ABOUT 42 MILLION Americans are still alive with memories long enough to cover the Great Depression of the 1930s. Times were tough and cabbage was cheap and shoes were $2 a pair. If you wanted luxury you got ice cream and chicken -- once a week.
For this correspondent, a top sensory memory of the time is poundcake. Today it may be a second or third choice, but it's hard to understand why something so versatile has to take a back seat.
In the 1930s it was truly a treat. You got your 59-cent loaf at the bakery or the market and, because butter and real baker's chocolate were then much too expensive for survival level menus, you bought a 29 cent canned substitute chocolate sauce to pour over the cake slices.
Not, to be sure, a dessert formula really worth reviving, but in those dingy, gray days it was regarded as a frill. Frillier yet were the opulent types who could manage to put a large scoop of ice cream on top of the cake before dousing the dessert with sauce.
What was the poundcake mystique of that age, and why has the cake type gotten such a plebeian image? Isn't there a new frontier for poundcake, now that eggs, nuts, spices, cordials and preserved fruits are so abundant and cheap in holiday-laden stores? I vote for poundcake as an important treat for the winter season. It has lots of advantages. Relatively inexpensive. Versatile. Easy to make and serve. Stores well. Ideal for buffets, teas, etc. Pretty (if you take a little trouble) and portable. To give any poundcake a festive multi-colored look, stir in about a half a cup of candied fruit (small pieces) in the batter. Or serve slices with glazed fruits.
Simplicity is one of the characteristics of the type, and one hour of baking and a 350 degree oven seem to be the all-but-universal standard for cooking this kind of cake from scratch. That may be what has made it a durable "standard" in many ways. Michael Smith, the British gourmet, traces the simple balance of ingredients in poundcake back to 1763 when it was printed, essentially as it is today, in "The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy" by Hannah Glasse. (For Smith's version of the elegant hazelnut poundcake, from "The Afternoon Tea Book" Atheneum 1986 $21.95, see below).
For all its simplicity, the poundcake is not just some little bakery -- item that got lost in the gourmet shuffle of recent years. In France, where baking is a mystical art, it is a standard by no means scorned and known by the curious Anglo-French compound name, "un cake."
In recent weeks I've toyed with the idea of baking up batches othe stuff and wrapping it as presents for friends. A sack each of flour and sugar, two dozen or so eggs, two pounds of butter and flavoring extracts should put you in business to make five or six cake presents if you can round up enough molds or loaf pans. An hour in the oven and another hour on a cooling rack and you are ready to wrap and deliver -- or freeze if it isn't time for the present routine. The ideal cooking containers for such an operation are buttered 9-by-3-by-4-inch loaf containers of glass or metal, but larger poundcakes can also be made in spring molds and in tube cake pans with hollowed centers of the kind that are useful for angel food cakes. You can also try bundt molds. Buttering of containers seems to be universal.
About the only controversial thought poundcake generates is whether to whip the whites in advance. Some do; some don't. I can find no real difference in lightness from cakes prepared with frothy whites and ones where the eggs are simply blended in whole.
As an odd note, the rather rarely used spice mace runs like a thread through many poundcake formulas.
Cooks are sometimes stumped at the task of making poundcake look appealing. Dusting a cooled loaf with powdered sugar can enhance the look. As far as flavor goes, whiskey is a popular additive during the holiday cake season. For a European touch, try a half a teaspoon or so of almond or licorice extract in the batter (but not both at once). Any of your favorite liqueurs can give an exotic touch, also.
Here's a Charleston, S.C., formula for a poundcake that is guaranteed to dodge some of the pitfalls of the type, the sometimes dried-out effect or sandy texture. The buttermilk probably makes the difference and adds sparkle. Caroline Legare, a friend from Mount Pleasant, S.C., contributes this simple gem and apologizes because it is "so incredibly easy." It is light and moist and you might try substituting lemon extract flavoring for vanilla.
Serves 10 or 12.
1 cup butter, softened
3 cups sugar
3 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Have all ingredients at room temperature. Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, one at a time. Add soda and vanilla. Add flour alternately with buttermilk. Bake in a greased and floured tube or bundt pan for 1 hour. Test for doneness.