Sunday, November 27, 2011

Cooking to Save the Planet: Pound Cake

And so from teacakes to pound cake: the two go together in my mind.  Both are old-fashioned and very traditional Southern pastries.  Both are, to my palate, rather plain unless they're dressed up in some way with icing, custard, or a topping like jam.  And both were the very template of all cookies and cakes for my grandmothers--in particular, for my mother's mother, who never faced a slice of iced cake without observing that she preferred her cakes plain, with custard as their adornment, and not a cloyingly sweet icing.

Meaning, she preferred pound cake above all cakes, since pound cakes were cake in her childhood, every bit as much as teacakes were cookies.  (Read Mary Randolph's Virginia Housewife, which, though it was published in 1824, documents how Virginians were cooking in the latter part of the 1700s, and you will never encounter the word "cookie," though you'll encounter the word "cake" repeatedly to describe versions of what we'd now denote as a cookie.)

And so the plainness itself was part of the appeal of both teacakes and pound cake for my grandmothers.  It represented tradition.  It represented dishes that hadn't been gussied up to suit modern tastes, dishes relying on ingredients unknown to their mothers as they baked in wood-burning ovens and occasionally in the fireplace, harking back to the pre-modern practices of their colonial ancestors.  Plainness, in short, connected real ingredients found in abundance on farms, and real quality, as opposed to modern shortcuts.

Modern shortcuts that included leavening itself--leavening, that is, with baking soda or baking powder: the earliest recipes for poundcake, which predate the use of baking soda or powder, call for only flour, sugar, butter, eggs, and a pinch of salt along with a flavoring like vanilla, lemon peel, or nutmeg.  They call for copious amounts of flour, sugar, butter, and eggs--traditionally, it's said, a pound of each--beaten together long and laboriously to produce a rich-textured cake that leavens itself through the air incorporated into the batter through the long beating.

Cakes made this way, albeit with baking powder to leaven them by the time I was a child, were a staple of most families I knew, as I was growing up.  They were kept on hand to be sliced and served with custard poured over them as a dessert, or to be sliced and toasted at breakfast time--toasted and slathered liberally with butter--to go with a morning cup of coffee.  To facilitate the slicing into toast-sized slices, they were often baked in bread-loaf pans, in fact.

If you baked a cake to bring to grieving neighbors or family members when someone died (and you often did so; you never failed to bring food to those you near you who had lost a loved one), you almost always brought pound cake.  Why, I don't know, but pound cake it was, the standard cake families needed to have on hand to serve guests who dropped in to give condolences after a family member had died, as standard as the iced coconut cake my grandmothers baked a day or so before Christmas day (and only then), peeling and grating the fresh coconut to strew over the icing, or the rich black nut-and-fruit laden cakes redolent of spices and laced with whisky that they baked at Thanksgiving time (and only then) to put aside to mellow for the Christmas table.

And I find myself, without thinking about whys and wherefores, baking pound cakes on the very same occasions now, when someone I know has suffered a loss or when someone in a family is sick--in short, I find myself reaching for butter, eggs, flour, sugar to make a pound cake, without even thinking about why I've chosen that cake, on almost any occasion when it's considered proper in my neck of the woods to bring a cake as a gift to someone.  But, I confess--and I'm rather ashamed that through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault, I've become consubstantial with sloth--I almost always use a thoroughly modernized pound cake recipe that seems never to fail me, and which also, I tell myself (perhaps deceitfully) tastes almost as good as the real thing.

And is so much easier to make, since it doesn't require fiddling with kitchen scales to weigh out a pound of eggs (and since it can be made with what I almost always have on hand in my kitchen, and what urban or suburban kitchen really has a pound of eggs and butter sitting around at all times, just waiting to be baked into pound cake?!).  I cannot claim the following recipe as my own.  I clipped it years and years ago--about four decades now--from a bag of Pillsbury flour, and have kept it on hand ever since, using it over and over, so that the copy I've pasted onto an index card is dotted with butter and vanilla stains.

And now I want to share it with you.  Pillsbury advertised the cake as a one-step pound cake, and that has always been part of its appeal for me.  The instructions call for you to combine the following ingredients in a mixing bowl: 2 1/2 cups flour (I'll leave you to guess the brand the flour bag recommended), 2 cups sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon soda, 1 teaspoon grated lemon peel, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1 cup soft butter, 1 cup sour cream or yogurt, and 3 eggs.  Blend all the ingredients at the low speed of your mixer until they're well blended (I find it's important to use a bowl scraper to keep the ingredients moving into the beaters and not flying around the room, as you do this).

Then turn the beater to medium speed and beat three minutes (again, I find it helps to scrape the bowl constantly as you do this, to assure that the batter is being beaten evenly).  The three-minute beating time is essential to produce the dense texture characteristic of a pound cake.  Then turn the batter into a well-buttered and floured 10-inch bundt pan, and bake at 325 degrees for an hour or more, until the cake springs back when pressed on top.  When the cake's cooled (on a rack), turn it out and, if you wish (though pound cake is traditionally not iced), ice it with lemon juice mixed with powdered sugar sufficient to make a thin icing that can be trickled over the cake.

I've baked this cake in a loaf pan, and have been successful at doing so, except I find that, with the standard size of bread-loaf pans made for American kitchens, the amount of batter the recipe produces is a little bit more than the pan can hold without having batter bake over the sides.  And, though I always put a cookie sheet under a pan in which I'm baking something so I don't have the batter spilling onto the floor of the oven, the baking over causes batter to stick to the top edges of the pan, and that, in turn, causes the cake to stick in the pan--or so I find--when I try to turn it out.

I hope if you try this cake, you'll like it.  I've tried various flavorings, but almost always return to the combination of lemon peel and vanilla, which reminds me of my grandmothers' kitchens and would have been my grandmothers' flavoring of choice, when they didn't go the nutmeg route instead.  And I apologize for the spate of cookie and cake recipes on the heels of the American Thanksgiving celebration.  It's hard, somehow, not to think of food and baking as the year wanes, days grow darker and colder, and the kitchen, with its warm stove and delicious smells, becomes the center of the winter household.

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