Nancy Silverton was standing in one of those beautiful Paris bakeries where the wares look more like jewelry than anything you can actually eat, admiring the perfection of a poundcake.
“Look at the shape!” Nancy was saying just as the baker sauntered past. “See how straight the crack down the middle is?” She looked at the baker and asked, “You slit it with a knife while it’s in the oven, right?” The baker shook his head. “Oh no, Madam,” he said, “the perfect crack? That is my secret.”
Nancy laughed. “I guess he used a different implement,” she said. “But he had to use something to get the line to stay that straight. I learned that at Lenotre.”
The baker was a liar, but we bought his cake anyway. I’ve always admired the simplicity of poundcake, whose name comes from the recipe, which was originally a pound of butter, a pound of flour, a pound of sugar and a pound of eggs. It’s a versatile cake that is richly delicious but also easily adaptable. You can serve it with berries and cream, you make it into trifle, you can toast it and serve it with jam. It’s an easy cake - and one that is easy to make better – lighter, fluffier, more delicate.
1. Have all your ingredients at room temperature; cold ingredients do not blend evenly.
2. Since butter is one of the primary flavors in this cake, use good sweet butter with high butterfat content. I also prefer cultured butter (like Echirre or Plugra), which impart a wonderful complexity of flavor.
3. Beat the butter very well in a stand mixer- at least five minutes - and add the sugar slowly. Then beat some more. Keep scraping the bowl down.
4. Add the eggs one at a time. These are your major leavening, so you want to incorporate as much air as possible to make the cake really puff. I like to beat each egg for a full two minutes before adding the next one.
5. Use cake flour. It will make your cake more tender.
6. When it’s time to add the flour, remove the bowl from the mixer and do it by hand, gently folding the flour in. Stop as soon as the flour is incorporated into the butter and egg mixture; keeping as light a hand as possible here will make keep the cake wonderfully delicate.
7. If you want a beautiful crack down the middle, melt a little butter. When the cake has been in the oven for 10 minutes and the top is just starting to form a crust, dip a sharp knife into the butter and quickly draw it lengthwise down the middle of the cake. It will form a perfectly picturesque crack.
Makes 1 two-pound cake
8 ounces sweet butter
1 cup sugar
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Prep: Preheat your oven to 350⁰F. Generously butter a 9”x5” loaf pan.
Beat: Beat the butter at high speed in a stand mixture until it’s fluffy and starting to look white, about 5 minutes. Slowly add the sugar, a bit at a time, and keep beating, scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula from time to time. Add the first egg and beat for 2 minutes. Add the next egg, beat for 2 minutes, and so on until all the eggs are mixed in. Scrape down the bowl often. Add the vanilla.
Add dry to wet: Remove the butter mixture from the stand mixer. In a separate bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together, and then gently fold them into the butter mixture.
Bake and score: Pour into the loaf pan and smooth the top. Bake for 10 minutes, until a crust just starts to form. Remove the cake from the oven, coat a sharp knife in melted butter and use it to draw a line lengthwise down the middle of the top of the cake.
Keep baking: Bake for 60-70 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
Cool and store: Let rest on a rack for 10 minutes before turning out of the pan and allowing to completely cool on a rack. If you’re going to keep it overnight, wrap well in plastic or foil when it’s cooled.