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Pound for Pound

September 28, 2005

There's a sense these days that anyone would favor a pie over a cake, and I think I know why. Pies don't tempt household cooks to scrimp on ingredients. That's why pies generally taste better.

If it's apples, it's apples, and most people don't think a half a cup of sugar in something is "too much." So it is for lemon and blueberry and a host of other pies made from fruit. As for the seasonal pumpkin pie, it's just vegetables in a crust, so who is to complain? Even pecan lives in the age of the decline of dessert, since most people think corn syrup is not objectionable, even if the pecan pie requires two cups.

But cake? People don't have the stomach to make a good one anymore. So we buy ice-cream "cakes" for birthdays for kids and otherwise don't bother. When people do bother to bake a cake, they succumb to the temptation to substitute ingredients. Instead of butter, they use margarine or mezoline spreads of whipped smear stuff of some sort or another. And then they cut back the sugar, and use the strange sugar-like chemicals. And perhaps instead of eggs, its "egg beaters" or who knows what. Pretty soon, there's nothing left but a vague cake-shaped object.

The cake seems to have fallen on hard times indeed! We eat them when we are at buffets and civic events when they are available on paper plates, but that's because we weren't there to see them being made. Cakes have become like sausage: we love it but don't want to know about the process, much less undertake it ourselves.

This is why the world's greatest cake — I speak of the Pound Cake of course — is so hard to come by American homes these days. It is contrary to the prevailing ethos, which is all about "substitutes" rather than the real thing. We spritz our pans with veggy oil rather than lard them as we should. We use fractioned rather than whole milk. We fear flour as if it is poison.

Modern civilization has given us glorious ingredients at our fingertips, all of us wherever we are, and what do we do but ungratefully spurn them all as if real food is nothing but a conspiracy to cut our lives short. Then when nature calls us to eat as we should, we give in to temptation and eat ice cream and candy bars in private as if we are partaking in secret sins.

What a dreadful life this puritanical attitude of mind leads to!

The pound cake is the key to breaking this cycle of false piety followed by guilt. It is the cake that embraces our age and says yes to life and love.

To begin with, you have to appreciate a food with a history to its name. In the middle ages, the term cake itself referred to a bread that was sweetened. According to this history, the pound cake dates to the early 18th century, and was favored because its ingredients were easy to remember: one pound each of four things. It was improved immeasurably (in my view) by the invention of rising agents in the 19th century.

Then it became an international food.

In France: Gâteau Quatre-Quarts.

In Spain: Queque Seco.

In Germany: Sandkuchen

Traditions, even international ones stretching back centuries, are great but never decisive. What convinces you of the pound cake's magnificence is the tasting. Here we have the perfect dessert treat. It is subtle, balanced, and robust. The texture is spongy but not flaky. It is moist without having the uncooked pudding-like quality you get from those "extra-moist" box jobs you get at the store. Nor it is puffy and dry as so many homemade cakes can be (a result of pulling back on essential ingredients).

The other stopping point for many people today is the name Pound Cake, which sounds like something that will put on pounds. It might as well be called calorie cake or scale-busting cake or make-you-fat cake.

So let us be clear: the pound part refers not to its effects but to its ingredients. Now, to be sure, making it is not for the faint of heart.

Pound one: You know those boxes of butter that have four sticks of butter in them? You will use the whole box.

Pound number two: do you know how much sugar is required to weigh in at a pound? Two cups.

Pound number three: Are you worried about your cholesterol intake from too many eggs? This cake requires half a dozen. That's half a carton.

Pound number four: flour, Dr. Atkins, and three full cups!

If that sound alarming to you, and you aren't prepare to face the reality that making something astonishingly delicious requires these ingredients, do not read further. If you would rule out making this just on grounds of its decadent ingredients alone, drop out of this article right now. You can continue to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution, as is your right.

But for those who want to take history in their hands, help bend it back toward sanity in cooking and taste in eating, the Pound Cake can recapture our history and lead us to the future.

The Pound Cake can be eaten by itself, or with coffee or hot chocolate. It can have a side of sweeten fruit or ice cream. It can be glazed with sugar or merely dusted with powered sugar. It can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or after dinner. Can you imagine this as a midnight snack? Even the thinnest slice is satisfying.

After trying other variations, here is the one I settled on (pounds rendered here as normal measurements):

Mixed dry ingredients: 3 cups flour, ½ tsp. salt, ½ tsp. baking soda, 1 tsp baking powder, 2 cups of sugar. Pour in 4 sticks of melted butter, 2 tsps. vanilla, and stir lightly. Add ½ cup of sour cream, ¼ milk, and six eggs. Blend on slow. Bake in tube pan, buttered and floured, at 325 for 1 hour and 20 minutes, or until toothpick comes out clean. Cool for half an hour.

Now I ask you: wouldn't you choose this cake over a pie?


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