Why is it called pound cake? History, recipe and variations.
Origins of pound cake
A pound cake does not have to weigh one pound. Actually, in the old days, it would have weighed several pounds!
The name came about because it was originally made using one pound of each of the main ingredients: flour, eggs, sugar, butter. Optionally, a further pound of dried fruit could be added as well.
Recipes date back well into the 18th century, if not earlier and they were popular in both the United Kingdom and the United States. The French have a very similar dish. Their Quatre Quarts (i.e. four quarters) is made using equal weights of flour, eggs, butter and sugar, although the actual weight is not fixed.
Hannah Glasse's 18th century recipe
Hannah Glasse gave the following recipe in her cookbook The art of cookery, made plain and easy: which far exceeds anything of the kind yet published, first published by subscription in England in 1747.
“Take a Pound of Butter, beat it in an earthen Pan, with your Hand one Way, till it is like a fine thick Cream; then have ready twelve Eggs, but half the Whites, beat them well, and beat them up with the Butter, a Pound of Flour beat in it, and a Pound of Sugar, and a few Carraways”
As if that was not enough beating, Hannah goes on to say you then need to carry on beating “all well together for an Hour with your Hand, or a great wooden Spoon” (my emphasis)
The cake was baked in a buttered pan for one hour in a “quick oven “ (i.e. a hot oven, about 400 degrees Fahrenheit).
Already in this very early recipe, Hannah suggests a pound of currants can be added to the basic mixture if desired.
Some other early recipes suggested adding brandy or Madeira wine to the mixture.
Modern pound cake recipes
According to Jane Grigson's classic cookbook, English Food, the cake as originally made was not only very laborious to produce, but also huge!
However, she considers that the availability today of self-raising (self-rising) flour and baking powder, plus the fact smaller cakes are needed for smaller families, means a far easier method can be used today.
It is now possible to throw the ingredients into a bowl in any order. With just seconds of beating with an electric beater, or three minutes or so with a wooden spoon, the mixture is ready for baking. In fact, according to Jane Grigson, the most important time-defining factor is to get the butter out of the fridge early enough for it to soften sufficiently before it is added!
For a smaller cake, Jane Grigson suggests using 4 ounces (quarter pound) of each of the four main ingredients. That preserves the concept of a “pound cake”, because it retains the notion of using equal weights of each principal ingredient, except pound now refers to their combined weight.
In Jane Grigson’s opinion, the modern version of the pound cake makes it “the ideal cake for the non-cake maker”.
Theme: A basic recipe for pound cake
Use the scheme of a quarter pound each of flour, eggs, butter and sugar, in Imperial, metric and US measurements (nb the metric equivalent is not exact, but follows standard conventions for converting recipes):
4 oz (125 g, ½ cup) butter, which has been allowed to soften at room temperature
4 oz (125 g, ½ cup) caster (superfine) sugar: Use vanilla sugar for extra tastiness. Ordinary granulated sugar can be used instead of fine sugar, but will take a bit longer to beat in.
4 oz (125 g, 1 cup) self-raising (self-rising) flour mixed with 1 level teaspoon baking powder
2 medium eggs (which is approximately 4 oz according to Jane Grigson)
Optional: Adding a tablespoon of ground almonds will improve the texture according to Jane Grigson.
Heat oven to 350 deg F (180 deg C, mark 4)
Cut a piece of baking parchment to a width equal to the long side of a 9-inch (23 cm) loaf tin. The length should be long enough so that you can fold the parchment into the tin so it goes down one side, across the bottom on the inside, and up the other side, with a little bit sticking out above the tin on each side. You can then grease the lined tin lightly if you wish, but it is not essential.
Mix all ingredients to a smooth dough using electric beater, wooden spoon (or use hands like Hannah Glasse did!)
Pour mixture into loaf tin.
Bake for approximately 1 hour. Test it is baked through by inserting a skewer or knitting needle. The cake is ready if no dough sticks to the skewer.
Remove from oven and allow to cool in tin for 15 minutes.
Grab hold of the edges of the baking parchment and lift the cake out onto a rack to continue cooling.
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And variations: Ten ways to ring the changes
You can use each of these ideas alone or combine two or three according to inspiration, or experiment with your own ideas
- Brandy or other alcohol: 2-3 tablespoons of brandy, rum, Madeira wine, or other spirit/liqueur. Replacing one tablespoon of the brandy with strong coffee (or use Kahlua instead!) works well too, especially if combined with walnuts (see chopped nuts below)
- Brown sugar: Use soft dark brown sugar instead of the white sugar
- Caraway seeds: These will give the cake the character of Hannah Glasse’s original recipe. About one dessertspoon is a good quantity.
- Chopped nuts: Mixed or just one type as you prefer: 2 oz (60g, ½ cup)
- Dark chocolate chips: 3 oz (90g, ½ cup)
- Dried mixed fruit, currants, sultanas: 4 oz (125g, ¾ cup)
- Icing: drizzle glace icing over the top
- Layering: Cut the cake across into two or three pieces and sandwich back together with buttercream and/or jam
- Lemon: Grated rind of one lemon plus 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- Orange: Grated rind and half the juice of a large orange
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