You knew, of course, that the 14th was Bastille Day, right? Yep, it was. And, in honor of the French holiday, we thought that we’d make a, well, perhaps quasi-French dessert: pound cake. Okay, it might not have French origins, but, if we call it quatre-quarts, then it’ll at least sound like a dessert from Paris. But, no matter what, we happen to think that good pound cake is really, really good. Unfortunately, a lot of sins are committed in the name of said cake. However, we can show you how to avoid some of those sins. Just follow along.
A long time ago, we tried making a pound cake using Dorie Greenspan’s recipe. And we were disappointed, because it wasn’t that good. We mean, it was okay, but nothing that had us thinking we’d found the ideal pound cake recipe. Now, in her defense, we fully realize that making a good pound cake is all about how good your cake-making technique is. No one recipe is all that different from another. If your technique is spot on, good cake. A bit off, well, perhaps a doorstop. But, you will notice a few differences between this recipe based on the one in The Joy of Cooking, by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, and Dorie Greenspan’s recipe. First, and perhaps most important, separating the eggs and whipping the whites to fold into the batter. Second, the use of cake flour instead of all-purpose. Both are there to produce a lighter cake.
Unsalted butter is the way to go, unless you want your cake to taste like a salt lick. Thought not. As always, we go with eggs from free-range hens. We’ve visited the hens, have seen them scratch and peck, and realize that, the healthier the hens, the healthier the eggs are. For the lemons, if you can, pick up a couple of organic ones. We weren’t able to do that, so we scrubbed them first with dish detergent. After all, we’ll be ingesting that zest, so we try to minimize contaminants. We did use cake flour, even though, according to a quote on Wikipedia, “cake flour would not work in place of all-purpose flour because it lacks the strength to support the heavy batter.” You can see the results using cake flour and decide for yourself.
Procedure in detail:
Mise en place. For cakes, we always get out our ingredients, measure them into separate bowls, zest and squeeze the lemon, separate the eggs, do whatever sifting is needed, and butter and line the pans. Basically, we get everything prepped before we start so we’ll have an easy time while making the cake. Easy means enjoyable, and enjoyable means we’ll have cake more often. Besides, we have to wait for the butter and eggs to warm anyway, so we have several hours to get everything ready.
Butter and line pans. Grab a couple of 9×5 loaf pans and give them a good buttering. If you have baking parchment, cut off strips and press them into the pans with the edges of the paper sticking up and over the sides of the pans. Otherwise, after buttering, dust the pans with flour.
Sift flour. Sure, the flour probably says “pre-sifted” on the package, but, what they mean by that is that any large pieces of grain have been sifted out. It doesn’t mean that the flour is nice and light and fluffy. So, break out that sifter and sift together the flour, salt, and cream of tartar. If you don’t have a scale, you’ll need to sift the flour before measuring. Try this: set a measuring cup in a pie plate, sift in flour until you have a mound in the cup, then level it off with a knife. And repeat.
Rub sugar and lemon. In a large bowl — we’ll put all the batter in here towards the end, so it should be large — combine the lemon zest, nutmeg, and sugar. Now, get in there with your fingers and rub the zest into the sugar. That’s it, get rubbing until the sugar looks like wet sand.
Preheat oven to 325°F. Once your butter is nice and soft, and all your eggs are separated and warm, start preheating the oven. Move a rack to the center of the oven so the cake will bake evenly.
Cream butter. All right, we’ve waited for this moment to get started. Place the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and turn it on to medium low. In less than a minute, the butter should be creamy, smooth, and shiny. If not, your butter is not warm enough, and you’ll need to wait a bit longer and try again.
Add sugar. With the mixer still on medium, slowly add the sugar mixture and continue beating until it’s quite light and fluffy. You may be surprised by how fluffy just butter and sugar can get, so don’t be afraid to let the mixer run 5 minutes or even longer. Periodically scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Add egg yolks. With the mixer still running — aren’t you glad you don’t have to mix this by hand? — add the egg yolks, one at a time, to the batter. Make sure the yolk is completely incorporated into the batter before adding the next.
Add juice. Now that the everything is light and fluffy, slowly add the lemon juice. Take your time; this isn’t a race. We probably took about a minute to add all the juice from those two lemons.
Add flour. Turn the mixer to low and slowly add the flour. Once all the flour is added, mix the batter just enough to incorporate all the flour.
Transfer batter. Transfer the batter to a large bowl — we used the four-quart bowl that originally held the sugar — and wash the mixer bowl thoroughly. We’ll be whipping egg whites, which requires a scrupulously clean bowl.
Whip egg whites. Place the egg whites in your now-clean mixer bowl. Attach the whisk attachment and start whipping, increasing the speed to high. Continue whipping until the whites hold stiff peaks, but are still nice and glossy.
Fold in egg whites. Some people dread folding whipped egg whites into a heavy batter, but we know the secret. Do your folding in multiple additions. In this case, we used four roughly equal additions, folding in each addition of egg whites before adding and folding in the next. With multiple additions, it just gets easier as you go along, since the batter is getting lighter and lighter.
Fold in blueberries. Sprinkle the blueberries over the top of the batter and gently fold them in. Your batter is done.
Fill pans. Divide the batter between your two prepared pans and smooth off the top. The batter should come up to the top (or nearly) of the loaf pans.
Bake. Slide the pans into the oven on the middle rack, leaving a couple of inches between them, and bake for 70 to 90 minutes (but start checking the cake for doneness after about 60), or until the cake springs back when touched lightly and a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. If the cakes start to look as if they’re browning too much on one end, rotate them partway through.
Cool. Let the cakes cool completely in the pans, then run a sharp knife around the edges and lift them out. Pull away the parchment and slice and serve — we don’t think good pound cake needs any adornment.
While this cake was better than the previous version we tried, being it was lighter and moister, it was still the tiniest bit dry, especially around the edges. Yes, we know that it’s a pound cake, and pound cakes tend to be a bit dry, but we still think we can do better. The flavor, however, was outstanding: the lemon wasn’t overpowering, paired nicely with the blueberries, and the berries added a bit more moisture to the cake — maybe we need to add a few more blueberries next time, but not so many they make the cake soggy. Overall, we’ll say four stars.