I knew that “pound cake” referred to cakes made with a pound of butter, but I didn’t realize until researching 18th-century cakes that this term once referred to the cake’s other ingredients as well — a pound of flour, a pound of sugar, and even a pound of eggs. Here’s Hannah Glasse’s recipe for pound cake from The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747):
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 in it, 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.
Two things about this recipe really struck me: first, that Glasse recommended beating the butter with one’s hand; second, that she beat the batter for an entire hour! But it wasn’t unusual for a colonial housewife (or a servant) to beat a cake batter for this long. In the days before baking soda and powder, eggs and yeast were relied on for leavening. So cake batters typically required more eggs than they do now, and both the eggs and the batter had to be beaten strenuously for the cake to be light.
I normally would just laugh at those directions and get out my electric mixer, but I wanted to have a truly authentic colonial baking experience this time, and see if I could actually get through this somewhat grueling recipe. Fortunately, my daughter helped me with some of the butter beating:
Once the butter was well creamed, I beat the flour into it, then the eggs, and then the sugar, all with my hand. But I eventually grabbed a big wooden spoon — I guess the gloppy tactile experience was starting to get to me. (I was also wondering how guests would feel, from a hygiene standpoint, about eating cake made this way, but too late for that!)
Katie, meanwhile, had lost interest. And I’m sorry to say that I ran out of steam and stopped beating after about 20 minutes. It was just too much work. But I didn’t resort to an electric mixer — the batter looked pretty good, so I poured it in a Bundt pan, stuck it in the oven, and crossed my fingers.
The cake turned out okay but a little too dense. I can’t really recommend Glasse’s recipe, though perhaps if you beat the batter for an entire hour as she instructed, it would be great. Anyway, a few days later I tried again with a different pound-cake recipe, from Stephen McLeod’s Dining with the Washingtons, a beautiful book about life at Mount Vernon with recipes assembled by culinary historian Nancy Carter Crump. This recipe is based on one by Mary Randolph, author of The Virginia House-wife (1824). Her ingredients and proportions were similar to Glasse’s, but she added brandy. She also mixed the butter and sugar first, as is generally done today. I made this cake with an electric mixer from start to finish. It turned out dense, like the Glasse cake, but it was moister, and I think the recipe is definitely worth sharing.
Mary Randolph’s Pound Cake
Slightly adapted from Dining with the Washingtons
1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter
2 cups sugar
6 large eggs
3 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/4 cup brandy
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 10-inch Bundt or tube pan with vegetable shortening.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer (or in a large bowl, beating by hand or with a mixer), cream the butter until it is light and fluffy. Gradually add the sugar, a few tablespoons at a time, beating continuously.
3. Add the eggs one at a time, beating each in thoroughly.
4. Sift the flour with the nutmeg, then gradually add to the butter and sugar mixture (about 1/2 cup at a time), mixing thoroughly after each addition.
5. Add the lemon zest and brandy, and mix until well combined.
6. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 45-60 minutes, until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool the cake in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a rack and cool completely. Serve with fruit and whipped cream or a sweet sauce.