixture in a very slow, thin stream. This, too, will take several minutes, but don’t rush it at all. When the entire egg mixture has been incorporated, add the salt to the batter and continue to beat for one full minute.
Remove the mixer bowl from the stand. Using a sieve or sifter, sift only 1/2 cup of the flour over the batter and fold it in gently with a rubber spatula. Make certain to pull the batter up from the bottom of the bowl and fold it over the flour on the top moving slowly. Repeat folding using only 1/2 cup of flour each time until all the flour has been incorporated.
Scoop up the batter and evenly fill your Bundt pan, or divide the batter evenly between your two prepared loaf pans, gently evening the surface with your spatula.
Place into your preheated oven and bake for 70 to 80 minutes. A crack will have formed along the top of each cake. You will know the cake is done when a clean dinner knife (or thin skewer) inserted into the center of the crack in the cake’s middle returns clean.
Remove the pans from the oven and allow to rest on wire racks for 10 minutes. Then invert the cakes onto the rack, turning them right-side up, and allow to cool to room temperature for about 2 hours. If you baked loaves, leave the parchment paper on the cakes during this cooling process and remove when completely cooled.
At this point, you can wrap the Bundt cake (or loaves) in strips of cheesecloth, using several layers, place each cake into its appropriately-sized tin, and drizzle each wrapped cake with a liquor or liqueur (as noted above) until the cheesecloth is saturated. You will use about 1/2 cup of liquor or liqueur to do this. Close the tin and place in a cool pantry. Resoak the cheesecloth each week for at least 4 weeks before consuming or giving away. After this process, these cakes will last another two weeks, so be certain to denote same on box labels or cards when giving as gifts.
As a side note here for those of you considering giving these liquored-up cakes as gifts, go the extra mile and include with them an appropriate serving sauce. Mine are homemade and placed into canning jars and decorated and labeled. For example, I will include a jar of dark chocolate sauce with the bourbon-soaked cake; a jar of raspberry sauce with a cake soaked in Chambord; a jar of fresh lemon curd with a cake soaked in Limoncello; orange marmalade with the Grand Marnier cake, etc. And even if you don’t want to soak your cakes in liquor, it is always wonderful to include a sauce when gift-giving.
If you don’t wish to soak the cakes, believe me they are absolutely PERFECT unadorned. Their taste and texture is unrivaled and truly the epitome of what a pound cake should be, but rarely is.
Unsoaked cakes should be wrapped in several layers of plastic wrap and placed into an airtight container. Store at room temperature up to 7 days…if they last that long.