Old-school pound cakes come with their own easily-remembered formula (a pound of butter to a pound of sugar, eggs and flour) with leavening only coming from the air one whips into the batter. But just because it’s the classic way to do it, doesn’t mean mean I don’t think most pound cakes need a little extra creativity to keep them from becoming foamy, forgettable bricks. You can swap out some of the butter for cream cheese, as I do in my favorite non-traditional pound cake recipe, you can add loads of lemon, baking powder, baking soda and buttermilk, rendering something that is impossibly delicious but really, a pound cake in name only, or you can do as James Beard does, and apply smart cake-baking techniques to improve the predictable.
What drew me to this version from Beard that I’d bookmarked some time back was the subtle tweaks he’d made to the classic recipe: a little bit of baking powder, slightly less sugar and the real stroke of smarty-pants insight, separated eggs with the whites whipped so that they can add a volume and lightness old-school pound cakes lack. (What’s good for pancakes is even better for cakes.) Oh, and the fact that he flavors it not with vanilla extract, as most American chefs would, but with a shot of cognac and some lemon zest, my my. I had to find out.
As should go without saying, that Beard guy really knows how to cook. This is a great riff on the standard pound cake, and for me, it could not be more timely. Pound cakes are ideal summer food: they sop up berry coulis and fruit compotes, they make excellent bookends for a slab of ice cream and even better beds for brown sugar-topped grilled peach halves or rum-doused pineapple slices. Fact is, with a few pieces of whatever fruit is looking good that week and one of these tightly-wrapped in your freezer, you’ll always be able to throw together dessert quickly.
[And should the head cold terrible I woke up with this morning — or what feels cruelty beyond compare when one is already hosting a five-pound “condition” that precludes the use of sweet, sinus-clearing drugs — choose to beat a hasty retreat, I hope to have a new fun pound cake thing to share with you before the weekend is out.]
One year ago: Napa Cabbage Salad with Buttermilk Dressing. My mother told me yesterday she’d picked up a napa cabbage at the market and I was all “you must make this salad! Must! Immediately! Gosh, I’m hungry again.” You see, I feel very strongly about this salad.
Two year ago: Summer Berry Pudding
Lighter, Airy Pound Cake
Adapted from James Beard’s Beard on Food
The brilliance of this pound cake is all of the things that have been done to make it airier than a standard pound cake: the repeated sifting, the whipped egg whites and a little extra help from baking powder. Oh, and the cognac-lemon combination? Delightful. You’ve got to try it.
The original recipe is double this size, and can be baked in a buttered and floured tube or bundt pan; it should bake for about an hour. I added the weights of most of the ingredients, something I am trying to remember to do more often.
Makes one loaf cake
1/2 pound (2 sticks or 8 ounces or 226 grams) butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing the pan
1 1/2 cups (200 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the pan
1/2 teaspoon (3 grams) baking powder
4 large eggs, separated
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (186 grams) sugar
1 tablespoon Cognac [brandy works as well, as does rum, as would one teaspoon of an extract of your choice]
1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon zest.
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a loaf pan. Sift the flour onto waxed paper and then spoon it gently back into the sifter, adding the baking powder and a good pinch of salt. Sift the mixture twice more, each time spooning it lightly into the sifter. [I know what you must be thinking: Beard expect me to sift my dry ingredients three times? But oh, it lends to the most delicate, light crumb and texture. Don’t skimp!]
2. Using an electric mixer, whip the egg whites until they hold soft peaks and then gradually beat in 1/2 cup (100 grams) of the sugar, two tablespoons at a time. Transfer to a bowl.
3. Fit the electric mixer with a paddle attachment and cream the butter until light and fluffy. Beat in the remaining six tablespoons (86 grams) of sugar until fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks until light and lemon-colored and then add the Cognac and zest.
4. Gradually fold the sifted flour mixture into the butter-egg mixture. Fold in the beaten egg whites just until the batter is smooth. Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake in the oven for 35 to 45 minutes or until a toothpick pierced in the center comes up clean. Cool in pan ten minutes on a rack, then cool the rest of the way out of the pan.