February Pound Cake Project, Take Four: 18th Century Pound Cake

by moderndomestic on February 28, 2009

Historic Pound Cake

A pound cake straight out of history.

I made this pound cake because one of my friends was horrified at the complexity of Shirley O’Corriher’s 15 ingredient Frankenstein-like pound cake. My friend hates fussy recipes, and was more interested in how a classic pound cake, made with a pound of sugar, flour, eggs and butter, would stand up against these modern scientific creations.

After some internet sleuthing, I came across a pound cake recipe in The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy, by Hannah Glasse. Published in 1741, this book made Glasse into a Martha Stewart of the 18th century English-speaking world. Glasse pioneered a simple, straightforward instructional style in her recipes, and her extensive cookbook profoundly influenced the cooking of the United Kingdom and the American colonies.

You can see her characteristically friendly style in the pound cake recipe:

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 it in, a pound of sugar, and a few carraways. 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.

As soon as I read it I decided to cut the recipe in half, since there was no way that a pound of butter, sugar, flour, and twelve eggs would fit in my loaf pan. I also omitted the “carraways” (caraway seeds, as far as I could tell), since I didn’t want to make a special trip to the store.

After relying so heavily on the Kitchen Aid mixer, making a cake entirely by hand was quite an experience. First of all, I don’t have a wooden spoon, and my silicone spatula was difficult to use to cream the butter, as the top kept on flopping around. Fortunately, I own a (rather crappy) kitchen scale, so I was able to weigh out the butter and flour without any problems.

As for the beating it for an hour? It was kind of fun. Granted, Hannah Glasse wasn’t able to sit and watch three episodes of The Office while she beat her pound cake batter, so I suppose that wasn’t the most historically appropriate choice. What I liked about beating the batter by hand is that it forced me to see the subtle changes in its consistency. When I first started mixing the batter was so thick that I could barely stir the stuff. By but the end the batter was thinner and glossier, looking much more like a cake batter than a cookie batter.

Historic Pound Cake Batter

The batter, half way through the hour of beating. Yes, my arm was really tired.

The cake itself was interesting from a research perspective, but not something I’d make again. First of all, there was something off about the batter, because the top part never quite baked through, even though I left it in the oven for an extra half an hour (the edges were slightly burned as a result, as you can see from the photo). The texture was odd – it was extremely crumbly and dry, with a very tight crumb that left my mouth feeling parched. And the taste was overwhelmingly, tooth-achingly sweet.

Historic Pound Cake Slice

As you can see, the batter didn't quite cook all the way through.

Still, it was a fun experiment, and made me appreciate the wonders of modern kitchen science. I would definitely make a historic recipe again, for nothing more than it gave my arms a great work out.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

culinspiration March 18, 2009 at 9:11 am

I always wondered how a true “pound” cake would turn out. Thanks so much for trying and sharing this!!

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