Friday, September 03, 2010

Heart Of Pound Cake ...

There exists, in my kitchen, a heart of darkness.

Perhaps the heart of darkness. Perhaps Joseph Conrad wasn't really writing about Marlow and Kurtz and the Congo.

Or perhaps the last words of Kurtz – "The horror! The horror!" – were not about his savagery.

Perhaps they were about pound cake.

Pound cake, lowly, unassuming pound cake, calls to me. It is not fancy. It is not fine. It makes you think that it is humble.

But it lies.

I consider myself a somewhat accomplished baker. My family and friends would agree. Likewise, my mother is skilled in the art of baking. Much of what I know I learned from her.

If there is a gene that regulates the ability to make pound cake, we do not have it.

My aunt Stana had it. Her Imperial pound cake, so named for the margarine called for in the recipe, not a regime, was the cake of legends. Made in a tube pan with a layer of ground walnuts on the bottom before the batter was baked, which then became the top, and cut into wedges, it was sturdy yet light, the pound cake ideal.

My mother has tried to replicate it. We have done research. We have tried butter and margarine of varying temperatures, cold eggs, room-temperature eggs, folding the flour, every possible thing.

And every time, the cakes did not rise.

Mind you, they rose slightly, but they would not rise as we knew they should.

Mom moved on. She enjoys great success with many baked goods. Those who know of it clamor for her nut roll.

But the other day, a friend posted a link to a story that featured a pound cake, a simple, loaf-shaped pound cake, the most unassuming of them all.

And I was overcome with desire. I wanted pound cake.

I needed pound cake.

And so yesterday, I bought a box of cake flour – for all my baking skill, I do not often bake cakes, so cake flour does not live with my baking supplies – and followed the Cook's Illustrated recipe for Classic Pound Cake. I followed it to the letter. I even used my digital kitchen scale to weigh the sugar and flour, to be exact.

The batter was ethereal, a sugar-scented cloud. I smoothed it into the loaf pan. I set it lovingly smack dab in the middle of my oven. I stepped away gingerly, as if it were a souffle.

I waited the interminable time it takes for pound cake to bake. Pound cake will not be rushed.

Later, I stepped back to the oven, turned on the light, and peered through the window. It was climbing up the pan, but it was not rising properly in the center. I told myself that the rising came later. I continued to wait.

The timer rang. I opened the door.

My pound cake had risen beyond the pan, but it was flat.

It would not be sturdy yet light. It would be heavy.

Like my heart.

Where had I gone wrong?

I removed the pan to a wire rack to let the cake cool for the indicated 15 minutes.

I reread the recipe. The only mistake I must have made was letting the butter get just a little too soft. It needs to stay very cool. Alas.

Just before the timer rang, I turned the cake out of its pan and righted it between two wire racks.

It released perfectly, butterscotch-scented and -hued. Perfect, but for the flatness.

I waited again, for it to cool.

I would try it, of course. Too-dense pound cake is better than no pound cake at all.

Before the cooling time was up, I sliced off an end, figuring it cooled the most first.

And I broke off a corner and set it almost ceremoniously upon my tongue.

And it was good.

I resolved to buy a digital thermometer to try again, to know, next time, the precise temperature of the all-important butter.

I will master the ways of pound cake.

I will not bow.


Blogger Marc said...

Do you know the heat distribution of your oven? Even the best home ovens have hot and cooler spots. Successful pound cake might even require off-center placement in the oven with a mid-bake 180 degree rotation.

12:16 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

I do have a good sense of my oven, yup.

But the issue wasn't the heat of my oven, according to the recipe. It was the temperature of the butter. Cook's includes sidebars about how the mixtures should look at various stages and such. My butter was slightly too warm to start with, so once I creamed it, the temperature rose beyond where the cake would be successful.

But it's still delicious!

12:19 PM  
Blogger Marc said...

Great. Now I want pound cake. Damn you!!!

7:34 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

I was not prepared for the power of the pound cake.

It is very strong.

I am eating another piece right now.

7:36 PM  
Blogger Rick Hamrick said...

I have something I always wanted to do which I have let go of. It was not easy to accept that I would never do it, but with each passing year and my failure to suddenly develop a 36" vertical leap (mine is about 3", more of a hiccup centered in the legs than a leap), I came to the inevitable realization that I will never dunk a basketball in a regulation 10' hoop.

Whether you consider it good fortune or bad, you are not blessed with such certainty. You are free to pursue your perfect-pound-cake dream for decades to come.

As long as the result of each attempt tastes as good as this latest one does, you will probably enjoy the challenge over and over.

And once more after that.

9:29 AM  

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