The task seemed simple enough: Bake a nice pound cake.
It’s a classic dessert, calling for one pound each of butter, sugar, eggs and flour. Lore holds that the recipe was created in the 1700s, a time when many people couldn’t read, as one that could be committed to memory.
Turns out that literacy holds its own perils, though, because many, many pound cake recipes were read, baked, tasted, tossed and tweaked to get to the formula we present here.
The original recipe is practically a museum piece these days, since it made a huge cake more dense than we expect. Still, the changes in most modern recipes follow the same proportions. It’s the mixing techniques that are all over the place.
Some recipes add baking powder. Butter is creamed while cold, or melted and added hot, or supplemented with oil. Eggs are dropped whole into the batter, or beaten and slowly dispersed. Some called for cake flour and others all-purpose. Sour cream and cream cheese snuck into some batters.
Loaf pans! Tube pans! Bundt pans!
Other bakers began sharing tales of trepidation, how the butter needs to be a certain temperature and the eggs another. The range of methods and the differences in results were disconcerting.
We kept thinking: How hard could this be?
We began with the recipe in “Joy of Cooking,” thinking, “Well, duh.” It called for creaming the butter and sugar, pre-beating the eggs and using cake flour. It seemed a little dense, but maybe that was the ideal. Still, we wondered if we could do better.
Turns out many people have tweaked this recipe, credited to Flo Braker. We tried one that recommended adding extra egg yolks. That one, though, turned out far too dense. Awful, actually.
Clearly, user error was a clear and present danger.
“America’s Test Kitchen” offered a new technique: mixing the batter in a blender or food processor by pouring hot melted butter into the eggs and sugar. They also added a teaspoon of baking powder. Much loftier, but the top was so crackly that it crumbled while slicing. Maybe too much air in the batter?
We tried others with mixed success, then turned to Shirley Corriher, the biochemist behind “BakeWise.” Her secrets? Adding heavy whipping cream for a velvety, even texture; baking powder for lightness; all-purpose flour for better structure, and using a Bundt pan for more even baking.
But then she also got a little fussy, calling for a small amount of potato starch, vegetable shortening and more extra egg yolks. Argh.
Still, she was over the moon about the effect of heavy whipping cream, so with that step in mind, we found an otherwise uncomplicated recipe on the website for Darigold dairy products in Seattle. Oh, wait, they would have us first brown the butter. No. We were done.
But rewarded! Finally, we had a cake that fit our criteria for appearance, flavor, texture and ease of preparation.
Is this a pound cake? Views may differ. But it’s delicious, served out of hand, or embellished with ice cream or whipped cream and fruit. You can even summer-ize this dessert by briefly grilling individual slices — it’s more like toasting — which adds yet another nuance of texture.
Plus, it’s fun! And a lovely way to enjoy a nice piece of pound cake.