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How-To

A Touch of Dairy Makes Pound Cakes Moist and Fine-Grained

Adding a little sour cream, buttermilk, or cream cheese improves the flavor and texture of this favorite traditional cake

Fine Cooking Issue 44
Photos: Martha Holmberg
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Pound cake is the mother of all butter cakes. While it’s pretty humble—blocky shape, no layers, frostings, or fillings—pound cake’s dense, velvety texture and pure butter flavor make it so undeniably delicious that, in my opinion, it ranks far ahead of many more complicated or elegant cakes.

Traditional pound cakes actually were made with one pound each of butter, sugar, eggs, and flour (in France they’re called quatre quarts or “four quarters”). These old-style cakes are quite good, but on the verge of being too solid for my taste.

On my recent quest for the perfect pound cake, I looked through the recipes that I’ve amassed over years of owning a bakery and teaching baking. I pulled out the ones I remembered as being exceptionally good, and I soon noticed a pattern: all of my favorite pound cake recipes broke from the traditional formula and contained some leavening (baking powder or baking soda) and an additional dairy product—buttermilk, sour cream, or cream cheese. The addition of both of these types of ingredients seems to make a slightly moister, lighter textured cake that still has that fine-crumbed “sliceability” and mellow butter flavor of the traditional version.

Baking is really a big chemistry experiment, and your choice of ingredients and the way you handle them can radically change the nature of a cake. Let’s take a look at pound cake’s big five—butter, sugar, eggs, dairy, and flour—to see what they do. These principles apply not only to pound cake, but to many other cakes as well.

Creaming butter and sugar correctly creates air pockets to lighten the cake

A lot of baking recipes will tell you to use softened or room-temperature butter, but how soft is soft enough? Surprisingly, you don’t want the butter to be too soft or it won’t do its job. The purpose of creaming the butter, on its own and then with the sugar, is to aerate it, whipping in tiny pockets of air that will eventually expand during cooking and help to lighten the cake. If the butter is too soft, it won’t be able to hold those pockets.

You should be able to pick up the stick of butter and bend it without it melting in your fingers or becoming glistening or sticky. If you want to be sure, take its temperature with an instant-read thermometer—70°F is good. Once you start creaming, you should cream until the butter forms little tails around the paddle or beaters of your mixer.

Pure cane granulated sugar is my preference for baking, but superfine is acceptable for these recipes. Whichever sugar you use, you’re going to add it to the creamed butter and cream some more until the mixture is pale, which incorporates more air into the mix. Even though you’re “creaming,” the mixture will look quite grainy, not creamy, because there’s a lot of sugar and it’s not dissolving in the butter.

High-tech, low-tech: Carolyn Weil uses her stand mixer for most of the process, but she does the final blending of the flour with a rubber spatula to avoid overworking the batter.
Dairy ingredients contribute moisture and richness to the basic pound cake recipe.

Warmed eggs, worked in slowly, create an emulsion—that’s important

Fresh, large (2-ounce) eggs are what I call for in my recipe. Most important, the eggs need to be at room temperature so they don’t harden the butter when you add them. You can speed up the process by putting the eggs (in their shells) in a bowl of warm tap water for 6 to 8 minutes.

When you add the eggs, do it one at a time, using a slow speed on your mixer. You’re trying to create a creamy mixture that holds the air bubbles that have already been whipped in. At this point, you’re beginning to create an emulsion, which is the most important step in making the pound cake. A well-emulsified batter will trap and hold air bubbles that then expand during baking. This produces the rise and is a major factor in the final texture of the cake. A cake baked from a poorly emulsified batter will be grainy and uneven and can sink.

The emulsion begins with the butter, eggs, and sugar and continues while you add the dry ingredients (and the buttermilk in one of my recipes; the cream cheese or sour cream get mixed with the butter and behave more like that than like a liquid). You want to prevent the emulsion from breaking, which would make it look like little curds floating in syrup. Sometimes if a recipe has too little sugar or too many eggs, the emulsion will start to break. To rescue the emulsion, add a little of the flour mixture, one tablespoon at a time, to maintain it.

Tails tell the tale. For the creaming phase to be effective in lightening the texture of the cake, start with 70°F butter and cream it until lots of little tails form around the beaters or paddle.
Creamed but not creamy. Once you add the sugar to the creamed butter, the mixture will look grainy—that’s okay.

It’s all in the mix

The order in which you add ingredients and the manner in which you mix them in makes a huge difference in the degree of success you and your cakes will enjoy. Here are some tips that will produce lighter, smoother, better-textured cakes:

Alternating makes wet and dry blend without a struggle. Many cake recipes (including the Lemon Buttermilk Pound Cake) tell you to alternate the addition of wet and dry ingredients. While this might seem like extra work, it’s really important. If you were to add all the liquid first, the mixture would be very soupy, and the emulsion would break. You’d also have a hard time blending in the flour because it would tend to clump and lump in the liquid.

Adding all the flour first would create a very thick, pasty batter that would then require a lot of beating in order to incorporate the liquid. All the extra beating would toughen the cake.

The alternation of dry-wet-dry also keeps the emulsion in a steady state.

Enthusiasm, yes, but vigorous mixing, no. During all stages of mixing, use restraint:

• Overbeating the butter can soften it too much, making it greasy, which will diminish its ability to trap air.
• Overbeating the eggs whips in too much air and creates tunnels in the finished cake.
• Overbeating once the flour has been added promotes gluten formation and toughens the cake.

Extra dairy adds tangy flavor and loads of moisture

Adding buttermilk, sour cream, or cream cheese gives more moisture and flavor to the cake. The acid in buttermilk and sour cream produces a very fine crumb because it tenderizes the gluten in the flour. Sour cream and cream cheese add so much richness that cakes made with them are super moist and almost springy. They consequently keep very well.

Flour should be measured well and mixed in with a light touch

Many flours work for pound cakes, but they produce different textures, and I don’t think they’re all equally successful. Cake flour gives the pound cake a texture that’s so light and fine-grained that to me it seems almost dry. Bleached all-purpose will give the cake a more substantial texture than cake flour will—the results are moist and almost chewy. Unbleached all-purpose is my preference. The final texture is slightly coarser than bleached or cake flour, but the flavor is slightly deeper and nuttier. Maybe it’s just that I always bake with unbleached, but to me it tastes better.|

When I measure flour, I always stir it to loosen it (I keep a chopstick in the canister) and then spoon it into a dry measuring cup and swipe it level with the flat edge of a knife. I’ve also given weights in my recipes, so if you have a scale, by all means, use it. To incorporate the leavening, I whisk it into the flour briefly rather than sifting the whole thing. This seems to distribute it enough and is quicker than sifting, which is just extra work, in this case.

When adding flour to the batter, be gentle. I make pound cakes using my stand mixer. I’ll work the batter on low speed until most of the flour has been mixed in but I can still see some unblended powder; then I’ll take the bowl from the mixer and finish mixing by hand with a spatula. That way I can scrape to the bottom of the bowl to get any little pockets of flour, but I’m not adding any unnecessary strokes. Overmixing at this point can really make the cake tough. (Note that for the buttermilk pound cake recipe, you’ll need to alternate adding the flour mixture with the buttermilk; see the panel above.)

What to look for in a better batter

One egg too many. We forced this butter-sugar-egg emulsion to break by adding an extra egg. The emulsion couldn’t hold the extra liquid, and the result is curds of fat in a watery syrup. If this happens to you, fix it by beating in 1 to 2 tablespoons of the flour mixture.
This is an emulsified batter. Though you can see some texture from air pockets, you don’t see curds or weeping because the butter and liquid are in a stable dispersion.

A light pan and a low oven produce a golden, tender crust

Pound cakes are almost always baked in a loaf shape, though a bundt shape works really well, too. A lot of recipes call for a 9x5x4-inch loaf pan, but in reality that size is next to impossible to find. Every manufacturer seems to do things a little differently, so just try for something close. I tested these recipes in a pan that measured 8×4-1/2×3 inches at the top rim.

I prefer a light-colored steel pan. I had been using a darker pan at first, but the outer surface of the finished cake was too dark. I kept adjusting the time and temperature without much success. Then I coincidentally did a test at 325°F using a lighter, silvery colored pan and the timing worked perfectly, producing a honey-brown crust that was very tender.

I use a nonstick spray coating to grease the pan (I prefer Pam brand), but I don’t feel flouring it is necessary, except when I’m using a bundt pan that might have a harder time releasing because of the indentations. Nonstick pans still need grease—they wash up easier, but really, cakes still stick.

The trick to removing a pound cake from the pan is to do it while the cake is still slightly warm—15 to 20 minutes after removing it from the oven. If you try it immediately, the cake will be too fragile and could get damaged. Turn the pan over and, with a gentle tap, let the cake slide out. You can then put the cake on a rack to let it finish cooling. If you mistakenly wait too long, try warming the outside of the pan over a flame or in a warm oven to help release the cake.

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