After being away for the weekend, I had one night to bake three pound cakes for Tyler's medieval feast at school. Not an overly lofty goal, some may say. For me, however, it felt a little bit like shooting for the moon. I am, most decidedly, not a baker. I love cooking, but the precision required in baking gets me a little uptight sometimes. If you're not a seasoned pro, there is no adding a dash of this, and a dollop of that, and certainly an uncomfortably small margin of error allowed. Feel my shoulders tensing up as I type this.
Until a few years ago, I was quite content to stick within my comfort zone, food-wise. Cooking allows me to do this, easily. Most mistakes are readily corrected. Add a bit more salt to awaken the flavors, a squeeze of lemon to brighten things up, a spoonful of sugar to cut the spice. But baking? Too many rules for the rebel in me to feel at ease, I suppose.
The mister comes from a family that digs their desserts. Pretty much daily, at least once, if not more often. Always a biscuit, or a bakewell tart with tea in the afternoon. Often a cake of some sort after dinner. And, as I'm fairly committed to making my family's food, myself, and prefer to know exactly which ingredients we're putting into our bodies, I began taking the baking thing on. What it comes down to for me, the hard part, is sticking to the exact recipe, and following instructions. Word for word.
So, having developed a fairly solid relationship with Dorie Greenspan's wonderful recipes, I opted to go for her Perfection Pound Cake, from Baking: From My Home to Yours. The mister questioned my sanity, if only briefly (knowing that I'd stubbornly stick to my guns), by stating that the effort would be wasted on third graders. Of course, he's probably right. But hey, I needed to get a recipe on here, right? Thus, I found myself, after dinner, mixing up a triple batch of Perfection Pound Cake that would hopefully make it to school in one (or three) pieces. And would hopefully be enjoyed by some unlikely food critics. That is, a classroom of third graders.
Here's the rub. (Aside from the part about me struggling with following recipes, word for bloody word.) A smallish kitchen. A lack of stand mixer. My largest mixing bowl not large enough to beat 6 sticks of butter, a dozen eggs, and 3 cups of sugar. And to top it off, and make things really interesting, an oven that can be compared to a geriatric old man, given a double dose of Viagra. Which is to say, it takes some serious incentive to get warmed up, but when it does, hold on baby! This oven has no regard for propriety, that heat is going hard, and isn't about to be held back by such silly things as temperature gauges. (Okay, perhaps an off-putting metaphor, but it made sense to me last night. The very sincerest of apologies to the more faint-hearted, or easily offended, of you out there.)
Putting my creative side to good use, I creamed the butter and sugar in my largest stock pot. Which wasn't easy, but it worked. Nice and light, and perfectly fluffy.
Then I added those dozen eggs, one by one, and beat, beat, beat. That was a damn lot of eggs, I tell you.
Then, having only two 8 1/2" x 4 1/2" loaf pans, batch one went into the oven, which was behaving with quite decent manners so far. Dorie, in her lengthy, and helpful, tips on perfect pound cakes, recommends baking slowly, at a low heat, with the pans atop an insulated baking sheet. Done, and done! The first batch (and we sampled, obviously, because I had enough batter for four cakes), baked for an hour and a half at 325 degrees, was beautiful. Moist, pleasantly dense, with a fine crumb. Lightly sweet, buttery goodness. As near to Perfection as I was going to get.
I was getting a little cocky. And a lot tired.
Batch two: not quite the screaming success of the first batch. I'd hit the proverbial wall, was questioning my sanity, as well as wondering where my cool, up til the wee hours self of the past had disappeared to. And I made the mistake of upping the heat to 350 degrees, in a rather misguided attempt to speed things along. (There's that second dose of Viagra!) The oven thermometer shot up to near 400, midway through baking time, and short of leaving the oven door open, I could not get the temperature to drop. So, once that knife came out clean, after about an hour of baking, I put the last two seemingly fine, if a bit darker than the two preceding, cakes on the cooling rack, covered them with a tea towel, and said to hell with it. I'm going to bed.
They were a bit hard this morning. Oops. Lesson learned.
My sweet mister did point out that the kids are studying the medieval times, after all. And these were probably still a far sight better than what folks were eating back then. Probably.
Having said that, here's the recipe. Learn from my mistakes. Follow it. Exactly. Word for bloody word. And you will have a lovely, almost Perfect Pound Cake. (Perhaps don't attempt to bake multiple batches either, if you have a dirty old man for an oven. You don't want to have to go medieval on anyone's ahems.)
Perfection Pound Cake - adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours, by Dorie Greenspan
2 cups all-purpose flour, or 2 1/4 cups cake flour (I used all-purpose)
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
2 sticks (8 oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
Okay, first off, and this is a biggie. Really make sure that your eggs and butter are at room temperature. Leave them out on the counter for a few hours. This gives the cake it's lift and fine crumb, because warmer ingredients blend more readily than those that are chilled.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter an 8 1/2 x 4 1/2 inch, or a 9x5 inch loaf pan. Place the pan atop an insulated baking sheet, or two regular baking sheets. This saves the bottom from browning too quickly.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.
With a stand mixer (sigh, I wish), or a large bowl and electric hand mixer, beat butter and sugar on high speed until pale and fluffy, a full 5 minutes. Scrape down the bowl, and and reduce mixer speed to medium. Add eggs one at a time, and beat 1-2 minutes, until each is fully incorporated. Mix in vanilla extract.
If you're using a stand mixer (sigh), turn speed to low, and add flour, mixing only until it's just incorporated. If not, put aside the hand mixer, and mix in the flour with a rubber spatula, adding it in thirds, until just incorporated. Don't overmix, or you'll have a tough cake. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, and place in oven.
At 45 minutes in, check to see that you're cake isn't browning too quickly. If it is, loosely tent it with foil. If you're baking in a 9x5 inch pan, it needs a total of 70-75 minutes baking. If 8 1/2 x 4 1/2, it'll need about 90 minutes total. Check in on it! Especially if you possess a nasty, maladjusted old fart like my oven. The cake is done when a thin knife, inserted into the center, comes out clean.
Let rest for 30 minutes in the pan, on a cooling rack. Okay, this is what Dorie recommends. I, terrible recipe follower that I am, and impatient to get my second round in the oven, let it rest for 10 minutes, and it was fine. I'd go with Dorie, to be safe, though. She kind of has more experience in these things than I do.
Lovely with a few strawberries, and an espresso. I even, in all my sleep-deprived craziness, dunked a piece into my espresso...oh yum. Dorie likes to serve hers, she says, sliced thinly, with a chunky fruit jam on the side. Or ice cream. Whipped cream and berries.
Oh, the possibilities are endless...enjoy! And mind the recipe, folks!