- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 21, 2003

I think about Sir Edmund Hillary, the young beekeeper with his sturdy New Zealand mountain-climbing-trained body, scaling Mount Everest. I wish I were in as good shape for my quest.

My journey is a little smaller. I’m in search of the perfect poundcake. The original was a pound each of flour, sugar, fat and eggs, but such a pound cake is a bit dry. With modern flour and fat, we can make a moister cake. So that was my Everest — to produce a good-looking and moist poundcake prepared as a loaf. The shape presented an additional challenge because a beautiful loaf cake is much more difficult to produce than layers or a Bundt.

For a successful cake, the structural ingredients (flour and eggs, which contain the proteins) and the tenderizers (sugar and fat) need to be in balance. Too much flour or egg and the cake will be dry and tough. Too much sugar or fat and the cake will not set.

Years ago, bakers worked out three poundcake formulas to perfectly balance the ingredients. The first formula dictated that the weight of the sugar must be equal to the weight of the flour; put another way, one structure maker and one structure breaker had to be in perfect balance.

The second formula called for the weight of the eggs to be equal to the weight of the fat. For this, the toughening effect of the eggs is balanced by the tenderizing effect of the fat.

The third formula commanded that the weight of the liquid (including the eggs) had to be equal to the weight of the sugar. There had to be enough liquid to dissolve the sugar without taking the liquid that is needed to swell the starch in the flour.

Classic poundcake (which tends to be a little dry) fits the three formulas perfectly. A pound of sugar equals a pound of flour. A pound of eggs equals a pound of fat. A pound of eggs (the only liquid) equals a pound of sugar.

But ingredients improved. Flour for cakes is now ground finer (resulting in more surface for absorption) and is bleached by chlorination. Fat adheres to chlorinated starch, producing a better-combined batter. Some fats now contain emulsifiers, which can better hold together the cake’s fat and liquids.

Using improved ingredients, bakers can now make cakes moister and sweeter. The emulsifiers allow more liquid, and with more liquid, you can have more sugar. In regular, or lean, cakes, the weight of the sugar equals the weight of the flour. The amount of sugar in a modern cake is frequently 125 percent of the weight of the flour, with a maximum of about 140 percent.

So new formulas have evolved. Instead of the weight of the sugar equaling the weight of the fat, the formula has become the weight of the sugar equals or exceeds the weight of the flour. The second formula is the weight of the eggs exceeds the weight of the fat. Because we can use more liquid now, the final formula has changed to the weight of the liquid (including eggs) equaling or exceeding the weight of the sugar. Sugar should not exceed 90 to 95 percent of the liquid.

These new combinations are called high-ratio formulas, indicating that they have a higher ratio of sugar to flour. Armed with such high-ratio formulas, I can add moisture to my pound cakes. Since they have no liquid other than the eggs, classic pound cakes need no leavening. However, since I plan to add some liquid, I will need a little leavening.

For a dense pound cake, it is vital to beat as much air into the batter as possible. In the traditional creaming method, air is beaten into the butter, the sugar is added and beating continues. Through these two steps, fine air bubbles are beaten into the batter, but once the eggs are added, the leavening increase stops.

The British have a mixing method called the flour batter method, in which fat and an equal weight of flour are beaten together in one bowl and the eggs and an equal weight of sugar are beaten in another bowl. I reasoned that if I beat the fat alone until it was light, then beat in the flour, I would incorporate even more fine air bubbles. This was more trouble, but the batter it produced was magnificently smooth, and the cake rose beautifully. It had a well-domed top with a nice break down the center, exposing the buttery interior in contrast to the browned surface. It was truly a beautiful loaf cake.

Here are a couple of other things I learned: You can better aerate a larger batter than a small one. So it is best to make two loaf cakes or one Bundt pan or tube cake.

Cakes made in a Bundt pan or tube pan are very forgiving. If you have a recipe that is moist and delicious but makes sunken loaf cakes, it may look just fine in a Bundt pan.

Breathtakingly beautiful poundcake

These loaf cakes are more trouble than a cake made by creaming the butter and sugar together, but when you see how beautiful they are, you will see that it was worth it. Home cooks can use cake flour or White Lily, which is a finely ground, lightly chlorinated flour. Supermarket shortenings contain some emulsifiers but not as much as those used by professional bakers. So I used egg yolks, nature’s great emulsifiers, to produce a better cake.

Nonstick cooking spray and flour for greasing pan

6 ounces butter, sliced into tablespoon-size pieces

cup butter-flavor shortening

5 egg yolks, plus 4 eggs, divided

33/4 cups White Lily or cake flour (see note)

23/4 cup sugar

teaspoon salt

teaspoon vanilla

teaspoon almond extract

teaspoon lemon extract

Zest of one lemon

3/4 cup buttermilk

1 teaspoon baking powder

Soaking glaze (recipe follows)

Place a pizza stone or heavy baking sheet on a shelf in the lowest third of the oven, and preheat to 350 degrees. Spray 2 8-by-4-by-2-inch loaf pans with nonstick cooking spray and sprinkle with flour.

In a small, deep mixing bowl, beat butter and shortening on medium speed until light and fluffy. After a couple of minutes, place bowl in the freezer for 5 minutes, remove and continue beating. (You want to mix for a total of at least 5 minutes, but you must make sure the fat does not get warm.)

Beat in 5 egg yolks. Then add, a little at a time, 1 cups flour. Beat 1 to 2 minutes on medium. Transfer mixture to a mixing bowl that will hold 12 cups of batter, and refrigerate until needed.

Beat remaining 4 eggs with 3/4 cup of sugar and 2 tablespoons water. Beat about 1 minute until sugar is dissolved and mixture is pale and light.

Remove fat-flour mixture from the refrigerator. On low speed, mix in egg-sugar mixture, adding one quarter at a time, and continue beating to combine.

In a medium mixing bowl, stir together remaining 2 cups flour and 2 cups sugar. Spoon of this onto batter, and blend on low speed.

In a glass measuring cup, combine salt, vanilla, almond, lemon extracts and lemon zest with buttermilk. Stir baking powder into buttermilk, and immediately beat ⅓ of buttermilk mixture into batter.

Beat in about of the remaining flour-sugar mixture. Then beat in remaining buttermilk mixture and remaining flour-sugar mixture. Divide batter evenly between two prepared pans but do not fill more than 3/4 full. Level batter in each pan, then drop each pan onto the counter from a height of about 4 inches to knock out bubbles. Place both pans on baking stone or sheet in oven. Close oven door as quickly as possible. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out dry, 45 to 60 minutes.

While cakes are baking, prepare soaking glaze.

When cakes are done, remove from oven. Immediately punch many holes in both with a wooden skewer or long toothpick while the cakes are still hot. Spoon soaking glaze over each, a little at a time, to get as much as possible to soak in.

Allow to stand in the pans 10 minutes before removing. Tap the edge of the pan on the counter to loosen the cakes from the edges before attempting to remove. Makes 2 cakes.

Note: Flour should be measured by spooning it into a metal measuring cup and leveling it off with a flat edge. A cup should weigh 4 ounces.


Zest and juice of 1 large lemon

teaspoon lemon extract

1 cup superfine sugar

In a small saucepan, stir zest, lemon juice, lemon extract and sugar into 1 cup water. Heat over medium heat while stirring until sugar dissolves. Reheat briefly just before spooning onto cake. Makes about 1 cups glaze.


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