Wednesday, January 16, 2013

My first day with Rose: Pound cakes 101

I never wanted to make pound cake.  I can't say for certain what I have against them.  They're rather harmless (if you overlook the mounds of butter that go into making them), dull creatures.  Maybe that's what it is: pound cakes are ... well ... boring.

But Rose said to bake a pound cake*, sbake a pound cake I did. 
(* To be exact, in her book The Cake Bible, Rose describes the pound cake recipe as the "basic formula from which all other butter cakes evolve."  If I wanted to start with the basics in cake making, it was clear to me that I would have to make a pound cake.)

Each of Rose's cake recipes include some steps that I don't often come across in other recipes.  First, flour is sifted. Sifting areates the flour, separating the particles so that the flour can absorb liquids more evenly.  This adds volume to the cake, making it light and airy. 

I've never sifted flour in all my years of baking, although I do recall a sifter amongst my mother's kitchen utensils.  It was one of those old-fashioned kinds with a squeeze handle (I can still hear the squeak, squeak sounds that it made).  Having suffered many a pinched finger while playing with it as a child, I learned long ago that sifters are not gentle on the hand.  It's no wonder I don't own one. 

Rose's cake recipes also call for a two-stage method of mixing batter, which contrasts with the more prevalent creaming method.  Under the two-stage method, once the flour has been sifted, all of the dry ingredients are mixed together first.  Then and only then are the fats (e.g., butter) and the liquids (e.g., eggs, milk) incorporated.  Rose explains that the first stage helps to disperse the dry ingredients more evenly (there are no liquids or fats to cause lumps).  In the second stage, all the fat and some of the liquids are added to the dry ingredients.  This is designed to inhibit the formation of gluten.  Gluten forms when flour is agitated in the presence of moisture.  However, because the fat is added to the flour with a minimum amount of liquid, it is able to coat the gluten-forming proteins in the flour, preventing excessive gluten when the other liquids are later added (too much gluten forms a tough cake).  Under the creaming method, on the other hand, the fat and sugar are creamed together as a first step before other dry ingredients are added.  Rose's approach is simpler, faster, and easier; and the results, I can attest, are far better.  More on the results in a bit. 

Rose's recipes also call for cake flour.  Cake flour has finer granulation than all-purpose flour, and so it absorbs fat and moisture more quickly.  It is also often bleached with chlorine, which serves to inhibit gluten formation, yielding a cake with a soft, tender crumb.

The morning of my first day in the kitchen with Rose, I am a bit of a nervous mess.  Rose starts her book with these words: "Perfect cakes can be achieved by any cook who is careful and who is willing to follow recipe directions."  She has also entitled her pound cake recipe "The Perfect Pound Cake."  I take all these signs to mean that if my pound cake doesn't come out perfectly, there is clearly something wrong with me.

I want to start my Year of Baking with flying colors.  There is no way I am going to bake a subpar cake, albeit a pound cake.  So with all of the confidence I can muster, I get to work.

The first step is easy enough: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  I am stumped however by the second line: In a medium bowl lightly combine the milk, eggs, and vanilla.  "Lightly combine?"  What could that mean?  Do I mix?  Or whisk?  And if I mix, at what speed?  I start to panic a little.  I decide to whisk, just a little.  After that I breeze through the instructions.  The step on preparing the pan gives me pause, however: If using a loaf pan, grease it, line the bottom with parchment or wax paper, and then grease again and flour.  That seems like an excessive amount of greasing.  Is it really necessary?  But I'm not about to question Rose so early in the year.  Besides, it's hard to argue with the bible.
The pound cake takes 55 minutes to bake.  I find it an awfully long time to see how I did.  I take it out of the oven.  I eye it skeptically.  It looks and smells good.  It has a golden hue and the sweet fragrance of vanilla and sugar.  Once it's cooled on the rack, Greg nudges me.  It's morning, and neither of us have eaten yet.  He's hungry, and curious.  I am, too.  We both take a bite.  I am thrilled, though not at all surprised, to report that the recipe didn't disappoint.  Or rather, that I didn't disappoint Rose (or myself).  Just as Rose described, it is tender, moist, and light.  She suggests eating it plain, or with a dusting of powdered sugar.  And served at room temperature.  I find it goes deliciously well topped with Sarabeth's strawberry raspberry preserve.  

So, is my mind changed about pound cakes?  It is evening and I am still unsure as to whether pound cake can be anything but boring.  I have some friends over for dinner.  They bring over an apple pie, and the pound cake stays in the fridge.  As they are leaving, I mention I've baked and ask if they'd like to take some pound cake home with them.  They eagerly accept. "Are you sure?!" I nearly blurt out.  Instead, I smile sweetly and wrap a large slice for them.  

The next morning, I have another slice for breakfast.  I smile.  It hits me (albeit belatedly): this is by far the best pound cake I've ever eaten. The cake -- in color, texture, and taste -- *is* perfect.  And that's all that matters as I finish off my slice with some tea.  

Perfect Pound Cake
Recipe from The Cake Bible, by Rose Levy Beranbaum

Room temperature
3 tablespoons milk
3 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cups sifted cake flour
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
13 tablespoons unsalted butter (must be softened)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium bowl lightly combine the milk, eggs, and vanilla.

In a large mixing bowl combine the dry ingredients and mix on low speed for 30 seconds to blend.  Add the butter and half the egg mixture.  Mix on low speed until the dry ingredients are moistened.  Increase to medium speed and beat for 1 minute to aerate and develop the cake's structure.

Scrape down the sides.  Gradually add the remaining egg mixture in 2 batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition to incorporate the ingredients.  Scrape down the sides.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan* and smooth the surface with a spatula.  Bake 55 to 65 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Cover loosely with buttered foil after 30 minutes to prevent overbrowning.
*If using a loaf pan, grease it, line the bottom with parchment or wax paper, and then grease again and flour.

Let the cake cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes and invert it onto a greased wire rack.  If baked in a loaf pan, to keep the bottom from splitting, reinvert so that the top is up and cool completely before wrapping airtight.

Serve at room temperature.

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