A Pound Cake is a rich, dense cake. It can be plain, or have flavouring extracts or citrus rind added to it. There is no leavener in the cake, just the air whipped into the batter while making it.
A Pound Cake is made from equal portions of butter, egg, sugar and flour. The purest, oldest recipes contain nothing more than that.
The recipe originally contained 1 pound each of butter, flour, sugar and eggs (about 8 large eggs weighing 2 oz each), thus the name “pound.” More modern recipes may vary what the “equal portion” is, and / or include baking powder, and some liquid such as milk or alcohol.
In France, Brittany is particularly well-known for its Pound Cake. The French call Pound Cake “Quatre Quarts”, which means “four fourths”, referring to the equal portions of eggs, flour, sugar and butter. The French version is the same as the English, with even the modern French recipes reaching for baking powder, but in the French mind, there’s less emphasis on the pound of each (which would be hard, considering that the French haven’t used pounds since the 1780s), but rather equal portions. You start out by weighing how many eggs you are going to use, and then weigh out the same amounts of flour, sugar and butter. For instance, you’d weigh out 2 large eggs, and find that they come to 100 g. So you’d use 100 g each of flour, sugar and butter. (If the eggs weigh something like 95 g or 107 g, you round up or down to the nearest practical number to work with.)
The French versions are more likely to have the egg whites beaten separately. English-speaking cooks tend to add the eggs whole. Both approaches have their pro and con: if you separate the eggs and beat the whites separately, you will get a lighter cake, but it will be less moist than a recipe in which the eggs were added whole. Whatever the approach, the eggs should be room temperature before starting so that more air will get into them.
Recipes for Pound Cake or commercially-made Pound Cakes that say “all butter” aren’t exactly accurate: if it were all butter, it would just be a block of butter weighing a pound. Obviously, there’s other ingredients such as flour in these cakes. What they mean, though, is that for the fat, all butter was used, instead of other commercial fats such as margarine, etc.
In French-speaking parts of the Caribbean, particularly in places such as Martinique and Guadeloupe, Pound Cake with rum added is served on Christmas Eve. Sometimes a mashed, ripe banana is added as well for extra moistness. There, too, as in France, the egg whites will be beaten separately.
In the UK, Pound Cakes tend to be made round. In North America, it is more common to bake them in a loaf pan.
To make a Pound Cake, you beat the butter and sugar until they are light and creamy, then add the eggs one at a time and beat them in. Some recipes advise to alternative additions of the egg with additions of the flour; some say do all the egg first, then fold in the flour. Most recipes advise sifting the flour two or three times in advance to introduce air (this step is particularly important if you are using an authentic recipe with no baking powder; less important if you are using a modern recipe that calls for baking powder.)
The liquid in the recipe is supplied by the eggs. If the batter forms a thin coat on the back of a spoon, you have enough liquid. If it is thicker than that, you can add a bit of water or milk.
The starch in flour stiffens the butter, sugar and egg foam, and some gluten forms, which holds the cake together — you don’t want too much gluten to develop, though, or the cake will turn like bread. For this reason also, flour made from soft wheats is preferred (i.e. cake flour), as it has lower protein content from which to develop gluten.
You fold the flour in because you want to break as few as possible of the bubbles that you’ve worked hard to form — the folding also helps avoid developing too much gluten.
You cook at a moderate temperature, then remove from oven and let cool for an hour or so in the pans before turning out onto wire racks. It has to be baked in a moderate oven (about 350 F / 175 C); any hotter and the middle may not get cooked properly, as it is so dense.
Apply with favourite icing while still cooling so the icing melts a bit.
A typical British recipe:
250g (10oz) caster sugar
250g (10oz) room-temperature butter
5 lightly-beaten eggs *
250 g (10oz) self-rising flour
Pinch of salt
Grease 2 x 20cm (8 inch) cake pans; set aside.
Heat oven to 180 C / 350 F.
With an electric mixer, beat together in a large bowl the sugar and the butter until fluffy. Beat the eggs in, then fold in the flour just until all incorporated. Divide mixture evenly between the two greased cake pans, and pop in heated oven until a knife comes out of the cakes clean — about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove cakes from oven; let stand in cake pans for 10 minutes, then loosen the inside edges and turn out onto wire rack to cool.
* The assumption is that an egg will weigh abut 50g / 2 oz, thus 10 oz of egg
Pound Cake appears to have originated in the 1700s in England. Hannah Glasse provided directions for it in her “Art of Cookery” (published 1747.)
By the mid-1800s, Pound Cake recipes started to add liquids, and in the 1900s, baking powder was added to the recipes. And though butter, eggs, flour and sugar are still used, the proportions have been adjusted to make the cake less heavy.