Friday, March 11, 2011

Pound Cake People


I come from pound cake people. My great grandmother, a big-boned sturdy farm wife, was the queen of pound cake. She made hers by hand, beating the butter and sugar with a wooden spoon in a large crockery bowl. It was baked in a large, ring-shaped iron pan in a coal stove with a pan of water in the bottom to ensure it came out moist. Rather than a glaze, she would slather the top with butter and sprinkle it with confectioner’s sugar before slicing.

That pound cake was one of the few sweets the farm family indulged in, my mother says, as their small dairy provided the copious amount of eggs (nearly a dozen per recipe), buttermilk, and butter required.

It's a plain butter cake that's always the star of state fair competitions and every state seems to have its official recipe. My favorite is West Virginia pound cake (where I grew up), a half-pound version that uses confectioner’s sugar in lieu of granulated cane sugar. It has a very fine texture and is wonderful on its own or as a based for a strawberry or peach shortcake. Actually a thick slice makes a supreme breakfast. And it’s even more excellent if you can use some local butter and eggs.

West Virginia Pound Cake

From The Cake Club: Delicious Desserts and Stories, From a Southern Childhood by Susie Quick (St. Martin’s Press, 2005).
Makes one, 10-inch Bundt or tube cake or one, 9 x 5 x 3-inch loaf, serves 12 to 16

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 (1-pound) box confectioner’s sugar, plus more for sprinkling over cake
6 large eggs
3 cups cake flour (not self rising)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup whole milk
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter and flour a 10-inch Bundt or tube pan.
Place the butter in a large mixing bowl with the sugar. Beat with an electric miser on medium speed 5 minutes until light and creamy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating for 1 minute after each addition. Scrape the sides and beaters and then beat in vanilla.
Stir together the flour and salt. With mixer on lowest speed, add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture, a third as a time, alternately with a little milk until just blended. Scrape the bottom and sides to make sure everything is smooth.
Transfer batter to prepared pan.

Bake 50 minutes to 1 hour, or until a long wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out clean and the edges are slightly pulled away from sides of pan. Cool in pan on a rack 20 minutes. Invert pan to a wire rack and cool completely. Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar before serving.

If you want to try an authentic pound cake recipe, here’s the no-nonsense Fannie Farmer Cookbook recipe (in it's original terseness) from 1918, which is no doubt close to the mother of all pound cakes. If you attempt it I’d half the recipe and bake in a 10-inch Bundt, or 9 x 5 x 3-inch loaf pan. Obviously, you can make up two loaves.

Fannie Farmer Pound Cake

1 lb. butter   
Whites 10 eggs
1 lb. sugar
1 lb. flour
Yolks 10 eggs
1/2 teaspoon mace
2 tablespoons brandy

Cream the butter, add sugar gradually, and continue beating; then add yolks of eggs beaten until thick and lemon-colored, whites of eggs beaten until stiff and dry, flour, mace, and brandy. Beat vigorously five minutes. Bake in a deep pan one and one-fourth hours in a slow oven.



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