Half pound cake

A pound cake is scary. A classic one is also a LOT of cake. I just blasted through making one, but I think it’s worth its own post. And while I’m at it I’ll make it something more reasonable in size.

The big deal of the pound cake is that the only leavening is steam. That means what you want to do is maximize the number of pockets steam can build. At the same time you want each pocket to seal while at maximum expansion. You do this trick with angel food cakes, sponge cakes, and pound cakes, though each has additional tricks with which to play. I think I’ll hit all three, but will start with the pound cake.

As I mentioned last thread and above, the classic is a LOT of ingredient. A pound of butter, pound of sugar, pound of eggs and pound of flour is respectively 2 cups, 2 cups, 8, and 4 cups. I’m going to reduce it by half — thus the ‘half pound’ cake.

Get out your eggs and butter about one to two hours before you start.

As you get ready to begin (after the eggs and butter are room temperature) take a moment to get out your pan and turn on the oven. You’ve got a choice – a “bread loaf pan” or an angel food cake pan. Or a bundt pan, if you wish. These will modify the cooking time but not the final consistency. For this cake I prefer the loaf pan. Grease and dust the pan or line it with parchment paper to aid in later removal. The oven goes to 350F.

Oh, wait. Grease and flour. Look, don’t use any old grease. Use the wrapper off one of the sticks of butter – there’ll be enough on it to cover the pan. You want a very thin but solid layer of flour. In my opinion it’s better to be heavy than light – excess that’s not absorbed during cooking can be brushed off (and is pretty much tasteless, anyway). Now there’s a trick to make this easier if you want. Rub down the sides and bottom of the pan with the butter. Put two tablespoons of flour in the pan. Now use a large piece of wrapping plastic to close it off. Make the piece large enough you can hold it in place from the bottom. Now grasp the pan and plastic and shake hard – a lot. If you find unfloured gaps after this, it’s more likely you missed a spot while greasing. If any spot is larger than a dime OR you’ve got more than five dimes worth of spaces, grease the spots and shake again. Otherwise toss the plastic and excess flour.

And we’re off. Overview: we’re going to cream the butter and sugar. We’re going to separate the eggs, beating in the yolks while whipping the whites separately. We’re going to fold this together, then fold in the flour after it’s sifted. This is going to be gentled into the pan and baked. Simple, right? (grin).

Actually, yes.

Let’s start with some prep work. The first thing you should do is sift your flour. Yes, it’s the last thing you’ll add. However, it takes time to sift, and all the while the bubbles you’ll have created everywhere else are melting, melting… Sift your flour into a bowl or a large measuring cup.

Second thing is separate the eggs. OK, lesson time. Three bowls. Bowl one is where the whites end up. It needs to be big enough to whip the eggs and then add all the batter and flour. So it needs to be a cake bowl. Restated, it needs to hold at least a gallon (eight cups). If in doubt the first time, too big beats too little. Oh – it needs to be glass or metal – no plastic. NO PLASTIC FOR THE WHITES. Now the second bowl only needs to be large enough to hold four eggs. A cereal bowl, or even a coffee cup is plenty – and here plastic is fine if that’s what you’ve got. Your final container is your “separation” bowl. You’ll separate the egg over this bowl. It too can be as small as a coffee cup. However, it also can NOT be plastic.

Here’s the deal. When you’re whipping eggs, fats will lubricate the proteins and prevent any significant bubbles from forming. It only takes a little fat to do this. Egg yolks are fats. Sadly, plastic bowls also carry fats – not much, but enough. But back to the yolks. When you’re separating, if the yolk breaks and goes into the white you need to toss the egg into something else. You can save it for scrambled eggs or something, or if you want you can add the whole thing to the yolks. Oh, if a yolk breaks in the separation you also are going to need a new separation dish.

My personal preference for separating eggs is to crack them, then pull the shell apart with one piece forming something of a bowl. Part of the white will spill out into my separation bowl. I throw away the empty half, then carefully pour the egg into a cup made of the fingers of my other hand. I throw way the rest of the shell, then gently wiggle my fingers (and sometimes comb with the other hand) to get the white separated. Once that’s done I can put the yolk in its container.

Practice the first time you try to separate eggs. For what it’s worth, I was made to separate eggs prior to making omelets and scrambled eggs – separating and placing both whites and yolks into the same bowl. It meant messing up was no big deal. Just a helpful hint.

So we’ve got flour sifted and eggs separated. It’s showtime.

Let’s start creaming. Put the butter in the bowl of the stand mixer. Run it for 30 seconds or so on low, then kick it up to medium high and let it whip the butter. Start adding the sugar about a quarter at a time, adding the next bit when you can’t see what you’ve already added. Once the last bit is in, let your stand mixer go for about 2 more minutes so it’s fully mixed.

Time to add egg yolks. Now, you’ve got two choices here. You can add the yolks straight or you can beat them a bit to develop the proteins and then add them. Developed will produce a bit more lift, but they’re harder to add slowly to the batter. Oh, and remember that if you use beaters on the yolks you can’t use them to whip the whites. Fats, remember? If you want to beat the yolks, do so during that finish two minutes of the creaming.

With the stand mixer running, add about a quarter of the yolks at a time and let it run till the yolk is fully incorporated. Repeat till all four yolks are incorporated. Stop the mixer. Go ahead and clean off the beater and remove the bowl from the mixer if you want — you’re done with it, and you might need the room.

Time to whip the whites. A hand mixer is fine here. Start it at low speed for a minute or so to break up the whites, then kick it up to medium till you see a bit of froth. Then kick it up to high and go and go and go… I don’t have two bowls for my stand mixer, and this is a cake where I wish I did. Anyway, you want to bring this to where it looks white instead of clear and barely forms peaks.

You’re going to put about a quarter of the whites into the batter and stir it till it’s about 80% mixed. Perfection is not an issue at this time. What you’re doing here is lightening – adding MORE bubbles to – the batter. That way when you add the batter to the whites it’s less likely to collapse the existing bubbles. So stir a quarter of the whites into the batter.

Now fold the batter into the whites. Fold. Get the biggest spatula or spoon (whichever is larger) and… not long, I mean area of the bowl or blade. Scoop about a third of the batter into the middle. Push the edge of your spoon down through the middle, and scrape with the broadest surface possible along the bottom, up the side, and lay this to the middle. Turn the bowl a quarter turn and repeat. Do this four times total. Add the next third and repeat four folds. Add the last third and do the four folds. No, it’s not mixed. No, that’s not a problem. Flour, remember?

You’re going to do what you did with the batter, but do it with the flour. One third, four folds, one third, four folds, last third, four folds. Now take a moment to look. Everything should be mostly mixed. If it’s not, do a few more folds. Don’t go for perfection, and if in doubt stop short. As a guide, anything unmixed that’s smaller than a grape doesn’t matter.

Carefully pour/scrape the mix from the bowl to your pan. Gently shake it to level, and put it in the middle of a 350F oven. It’s going to bake for an hour and ten to an hour and thirty minutes depending on, well, your oven and how ‘dry’ you whipped the whites. You test for done by putting a toothpick in the center and removing it. If the toothpick comes out damp, go for longer. (don’t go more than five minutes regardless how damp. My experience is it goes from damp to done suddenly.)

Pull out the cake and let it cool for ten minutes before you try to pull it from the pan.

Before I close, let me make a few ‘finish’ comments. The big one is “how light is this cake, anyway?” It depends. It depends on the flour you used (cake flour is lighter than bread is lighter than all purpose…) and how well you built and maintained bubbles. What you put in the pan as batter isn’t going to lift a whole lot more — maybe 25%.

However, barring a cake with no bubbles whatsoever, it’s always a good cake. No, not kidding, not trying to soothe feelings. I had one that was HEAVY – not much more lift than you’d get out of a brownie – but worked great as a ‘bread’ for a dessert sandwich. (Two slices. Fill with mascarpone, honey, and fruit. If you MUST guild the lily, put it on a plate and top with a bit of preserves of the same fruit.)

ALSO… I like the high lift of the soft peaks. Feel free to stop with froth – mostly clear standing bubbles. If you do, just stir that into the batter — what you’ve got doesn’t need folding at that point and instead will just lighten the batter. Yes, you still want to fold the flour in.

It’s a classic. Butter, sugar, eggs, and just enough flour to give it a fixed structure. Enjoy.

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