Never boring and purportedly proof of a competent baker, pound cake dates back to the 17th century. Food writer Nicola Miller brings it bang up to date with a fresh, light and floral take on the North American classic
Pound cake makes me think of midwestern farmers’ wives with flour-covered foreheads, gingham aprons, church socials in the deep south, and porches where people sit on swing seats and gossip. It is a homely and affable cake, often unfussy in appearance but never in flavour, and popular in the USA although less so in the UK, the land of the Victoria sponge.
Its tender crumb has fed some of my favourite literary people. As a child, Almanzo (Laura Ingalls Wilder’s husband) was partial to a slice or ten and in To Kill a Mockingbird, Miss Maudie’s pound cake recipes are jealously guarded in case the other ladies get hold of them. She is generous with the finished cakes though, sending Scout home with an entire one, fresh from the oven.
This is the simplest of cakes and it has beautifully contradictory qualities; it possesses both lightness of crumb and a structure of substance. All pound cakes have presence and dignity whether they are baked in a Bundt or simple loaf tin. They are never boring and if you use quality ingredients, the result is a cake that like the classic génoise, tastes exquisitely and perfectly of itself. And much like a génoise, a good pound cake is proof of a competent baker.
Pound cakes are the packhorse of the cake world. They can carry most flavours and are able to bear the weight of chunky ingredients. They are so sturdy they can even withstand a little roughhousing. In one of my favourite children’s books, What Katy Did at School, Professor Seecomb procured slices of pound cake after responding to an entreaty from Rose-Red. He made his way to the buffet then wove his way through the crowds with a slice of pound cake in each hand and contemplated throwing them before deciding to hand the slices to the eager hands poking through the banisters. A good moist pound cake is capable of withstanding transport in a pocket if it is wrapped in foil, and for this reason, it makes a great choice for children’s party bags.
Some people value what they call a ‘sad streak’, a damp, slightly under-baked part of the cake which can arise when the baker over-beats his pound cake batter. I am one of them. Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry would not understand its beauty because of their obsession with uniformity of bake which condenses the alchemic creativity of baking into an exercise in geometry. Some cooks regard the sad streak as a flaw and I suppose it is really, but as James Villas points out in his recipe for Millionaire Pound Cake, many southerners prize this part of the cake.
Pound cakes can be classic in their simplicity, flavoured with vanilla, chocolate or lemon. Or they can reflect the fashions of the times and contain matcha, cardamom, pistachio, blood-orange or stewed crab apple and blackberry. I’ve eaten cassata-influenced pound cakes layered with jewelled and candied fruits and shavings of darkest chocolate; baked Mama Dip’s buttermilk version; eaten quirky peanut butter and jelly Elvis-inspired pound cake from a small diner in Tennessee and cakes spiked with enough booze to lay you out. I long to try the black walnut version in The Black Family Reunion Cookbook, whilst author Nik Sharma is (in my opinion) the king of pound cakes with recipes for banana hazelnut, apple, coconut and clove, and burnt honey and earl grey tea, among others. They are as beautiful to look at as they are to eat.
Although the pound cake is believed to have originated in Northern Europe, it will always feel American to me. This cake first appeared in a recognisable form in the 17th century and when Europeans arrived in North America, they brought their recipe with them. Other early cookbooks (The Virginia Housewife, 1838; Seventy-Five Receipt’s, 1832; and Amelia Simmon’s American Cookery; 1796) contained recipes where brandy, wine, nutmeg, and even rose water feature.
Eliza Leslie published a version of a pound cake made with cornmeal in Miss Leslie’s Directions for Cookery (1837), which Richard Sax also featured in Classic Home Desserts. Its name, ‘Indian pound cake’ derives from the Native Americans who taught settlers how to cook cornmeal, which used to be known as ‘Indian meal’. The first known cookbook was written by an African American woman (What Mrs Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking) and includes two recipes for pound cakes; “one gold, one silver” and leavened with whisked egg and yeast. In the UK, we have the remarkably similar Madeira cake. In France, the pound cake has its parent in the “quatre-quarts” and in Mexico, it is called panqué. Adding alcohol to pound cakes is such an excellent idea, so be inspired by South Americans who drench theirs in wine, cream and nuts, or add rum as the Jamaicans do.
I have gone for a light, summery cake redolent with lime and lavender and studded with poppy seeds for crunch. It is a cake that keeps well (not that this happens in our house), becoming more fragrant as the days pass. The buttermilk glaze is classic Americana; tangy and sweet and not cloying at all.
LAVENDER, LIME AND POPPYSEED POUND CAKE
100g caster sugar
2 teaspoons English lavender petals (from plants that have not been sprayed) plus a few extra for decoration
4 teaspoons finely grated zest from unwaxed limes (about 5 small limes)
115g unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pan
330g plain flour
¾ teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
2 large eggs, beaten
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tsp poppy seeds
120g icing sugar
1 tablespoon buttermilk
½ tsp lime juice
Zest from 1 small unwaxed lime
Add the lime zest and lavender to the sugar and leave for an hour so the flavours develop.
Preheat oven to 350F/180C. Butter and flour an 8½ x 4½” loaf pan. Whisk flour, salt, baking powder and the bicarbonate of soda in a medium bowl; set aside.
Using a mixer on low-medium speed, cream the flavoured sugar and butter until they are fluffy and light. This will take at least five minutes. Now add the eggs in two batches and blend until they are incorporated. Add the poppyseeds.
Mix the buttermilk and lime juice in a small bowl.
Slowly start to add the flour mixture to the creamed butter mixture, alternating with the buttermilk/lime mixture. End with the last amount of flour. Stop mixing as soon as all the flour is incorporated.
Pour the batter into your pan and smooth the top then bake for 50-60 minutes or until a cake tester inserted into the middle comes out clean. I start testing after 40 minutes. Remove from the oven, allow to cool (I run a thin knife around the edge of the cake to loosen it) and then upturn from its tin onto a wire rack when it is cool enough to handle easily.
For the glaze
Whisk the icing sugar and buttermilk in a medium bowl. Mix in the lime juice. If it is too runny, add more icing sugar and if it is too thick, add more lime juice. Pour over the cooled cake; do not worry about it dripping down the sides. Now finely zest the lime and scatter the zest over the top of the cake along with the lavender petals.
TIP 1: Buttermilk tightens the crumb whilst keeping it moist because they help break down the long chains of gluten which form. It adds a lactic tang and acts in tandem with baking soda to give the cake loft by generating carbon dioxide bubbles.
TIP 2: If you do not want that sad streak, avoid over-beating. Creaming the sugar and butter should be done slowly, at no higher than medium speed. If you overdevelop the gluten in the flour you will get a cake that rises like a kingly audience but sinks slightly when it is removed from the oven. And this sagging is what can cause that dense, moist sad streak.
Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale