I have always had a thing for pound cakes ever since the long ago days of helping my grandmother make a Dromedary pound cake from a mix. So a few weeks ago, on a whim, I decided to make a pound cake from the recipe in Fannie Farmer. As a cookbook wonk, I admit to having not just one, but two editions of Fannie Farmer, one a coverless 10th edition paperback, the other the twelfth edition, and a copy of The Fanny Farmer Baking Book. The old edition called for two cups cake flour, while the Baking Book called for two cups flour, with no type specified. Both recipes were based on five eggs. Thinking the Baking Book might include improvements, I went with the two cups of flour version. This made a good pound cake, but it seemed just a tiny bit too firm, and I realized I should have gone with the cake flour version. Darn! I also was confronted with just how big a five-egg pound cake is. Pound cakes of the old days literally contained a pound of eggs–anywhere from 10 to 12 eggs, and were really big cakes, suitable for keeping in the pantry for company. With dried fruits and brandy added, it was called a “keeping cake,” as it could be kept on hand for a long time. But times have changed so much that even a five-egg pound cake was pretty big. Was there such a thing as a three-egg pound cake? Suddenly, the face of Julia Child loomed up before me–an alarming occurrence–and I seemed to remember her recipe for a French pound cake called “Le Quatre Quarts,” which calls for a quarter pound each of the ingredients. Voila, the recipe, in Vol. II of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, used three eggs and cake flour. I forged ahead, baking the cake in a little four-cup kugelhopf mold. Here is the recipe, including a few of my own changes, plus some “secrets” for making a perfect cake.
Three-Egg Pound Cake
6 ounces butter (1-1/2 sticks)
3 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1-1/4 cups sifted cake flour sifted with 1/4 teaspoon mace and a pinch of salt
Secret 1: Have all ingredients at room temperature before beginning. The butter should be be about as soft as mayonnaise–not melted or runny, but very soft. If your butter and eggs are at the same temperature, curdling of the batter will not occur. Whether curdling of the batter is bad or okay is a matter of disagreement among some bakers, but I’m with the crowd who thinks curdling results in a coarser-textured cake. But if your ingredients are at a warm room temperature, there will be no curdling. If your kitchen is cool, placing the eggs in a bowl with warm water is a good idea. You can also soften the butter with the judicious use of a microwave, but this can be treacherous, melting the butter in a flash.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease the pan and lightly flour it.
Beat the softened butter with the sugar for about a minute, using an electric mixer. Then, beating well after each addition, add the eggs. Once all three eggs are added, beat the mixture for about five minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl. This will aerate the batter.
Secret 2: Thoroughly beating the eggs, sugar, and butter–before adding the cake flour–will yield an airy batter, and will lighten the cake.
Have the sifted cake flour on a piece of waxed paper. Sift the cake flour, mace and salt into the beaten egg, sugar and butter mixture. Using the mixer, quickly blend in the flour, finishing with a spatula.
Secret 3: Sift your flour mixture at least twice. Sifting the flour adds air to the cake.
Note: Julia Child has the butter beaten separately, and then added to the sugar, egg, and flour mixture, but for us mere mortals, the above is the way to go. Also, one of my changes is to add mace, instead of the grated rind of one lemon or orange called for in the original recipe. Mace is a traditional pound cake spice, and has a flavor similar to nutmeg. It is expensive, and if the price shocks you, don’t hesitate to use the lemon or orange rind.
Scrape the batter, which should have a silky, mayonnaise-like consistency, into the prepared tube pan, and bake for about 40 minutes. Allow to cool for about ten minutes, and then unmold onto a plate.
Pound Cake is an old-fashioned thing, and if you are accustomed to eating cake mix cakes, it may surprise you. It’s firm, but melts in the mouth, and its texture is almost dry, but at the same time buttery. If you serve it with lightly sugared fresh strawberries and whipped cream, you and your fellow diners will have experienced a great luxury. And since rhubarb is already coming up, pound cake with stewed rhubarb and heavy cream is as old-fashioned as old-fashioned gets, and is another wonderful treat.