Pound Cake: A Pound of Everything?

by Elizabeth Skipper | June 18th, 2014 | Ask the Chef

cake-21422_1280I have heard that pound cake is named because it has a pound of sugar and a pound of butter.  In order to make a homemade pound cake, do I really need to use such great amounts?  (I am hoping to make one loaf pan.)

Pound cake is actually called that because it calls for a pound each of butter and sugar, but also a pound each of eggs and flour, for a total of four pounds in all. That makes enough batter to fill about two one-loaf pans.

It may be easier to think of this kind of cake in terms the French use. In France, it’s called “quatre-quarts” or, literally, “four quarters.” It really doesn’t matter how much of each of the primary ingredients you use, as long as they’re measured equally by weight (not volume.)

One pound of each in our U.S. system of measuring would be two cups of butter, eight large eggs, two cups of sugar, and four cups of flour. So if you want to make a smaller cake, simply divide by two, which would give you ½ pound (one cup) of butter, four large eggs, one cup sugar, and two cups flour. In fact, I have a recipe in an old cookbook from 1953 which uses these quantities plus leavening and flavorings, and is named – accurately if not imaginatively – Half-a-Pound Cake. It calls for a 9″ x 5″ x 3″ loaf pan.

Nick Malgieri, in How to Bake, uses the same quantities as the Half-a-Pound Cake, but in addition to flavoring and leavening adds ¼ cup milk. He calls for a slightly smaller loaf pan of 8 ½” x 4 ½” x 2 ¼”. Rose Levy Beranbaum, in The Cake Bible, for a Perfect Pound Cake to serve 8, uses 13 TB butter (6.5 ounces), three large eggs (6 ounces), ¾ cup sugar, and 1 ½ cups (5.25 ounces) cake flour (are the numbers starting to make your head swim?) plus three TB milk. According to Ms. Beranbaum, “A small amount of milk adds marvelous moisture and also strengthens the cake’s structure by gelatinizing the flour and joining the gluten-forming proteins enough to be able to hold some extra butter.”

Her batter proportions may be baked in an 8″ x 4″ x 2″ pan or a six-cup fluted tube pan, which sounds attractive. Interestingly, she notes that extensive experiments with various sizes of pound cake have led her to believe that the texture of a pound cake suffers when it’s made too large. So presumably those old fashioned true pound cakes were much heavier and chewier than today’s, which have more the texture of a Sara Lee frozen pound cake. Sounds as though you’re on the right track, if for different reasons.

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