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Notes from the test kitchen: Inaugural poundcake

January 15, 2009 | 11:21 am


Every once in a while, The Times' test kitchen receives a recipe that needs just a little extra attention before we feel fit to publish it. The deflated cake at left is one of the more obvious examples.

We test, on average, more than 600 recipes a year. Roughly 400 of these make it to print. Recipes are tested and adapted for the home kitchen from a variety of sources: chefs, restaurants, food writers, even newly published cookbooks. (It's amazing how many cookbooks come out with untested recipes). Of course, we also develop recipes from scratch.

The picture above is from the original test for William Henry Harrison's 1841 poundcake, a published recipe from the time and one of several submitted by Andrew Smith for this week's cover story, "The first suppers: A tradition of inaugural meals." The vintage recipe fascinated us; looking nothing like the poundcakes we know today, this promised to be full of flavor with more than  one-fourth cup of spice and one cup each of brandy, white wine and rosewater.

The ingredient ratios looked a bit off, and the method was suspect (the instructions came with this caveat: "If any part is burnt, scrape it off as soon as cold."). Intrigued -- and challenged -- we were determined to make it work.

We tested the recipe, careful to be as faithful as possible to the original. We used exact amounts for each of the ingredients and tried our best to follow the original method, which called for an open fire (we adapted here), two to three hours baking time and included almost no leavening (the eggs were whipped before incorporating into the batter -- as with more modern methods, but then the final batter was stirred "very hard," discharging much of the incorporated air).

Poundcake1_4 Our initial test yielded enough batter for three cakes, which we put in a moderate (350 degree) oven. We baked the cakes, rotating them every 20 minutes or so, until a wooden skewer inserted came out clean, about 1 1/2 hours. The cakes looked promising at first, properly risen and a rich golden shade on top (thankfully, no burnt areas to trim).

But not more than 5 minutes after they came out of the oven, the cakes started deflating. Within minutes, they'd deflated to less than half their original size and were, maybe, two inches thick.

We still tasted them. The favor was amazing, similar to a spice cake, though the texture was more like bread pudding.

We went back to the drawing board.

A classic poundcake is known for containing equal parts by weight of butter, sugar, eggs and flour.  Softened butter is beaten with sugar to incorporate air, then eggs are added (either one at a time into the butter-sugar mixture, or beaten separately then folded in). Flour is added either gently at the end, or alternately in stages with the eggs. A classic poundcake has no chemical leavening (e.g. baking powder or soda), but may be lightened in texture by using cake flour and/or powdered sugar.

We drew from this method, wanting a cake that was light in texture but rich in flavor: Three eggs is standard for a regular poundcake, so we built the cake starting with the eggs. We measured enough sugar and flour to equal the eggs and then converted the weight to volume measurements. We divided the volume of spice into thirds (as the original recipe made three cakes) to add to the revision, figuring this would not throw off the ratios -- and the final consistency and texture of the cake -- too noticeably (the spice amounts weigh very little, comparatively, and won't affect texture as would extra flour).

We then added 10 tablespoons butter to the ingredients, about one-fifth less than we needed by weight, but we figured this would allow for the incorporation of some of the liquid from the original recipe. We added about 1/3 cup liquid: 2 tablespoons each wine, brandy and rosewater.

Annecusackpoundcake The method was adapted so the cake would leaven both mechanically (beating air into the butter with the sugar) and chemically (we added 1/2 teaspoon baking powder just to be safe). And we changed from all-purpose flour to cake flour to help with the overall texture.

Fingers crossed, we tested again. Thankfully, it worked. The cake, left, rose beautifully and was done in about an hour, and the texture was super-light, though the cake was able to maintain the rich flavors of the original. Success.

Oh, and while the cake will take on a rich color, we were happily able to take out that final instruction to remove anything burnt.

-- Noelle Carter

Photos by Noelle Carter and Anne Cusack / For The Times