It is often the case that the simplest and most classic dishes are not so darned simple to do right. Puto comes to mind as a Filipino delicacy that requires just the right amount, quality and proportion of rice, coconut milk, sugar, etc. and steam to yield a superb result. Most of the time, the puto is mediocre, and despite being close to its “perfect” relative, doesn’t quite impress. Pound cake is another of those seemingly simple recipes that has eluded me for decades. I have baked dozens of pound cakes in the past 30 years, first attempting the cake in my teens. I have had decent results, but most of the time, the resulting cake is disappointing… either too dense, too dry, too wet, and better off covered with something else like ice cream and fruit compote. Purchased versions aren’t much better, though I have to admit I love the Vargas butter cake that is light and very fluffy, but is really not a pound cake. What I have always sought is a substantial cake, light but not airy, redolent with butter flavor, delicious on it’s own, perfect with a hot cup of tea. I think I have finally made one…
Saveur magazine’s March 2008 issue delving deeply into all things BUTTER is one of the best issues in recent memory. I love how it not only writes about the ingredient butter, but then brings in classic uses and dishes from around the world. And when I turned to the page entitled “The Great Cake” with a photo of stunning pound cake, I knew I would have to set aside a calm weekend to test this recipe by James Villas out. I read and re-read his article to ensure I got all of the tips and details he described. I waited until Sister had come for a visit and brought with her a few pounds of precious Plugra butter, not even the brand Mr. Villas recommended the most, but one of the two alternatives he deemed acceptable… And with all the other ingredients on hand, on a calm Saturday afternoon, I started to bake.
The ingredients list was rather straightforward, butter, flour, baking powder, salt, milk, sugar and eggs… with the addition of three flavoring extracts, lemon, almond and vanilla. But I don’t think it is the ingredients that elevates this to the next level. It was the numerous anal retentive tips regarding the temperature of the butter and eggs, flour, etc. The length of the beating. The care of preparation of the cooking vessel and the temperature of the oven. I realize it sounds a bit OA (over acting) but I followed the instructions to the letter and the resulting cake was the best pound cake I have EVER made. EVER. I prepared the ingredients in an air-conditioned room to approximate the suggested room temperature. I used very good butter, brilliant organic eggs, I blitzed our local sugar to get a finer grain before mixing it in, and had a thermometer in the oven to ensure the right temperature. But please refer to the March issue of Saveur for the full article/recipe, or this link to the recipe.
My pound cake emerged from its pan looking like an identical twin of the pound cake photographed in the magazine. It was dense but not heavy. Moist but not wet. The browned edges had a stronger flavor due to the caramelization, but it was delicious. As suggested, we did not refrigerate the cake but left it out with a cover. And by the next morning, 1/2 of the cake was gone with only 3 folks digging into it since the previous afternoon… I will have to try this cake with local butter sometime soon and see if it comes out reasonably well because if I have to wait for more Plugra, I will only be able to bake this once or twice a year! Thank you Saveur for this wonderful issue, article and recipe… it was worth the entire annual subscription rate for the magazine! :)