Pound Cake

Mary Randolph's pound cake

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:

beating butter by hand

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!)

pound cake batter

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.

Hannah Glasse's pound cake

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.

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16 thoughts on “Pound Cake

  1. Unlike you, I was unaware that pound cake referred to the butter content so 1) thanks for that tidbit of knowledge and 2) I’ll never be able to enjoy that cake in ignorant bliss again. Kudos to you and Katie for attempting to be authentic and stir that batter for an hour… making this cake was probably the colonial woman’s version of using the Shake Weight.

    • Okay, so I’m full of historical tidbits but I had to google Shake Weight. I think I want one! As for the butter: recent studies say it might not be as incredibly bad for us as was thought…

      • It says good things about you that you don’t know what a Shake Weight is. Whilst you are enriching yourself reading books of historical significance, I’m wallowing in the intellectual void of infomercials…

  2. And I, of course, knew about ShakeWeight from Cartman on South Park. I have made more than one cake without a mixer, since for a couple years I didn’t have a very good one. (Now I have a Sunbeam, and tho’ I toy with occasional lust for the KitchenAid I realize it would be more like a KitchenHalf in my place.) It is very good for the arm, and it’s also blessedly peaceful. No whirring, grinding, shrill machines. I love a good pound cake, and this does look great.

    • KitchenHalf, indeed! Mine is taking up valuable counter space and I don’t really like it. For one thing, flour always seems to go flying even when I use the splatter guard. But it’s a thing of beauty in a lovely color (buttercup).

  3. It really LOOKS delicious. I guess I sort of knew about it being a pound of everything. My grandmother used to make pound cakes like that. Although I’m pretty sure she used an electric hand mixer. Her cakes were kind of awful and we always dreaded to eat them. 🙂

  4. That reminds me of an elderly neighbor I had growing up who would ply me with inedible baked goods that I had to eat out of politeness. But she was a very nice and interesting woman, so that made up for it. Usually. (Ugh, my tastebuds are having flashbacks.) 😉

  5. Thank you for these recipes. In his memoir Christmas Gift!, the Georgia author Ferrol Sams describes a cake his aunt used to make during the Depression by stirring the batter with her hands. She sat in a chair and put the bowl (itself 100 years old even then) on her lap. The motion of her hands and wrists as she beat the batter was described as like a paddle wheel on a steamboat. Her cakes were, according to the author, always lighter and fluffier than those of the other women in the family, due to this method. This particular cake was made after Thanksgiving and put in a tin to mature until Christmas. It had pineapple and coconut added after the batter was whipped and was baked in a woodburning oven without temperature regulation, just careful watching and testing with straws. The children were not allowed in the kitchen during the baking for fear their running would cause the cake to fall. It’s a great story. Ferrol Sams is still alive, but soon the last of the folks who can still remember this kind of home cooking will no longer be with us. Sorry for the long comment – I just discovered your blog and I love it! Thank you for sharing all of this.

  6. I did a blog series called “The Pound Cake Project” for a class but also because, well, I’m a food history nerd. I found out a lot about pound cake but also about the development of our modern taste. I’m certain that what we call dense for a pound cake now was what 18th century pound cake was supposed to be like. It only became the lighter stuff we use now with the introduction of baking powder in the 20th century. This is why I love food history, because it’s not only about the ingredients but about our own cultural and political development.

    • What an interesting project! I think you may be right about the density issue. It’s hard to know sometimes whether a historic recipe has not worked or whether we just have the wrong expectations.

  7. Just found your site, love it. This receipt MUST be mixed for 1 hour or more, if you do that the cake is FANTASTIC. Slightly dense, but oh so creamy, melt in your mouth, no need to chew even, much better than the dry pound cake you buy from a store. Made this in an Historic Foodways class with 8 people, each mixing about 10 minutes so no one got overly tired. You should try this receipt again, but make it a party with at least 6 people helping.

    • That is an excellent idea, and I will try it again. I just wish my kitchen were bigger so it could hold a crowd more comfortably. Maybe I’ll try it in someone else’s, though almost everyone I know in NYC has the same issue. But we can certainly stir a poundcake in the living room, right? Thanks for visiting!

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