Pound Cake: the recipe you can’t forget

[field_ifd0_imagedescription-formatted]Image from http://freefoodphotos.com under creative commons

Why can’t you forget a Pound Cake recipe? Because it only has four ingredients and they are all the same weight. In the original eighteenth-century recipe that weight was, naturally, a pound: of eggs,  flour, sugar and butter. That made for a pretty gargantuan cake: it takes nine modern medium British or large American eggs to tip the scales at a pound, and so most recipes you see today have scaled things down a little and call for two or three, with the other ingredients reduced to match. Some recipes will actually tell you to start by weighing the eggs in their shells and then matching it in the other ingredients. Today, of course, American recipes more commonly express measures in cups and tablespoons – or in the case of butter, sticks (a stick being quarter of a pound), while in much of Europe the metric system has long ousted pounds and ounces on the scale. Nonetheless, our affection for this pleasingly sturdy, golden and simple cake remains, as does its name.

Why do we like this cake so much? Well probably because it’s easy, tasty and simple. It’s also golden and buttery, which speaks directly to our endorphins (well, that and the sugar). Today the Pound Cake is quintessentially American, where it is often gussied up to the max with cream cheese, sour cream, green tea, chocolate: you name it, it’s been put in there. But in fact, it originated in Europe, where something called a Pound Cake started to appear in recipe books in the eighteenth-century, albeit still carrying hangovers from earlier preferences for spiced and fruited cakes (caraway seeds anyone?). In France it is known as a ‘Quatre Quarts’ – again, a reference to the four equal ingredients. In Britain, however, the Pound Cake fell out of favour as preferences shifted to lighter and altogether more regal variant: Queen Victoria’s Sandwich Cake.

Overhead view of baking ingredients with cake flour in a sieve ready for sifting and two broken eggs, all on a wooden surface

Image from http://freefoodphotos.com under creative commons

The first published recipe for a cake which looks recognisably like our modern Pound Cake was written by farmer, cookery author, poet, one-time London courtier and (perhaps unexpectedly) ex-soldier, Gervase Markham, in 1615. It contained a pound of flour, a pound of sugar, and eight eggs which were beaten for a horrifying full hour. Markham was really more of an editor than a deviser of original recipes, which suggests that cakes like this probably weren’t new. In fact, Markham did not label his recipe a cake at all, but instead called it a ‘Biscuit-bread’ – unless it was rolled thin, in which case it was referred to as a ‘cake’ – or rather, several small cakes, as the mixture was divided into a number of different tins. The name demonstrates the close relationship between the Dutch word for cake, joekje, and our modern word ‘cookie’. In many other ways, however, Markham’s cake had claim to something new. It was baked in a tin, in an oven rather than on a griddle or hearth, and all that beating must have introduced some air as he directed that the cook flatten the cakes, or ‘thrust them down close’, with her hand halfway through baking. The most obvious difference from later recipes was that Markham’s cake contained no butter. This makes it closer to our modern fatless Sponge, in which beaten eggs are still the principle form of raising agent.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, these lighter, unfruited cakes were popular enough to be included in another bestselling cookbook, The Art of Cookery, which was published simply by ‘A Lady’ in 1747. The author was revealed posthumously two centuries later as Mrs Hannah Glasse, who had previously worked as a household servant to an aristocratic family. Her ‘Pound Cake’ illustrates the change in tastes and ingredients since Markham’s time: it includes six egg whites and twelve yolks (which would have made it even richer), a pound of butter and a pound of sugar – but still the inevitable caraway seeds – and the unenviable hour’s beating either by hand ‘or a great wooden Spoon’. Even the ‘good Pound Cake’ which featured in the sensationally popular 1806 A New System of Domestic Cookery by English widow Maria Rundell (selling half a million copies on both sides of the Atlantic in 25 years and translated also into German) still contained hangovers from its cakey antecedents: it was flavored with nutmeg, cinnamon, wine and caraway seeds, which are still classic flavorings in many north European cuisines. She did also include something called a ‘Spunge Cake’, however, with ingredient weights calibrated to the weight of ten eggs. Interestingly, the whites of these eggs were beaten separately from the yolks – which is a good way to introduce extra air, and suggests that this was a lighter cake.

Eliza Smith’s may have been the first cookery book to have been published in America, but the first American cookbook was Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery, first printed in 1796. Simmons, who probably lived in New England, and whose tag line on the frontispiece of her first edition declared her to be ‘an American orphan’, was not able to write, and dictated her recipes to a scribe (a policy which she said resulted in many errors making their way into the first edition). Her book was comprehensive, covering meats, fish, pasties, puffs, tarts, preserves – and ‘all kinds of cakes, from the Imperial Plumb[sic] to Plain Cake’. And in her book we finally meet a truly classic Pound Cake, albeit with a few unfamiliar twists, like the rose water, which takes the place of our modern vanilla flavoring:

One pound sugar, one pound butter, one pound flour, one pound or ten eggs, rose water one gill [a gill is half a cup], spices to your taste; watch it well, it will bake in a slow oven in 15 minutes.

So, by the end of the eighteenth century it looks as though Pound Cake was a familiar sight on both sides of the pond – though I’d be interested to know if anyone has tasted a rose-water one recently.


2 thoughts on “Pound Cake: the recipe you can’t forget

  1. Pingback: Queen Victoria’s Sandwich – or, the Pound Cake goes Regal | A Slice of Cake and a Pocket of Pins

  2. Pingback: Pound Cake: Tried and Tested | A Slice of Cake and a Pocket of Pins

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