The recipe on the bottle of flavoring calls for shortening and margarine; I’ve already altered it by using all butter. (“It’ll be richer,” Susan Staehling told me earlier, her tone almost a warning.) Everything else—the six eggs, the three cups each of flour and sugar, and the cup of sweet milk—is by the book. (Sweet milk is whole milk. Susan once called the Superior company to check, and they told her the recipe was from a time when “women milked their own cows.”) The flavoring is added last, to the milk. It smells like an alcoholic version of candy corn—delicious. I am starting to regret my decision to make this cake. Maybe it won’t be as resistible as I expect.
The last thing I do is soak one of those Magi-Cake strips and pin it to the tube pan. (I probably shouldn’t reveal that I looked up pictures of tube pans on the Internet to make sure I was using the correct thing. I had always called them Bundt pans, not realizing Bundt is a brand.)
My daughter comes in from tree climbing and wants to know if it’s pound cake she smells in the oven. She spies the mixer attachment on a plate, and goes directly there to eat whatever batter is left. She assumes it is for her and doesn’t ask if she can eat it, though it is near dinner time. Her eyes roll back in her head, our household code for yummy.
My neighbor, Ann, the cake decorator, is first on the tryout list. She looks at me, wide-eyed. “It’s so moist!” She says she’s tried dozens of recipes for pound cake and always comes out with cakes that are dry on the inside and crusty on the outside. I tell her about the butter-vanilla-nut extract from Cake Cottage, and she reaches behind some things to find her own bottle; she doesn’t remember seeing a cake recipe on it. I complain that the cake tastes a little artificial. Is it because I know the extract is imitation? Would real walnut and pure vanilla have made a difference? “Tastes good to me,” says Ann’s husband, Jim, in typical husband fashion.
Back at home, my own spouse declares the cake as moist and delicious as any other. But my daughter thinks it’s more desert than dessert and begs for ice cream. I want to tell her that she’s right, that cake without frosting might as well be bread. But I am too busy chewing a piece, nodding, my heart starting to beat just a little faster.
* * * *
According to the authorities on the subject—Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of The Cake Bible, and Bruce Healy, co-author of The Art of the Cake—I have made my pound cake all wrong. I said I had made this cake “by the book” with the exception of my use of butter, but I failed to mention that I softened it in the microwave. Berenbaum may not have a problem with that; her pound cakes, dubbed “perfect,” call for softened butter. But her recipes call for flour first, and she uses baking powder and far less milk. Healy would find neither recipe very French. His traditional quatres-quarts (named four-fourths because the original recipe called for equal parts flour, butter, sugar, and eggs), calls for everything at a specific temperature; the eggs, for instance, are at room temperature, while the butter is sliced and then creamed while still cold (unless your kitchen is cool), the superfine sugar chilled in the fridge. These two don’t even agree on what to use as a cake tester: Berenbaum suggests a wooden toothpick; Healy opts for a knife—a toothpick or cake tester is under-endowed with sufficient surface area to which wet batter can cling.
If nothing else, I am a person who can follow directions, so I use this skill to sponsor my own Pound Cake Bake Off, much to the delight of family and my many neighbors, all of whom seem to exhibit oodles more self-control than I.
The pound cake has been around since at least the 1700s. In 1796, Amelia Simmons (whose by-line includes “an American Orphan”) published this country’s first cookbook, entitled, American Cookery, or The Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry and Vegetables and The Best Modes of Making Pastes, Puffs, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards and Preserves, and All Kinds of Cakes, from Imperial Plumb to Plain Cake, Adapted to This Country and All Grades of Life. In an edition published by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965, some of the original grammar is cleaned up a bit, though the author of the Foreword assures readers, “Enough errors remain to leave the proper flavor of the original. (Also note that the printer’s long f symbol of the time was used where we now use the curved s.) Her recipe for Pound Cake calls for:
One pound sugar, one pound butter, one pound cake flour, one pound or ten eggs, rofe-water one gill, spices to your tafte; watch it well, it will bake in a slow oven in 15 minutes.Another recipe, which she calls, “Another called Pound Cake,” says:
Work three quarters of a pound butter, one pound of good sugar, till very white, whip ten whites to a foam, add the yolks and beat together, add one spoon rofe-water, 2 of brandy, and put the whole to one and a quarter of a pound flour, if yet too soft add flour and bake slowly.
In more than two hundred years, the recipe has not changed much. Though we don’t measure in gills (about five ounces) or use rose water or, alas, brandy, a pound cake is a pound cake.
Bruce Healy’s Quatre Quarts is in the oven. Despite my determination, my cautious preparedness, I am still a slob. The countertop has a light dusting of flour, egg drops have dried there, too, and everything near the stove is covered with a greasy film from a morning spent attempting to clarify my own butter. Both The Cake Bible and The Art of the Cake recommend clarified butter for the greasing of the cake pan; otherwise, the cake is likely to stick to the milk solids in regular butter. In economic terms, this means turning two sticks into one. I boiled the butter, skimmed the foam from the top, and strained the solids. Several times. Eventually, I wound up with a delightfully clear butter with which to coat the loaf pan (to keep the cake from sticking). I never got to use it. My loaf pans have a non-stick surface too slick to hold melted butter; it runs down the sides and pools on the bottom. I put the clarified butter in the fridge and rubbed a cold stick on the pan, which I then floured.
Healy’s instructions are easy, and the book is written in a way that made me feel he was standing over my shoulder, guiding me. “Faster! Keep beating,” I imagined him saying as I gingerly upped the speed of my mixer to halfway between the six and the seven. “Medium-high,” I heard him tell me, and I settled the lever on the seven. The butter and sugar mix was nearly white after five minutes of creaming. When I finished adding all the ingredients, I realized something was missing—missing from the butter, too. Salt. A sweet recipe that doesn’t call for salt is a terrible mistake, I thought.
And then I licked the whisk.
Oh, the last cake had a sweet batter, but the taste was artificial. This one tasted like the liquid version of my beloved white sheet cake.
Light and perfect, the batter went gently into the pan, and I smoothed it and resmoothed it, eating whatever extras were captured in the process, and the loaf went into the oven. Within ten minutes, the aroma filled the dining room, calling me.
Now, twenty minutes before the cake is to be checked (after about an hour and fifteen to twenty minutes), I decide to get started on The Cake Bible version. Rose Levy Beranbaum is a woman’s baker. Throw the wet ingredients together, throw the dry ingredients together, toss the in-between ingredients in, add some of the wet, add some more of the wet, add the rest. Voila! I don’t have to count mixing minutes or worry about temperatures (except for the eggs, which she likes at room temperature). And while I work, I hear the voice of my Jewish grandmother guiding me, only she isn’t saying, “Beat it faster.” She says to me, “Oy, you’re such a mess. This is how you live? Did you wear those shorts out?” She says, “You’re only going to have a taste of these cakes, right? You really don’t need it.” This is baking and guilt. This is home.
When the batter is ready, the angels gather round. Four of them sing. The fifth mouths the words. This isn’t quite as silky as the French version, but it is close, as is the color. I want to say that the flavor is nearly as outstanding. (Do I detect the most subtle hint of baking powder?)
It’s ten minutes early, but I open the oven door to put in the second cake and check on the first. It’s ruined. The top has browned. The sides have blackened. I turn it over on a plate, and a brick plunks out. (The angels walk out of the room, their arms folded across their chests.) If this were a State Fair, I would be out of the competition instantly, though the judges would still taste the cake. I have to know what might have been, too, so I slice an overbaked heel from the right end, put a less crusty portion in my mouth, then toss the rest in the sink. Despite the burn, it tastes like a sugar cookie. The interior of the cake is tender and finely crumbed but not moist. The flavor is light and fresh but not nearly sweet enough after all.
I watch Beranbaum’s cake like a hawk. Her instructions call for covering it with buttered foil after thirty minutes, which I do. Then, every five, I check it to see whether it’s done. My Jewish grandmother (whose name was also Ruth) tells me to keep checking it; she doesn’t trust my oven, either.
When it’s done, I compare the two cakes to each other and to what’s left of the first tube cake. I don’t want to feel as though the Healy cake has been given short shrift by the nasty brown crusts, but the French version does not compare. It shouldn’t, after all, get a thick, hard crust around it, should it? The first cake had no hint of a crust, just a golden color. The Beranbaum version, slightly crusty, tastes like a sugar cookie, too. It is fresh tasting, dense, and lightly sweet, though I still find it lacking in moisture.
When next I make a pound cake—despite my extra pounds, it is soon—I alter the first recipe by amounts, include superfine sugar, exclude that icky-tasting extract. The result is what neighbor Val (a fine baker and cook herself) and friend Kim swear to be the best pound cake ever. I enter it in the Baltimore Book Fair's "Food For Thought" contest and think about what my life has become: cake and art.
The winner gets $250. That will just about pay for my cake party in October.