In the past, pound cake took a heavy hand. So thick was the batter of equal parts butter, sugar, flour and eggs that 18th-century cookbook author Hannah Glasse advised beating the mixture for an hour with your hand or, if your hand got tired, a “great wooden spoon.”
Despite all the arduous flogging, early pound cakes never turned out light. Even with modern techniques—electric mixers are all but required—the buttery cake too often turns out leaden and dry.
That’s how pastry chef Kathryn King knew her grandmother’s pound cake was something worth stealing: It defied its propensity for density.
“My grandmother would make these lovely cakes,” King says. “She would take buttered slices and put them in a frying pan, toast the cake and then serve it with vanilla ice cream and some kind of fruit. I remember being a kid, just standing there—a lot lower to the stove than I am now—and watching her.”
That memory was the inspiration for the lemon-buttermilk pound cake at Atlanta’s Aria restaurant, where King is pastry chef. She did little to change her grandmother’s recipe—in fact, she confesses, “I stole it.”
At Aria, the cake is sliced, buttered, then toasted. Each wedge is served with custard, orange segments and vanilla ice cream, but the cake itself leaves the biggest impression. It has a pound cake’s characteristic richness, but a surprisingly light crumb.
At Milk Street, we discovered the secret to King’s recipe: The confection is hardly a pound cake at all.
Historically, pound cake recipes left out the leavener. Their lightness relied exclusively on beating air into the batter. Some traditionalists still adhere to that standard. This can take a lot of time, as Glasse described, and the resulting cake can be finicky.
But King separates her eggs, beating the yolks in with the butter—more typical of a sponge cake. And she gently whips the whites, folding them in just before pouring the batter into the pan. Those aerated whites build lightness into the cake. It’s another trick lifted from sponge cake-making (think angel food cake).
King also adds baking soda, as well as buttermilk and lemon juice. The tangy liquids add a slightly tart flavor, but they also contribute acid, which alkaline baking soda reacts with to produce carbon dioxide. That reaction expands air bubbles in the whipped whites, making laborious beating unnecessary.
In fact, King deliberately takes a gentler hand to creaming the butter and sugar. “If you overcream, the cake tends to deflate more easily with the extra incorporated air.” When we made the cake, we found the butter and sugar didn’t need to reach the typical shiny, smooth texture one usually gets when creaming.
One more twist of technique helps stabilize the cake: alternating the addition of liquid and dry ingredients to the butter and sugar. The slow blending incorporates and hydrates the batter more evenly. It’s another unconventional step for pound cake (which traditionally has no liquid), but one that’s common to other types, including many Bundt cakes.
Using King’s formula, we made minor tweaks to simplify our recipe. We whisked the dry ingredients instead of sifting them. We used a stand mixer to whip the egg whites and beat the batter. (King—like Violet bakery’s Claire Ptak—emphasizes the need to underwhip the whites, so they have soft peaks, not stiff ones.) And we were delighted to get the same rich, slightly spongy results as King and her grandmother before her.
For our own presentation, since homemade ice cream was out of the question, we dressed up the cake with little effort by using a Bundt pan. The rounded shape and the contrast between the cake’s golden-brown crust and pale-yellow interior gave the dessert simple elegance.
Sliced, buttered and toasted, the cake had the same warm, almost- creamy center it had at Aria. But we also loved it plain, with nothing more than a dollop of whipped cream.
The whipped egg whites and baking soda in Kathryn King’s cake may seem more at home in a sponge cake, but if you bite deeply enough, her hybridized dessert reveals pound cake’s distinguished lineage—and it begins with 17th-century cookies.
“Pound cake’s grandmothers are what we today would call butter cookies,” explains food historian Stephen Schmidt. Known as jumbles in Britain and sugar cakes in America, these cookies often contained rosewater and caraway. With more time and more liquid, they evolved from cookie dough into cake batter.
The direct descendants of these spiced butter cookies were, arguably, currant-studded Portugal cakes, another British dessert, likely named in honor of King Charles II’s Portuguese wife. The cakes had similar seasonings to the cookies—aniseed, caraway and rosewater. However, “they contained enough egg and rosewater to convert the dough to batter,” Schmidt says. “And, crucially, the batter was beaten by hand to aerate it.”
Like Portugal cake, early pound cakes called for rosewater. The ancient extract was a popular ingredient in Britain and America through the 19th century, when it was displaced by vanilla (which was rare before its commercialization in the late 1800s). So it’s not surprising that rosewater turns up in both pound cake recipes in Amelia Simmons’ 1796 “American Cookery,” the first cookbook published in America; one recipe calls for the potent substance to the tune of half a cup.
“Beat it all well together for an hour with your hand or a great wooden spoon.” — Hannah Glasse, 1747
But the Portugal cake also shared pound cake’s eponymous proportions: a pound each of butter, sugar, flour and eggs. Hannah Glasse’s formula, from 1747’s “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy,” is one of the earliest recorded recipes:
Take a pound of butter, beat it in an earthen pan with your hand one way, till it is like a fine thick cream, then have ready twelve eggs, but half the whites; beat them well, and beat them up with the butter, a pound of flour beat in it, a pound of sugar, and a few carraways [sic]. Beat it all well together for an hour with your hand, or a great wooden spoon, butter a pan and put it in, and then bake it an hour in a quick oven.
Because pound cakes kept well and even improved as they sat, they enjoyed popularity over the centuries throughout Northern Europe and the U.S. In Brittany, and later throughout France, it went by quatre-quarts (“four quarters”). The Viennese version is known as Gleichgewicht (“equal weight”), and the German variety is called Eischwerkuchen (“egg-heavy cake”). All of these so-called “plain” cakes were loved for their wonderfully buttery flavor. But, as Glasse reminds us, the hidden ingredient that turned a good plain cake into an excellent one was not equal proportions but muscle power.
Well into the 20th century, cooks deployed the basic method of creaming butter and sugar and whipping them with eggs as the only way of incorporating air into the cake. Even after chemical leaveners changed cake-making in the 19th century—lightening cakes as if by magic—many home bakers continued to prepare pound cakes the traditional way.