This Southern staple is one of the easiest recipes to follow – using a pound of flour, butter, eggs and sugar – it is also one of the easiest cakes to mess up.
After sampling more than 30 pound cakes as a judge for this year’s S.C. State Fair, it reaffirmed what I’ve always thought: the devil is in the details.
As I saw during judging, what looks like a beautifully baked cake on the outside can have an inedible, gummy texture on the inside. Slices of winning pound cakes will have a slightly crumbly texture with tiny, uniform air pockets and a thin, just-to-the-point-of-being-crunchy crust. And the flavor is simple, not too many extra or added ingredients such as fruit or nuts.
So, what makes a perfect pound cake? Master bakers Susan Fuller Slack and Joanne Ziegler may have the answer. Fuller Slack is a food writer and teacher with 45 years of baking experience; Ziegler has been baking and judging baking contests for more than 50 years.
While they disagree on a few points, both women agree that over beating and over baking are the two areas where the home cook needs to be careful.
Over-beating can occur in two ways:
▪ When the eggs are introduced to the batter, over-beating can cause the batter to become too light (eggs get fluffier as air is introduced in the beating process). This lighter batter will overflow the pan during baking and/or cause the crust to crumble and separate from the rest of the cake as it cools. Over-beaten eggs can cause the cake to taste dry.
▪ When the flour is added to the mix. If the flour is overworked, the gluten in the flour is stretched and can lead to dense, glue-like streaks or a gummy center in the finished cake. The cake may rise beautifully in the oven and then sink quite a bit when you pull it out and look under baked when it is cut.
To avoid both problems, take your time and blend or cream together the ingredients slowly, no higher than medium speed on an electric mixer, or mix by hand.
Here are some more tips for the perfect pound cake:
▪ Let the eggs and butter come to room temperature. This may be the single, most important tip. Cold butter will not blend properly and you cannot soften butter in a microwave to hurry the process along. Microwaved butter will be too warm and will not incorporate air in the batter when mixed.
▪ Don’t overbake. The cake will be done when it turns a light golden brown and when a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Check your oven temperature, some run high, some run low, but the average baking time for pound cake is one hour and ten minutes. Over baked cakes will taste dry or slightly burnt.
▪ Keeping it simple with the flavor is also key. Plain pound cake is classic. Over time, vanilla extract and/or citrus such as lemon or orange has been added to flavor the classic cake. When doing so, remember that using the fresh zest and juice of the fruit will produce the best flavor. Extracts can leave an unattractive aftertaste.
Classic Pound Cake
2 cups butter, softened at room temperature
3 cups sugar
6 eggs, at room temperature
4 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup milk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a bundt pan or tube pan or three 8 x 4-inch loaf pans.
In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, until just mixed. Beat in the flour alternately with the milk, mixing just until incorporated (either on low-medium speed on an electric mixer or by hand).
Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake in preheated oven for 70 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean. After removing from oven, immediately loosen cake edges with a knife. Allow cake to cool in pan for 10 minutes then remove from pan. Cool cake completely on wire rack.