“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; beat it all well together for an Hour with your Hand, or a great wooden Spoon. Butter a Pan, and put it in and bake it an Hour in a quick Oven. For Change, you may put in a Pound of Currants cleaned wash’d and pick’d.”
—The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy, Hannah Glasse, facsimile 1747 London reprint [Prospect Books:Devon] 1995 ( p. 139)
We read this recipe together at the start of our class. What exactly is an “earthen pan”? Twelve eggs? What are caraways? (We pulled some out of the spice cabinet and had a sniff. The kids were not impressed.)
I imagined that the women of that day must have had very large biceps, what with beating their cakes by hand everyday for an hour. I hope that was some damn good cake!
Pound cake gets its name from the traditional weight of its ingredients: one pound each of butter, sugar, flour and eggs. The result was, arguably, a pretty substantial loaf. Since there was no leavening aside from the air incorporated through the creaming of the butter and the sugar, (an hour!), or through the whipping of the egg whites, (by hand!), it is highly likely that many cakes did turn out to be somewhat doorstop-ish.
Thankfully most modern recipes deviate from the historical ratios. Many now also include chemical leavening for additional lightness.
Even talking the kids through manually mixing a pound cake seemed exhausting. Hello Kitchen Aid, my lovely modern appliance!
After a quick safety/practical pep talk we got down to business.
The first step in cake baking is pan preparation. Always. It will save you grief later on if you just get into the habit of prepping your pans first. Trust me.
Then we measured the dry ingredients into a bowl, by weight this time. We went over how to use the tare function on my digital scale and why it was necessary.
“So we aren’t weighing the bowl?”
The kids were anxious about putting too much flour in, as if we couldn’t also remove the excess. Funny.
Salt and other small amounts were more easily measured by volume.
And for our first detour…
Me: “Have you ever really looked at it? What does it look like?”
Me: “Yes, but anything else?”
“It looks like snow!”
Me: “It does! But what about the shape?”
Ok. So out came the microscope.
“It looks like ice cubes!”
“It looks like diamonds!”
Those little crystals would come in handy later when we were combining them with our butter. When creamed together with the butter, the sugar granules’ sharp edges would cut into the fat and form little pockets of air that would help leaven the cake and give it a nice, even crumb. The small amount of baking powder we added to our flour would enlarge these bubbles further once the batter was in the hot oven.
We continued weighing and measuring.
Then, detour #2.
Eggs. Specifically, separated eggs. Kids love to crack eggs. Separating them is even more fun!
I helped each of them crack their egg, (firmly! wishy-washy will get you lots of bits of shells), and showed them how to use half of the shell to hold the contents of the egg while discarding the other part of the shell. They encouraged each other during their respective turns, yet trepidation crept in once they themselves were faced with the task of juggling cracked shells and runny egg.
“What do I do with the other half?!”
“Oh, it’s falling out!”
But all was well! We simply poured the egg into our bare hands, letting the white slip through our fingers. A quick and gentle pass of the yolk from hand to hand was all that was needed to finish the job.
We went through more eggs than we needed for the recipe; those became lunch.
Now that all the ingredients were measured we could finally get to mixing!
Considering how long it took us to scale out our ingredients, the butter was probably a tad warmer than it should have been. Ideally, the butter should be at cool room temperature; just soft enough to be malleable but not so warm that it is too melty to trap air.
Mixing always seems to go so much faster than measuring…
We creamed the butter and sugar with the paddle attachment until it was nice and fluffy, then added our room temperature eggs, one at a time.
“Because if we put all of them in, they would splash out?”
Yep. Or they would just slosh and spin around and around.
After each addition, we used a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl to make sure everything was getting properly combined.
Then we added half of our flour.
“Because if we added all of it, it would fly out?”
These guys were getting good!
Yes. Also, it would be difficult to incorporate all the flour at once, which would force us to mix the batter longer, thereby increasing the chances of developing the gluten which would result in a tough and chewy cake.
We scraped down our bowl again and added our milk, and finally, the rest of the flour. We mixed it until it was just combined, then finished it off with the spatula.
Trying to get the batter into the pan proved difficult with all the eager fingers barely waiting to get a swipe at the mixing bowl.
After smoothing the top, we ran a knife through the middle of the cake to get rid of any large bubbles.
The pan went into the oven and I stepped quickly away from the bowl!
About 50 minutes later:
15 minutes 10 minutes after that:
We were under the gun so we were forced to eat warm cake. Darn it.
Butter Pound Cake (only slightly adapted from this recipe)
10 oz. (1 ¼ c) unsalted butter, softened at cool room temperature; more for the pan
11 oz. (2 ⅓ c) unbleached all-purpose flour; more for the pan
1 ½ tsp. aluminum free baking powder
¾ tsp. fine sea salt
12 ¼ oz (1 ¾ c) granulated sugar
2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
3 large eggs, at room temperature
⅔ cup whole milk, at room temperature
1 ½ tsp. pure vanilla extract
Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 12-cup Bundt pan, dust the pan with flour, and tap out the excess. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt until evenly combined. Set aside.
Add vanilla to the milk. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and the sugar at medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
On low speed, beat in the yolks until smooth. Stop the mixer and scrape the bowl and the paddle. With the mixer running on medium-low speed, add the whole eggs, one at a time, mixing for at least 20 seconds after each addition. Stop the mixer and scrape the bowl and paddle again.
With the mixer running on the lowest speed, add half of the flour mixture and mix just to combine, add the milk and vanilla and mix until combined, and then add the remaining flour mixture and mix just until combined.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and spread it evenly. Run a knife through the batter and tap the pan against the counter to dislodge trapped air. Bake until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with only moist crumbs clinging to it, 45 to 55 minutes.
Let cake cool for 15 minutes then invert onto a wire rack and let cool completely.