Baking perfection without taking a pounding

June 22, 1994|By Renee Hopkins | Renee Hopkins,Universal Press Syndicate

Back when both electricity and baking powder were more scientists' dream than cooks' reality, baking poundcake separated the serious cooks from the dabblers.

The batter required laborious beating. Baking the cake in a wood-burning oven was unpredictable at best.

Yet even today, without these challenges, any number of things can make a good poundcake go bad.

Cookbook authors and bakers debate how and when to add eggs, how to measure the ingredients, how long to beat the batter, what kind of pan to use, and how long to bake the cake.

The payoff is an elegantly simple cake with a velvety texture and rich, comforting flavor.

The first poundcakes were leavened with many eggs, beaten by hand for an hour or more. Then they baked for at least an hour in un-air-conditioned kitchens.

By the early 20th century, poundcakes were far less work because of the introduction of double-acting baking powder. Still, they retained their reputation as a rare treat.

"Modern-day, smaller-in-size poundcakes are easy -- with certain caveats," says Elizabeth Alston, food editor of Woman's Day magazine and author of "Simply Cakes" (HarperCollins, $12.50).

Ms. Alstonhas strict instructions for measuring the flour: Use the exact size measuring cup. Stir the floor, then spoon it into the cup, then level with a flat edge, such as the back of a knife. Don't tap the measuring cup on the counter, and don't tamp the flour down in the cup.

Use large eggs and butter, both at room temperature; otherwise, the butter-sugar mixture will be grainy or separate, Ms. Alston says.

Alabama baker Prudence Hilburn, author of "A Treasury of Southern Baking" (HarperPerennial, $15), offers this tip: "Just beat in the eggs completely, one at a time."

In fact, there are two options for adding eggs. Ms. Hilburn's method of adding them one at a time is the traditional way. The batter may curdle, but adding flour corrects that.

An alternate method comes from Flo Braker's "The Simple Art of Perfect Cooking" (Morrow, 1985): Beat all the eggs together lightly, then add the beaten mixture to the batter a teaspoon at a time, beating well after each addition.

vTC This creates an emulsion effect not unlike that used to make mayonnaise, and keeps air in the batter, which makes the cake moist and tender.

A basic poundcake can be flavored with just about anything. Traditionally, nuts, coconut and lemon were used as flavorings for Southern poundcakes, Ms. Hilburn says. To vary the flavor, she recommends substituting different types of liquid in recipes that call for liquid.

Pan choice is partly a matter of tradition. Historically, poundcakes were made in two-piece tube pans for ease in removing the heavy cake.

Now, most experts agree you pretty much have your choice among tube pans, Bundt pans, loaf pans and even springform pans.

Poundcakes gain much of their texture and virtually all of their flavor from fat, so trying to reduce fat in a poundcake is like letting the air out of a balloon. Many cookbook authors don't even try.

Ms. Alston lowers fat and calories by forgoing frosting. She offers recipes for flavored whipped creams and fruit sauces to complement poundcake. Fruit sauces made from fresh or frozen fruit add little or no fat, she points out. She recommends raspberry-blueberry or plum sauce.

Ms. Hilburn says caramel or chocolate sauces could be glazed or drizzled over a poundcake. "What I really like, though," she says, "is to add a bowl of fresh fruit to a poundcake. That's a complete dessert."

Aunt Mary's Poundcake

Makes 12 to 16 servings

1/2 pound margarine, at room temperature

1 3/4 cups sugar

5 eggs, at room temperature

2 cups cake flour

2 teaspoons lemon extract

3 drops almond extract

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 10-inch tube pan.

Beat margarine at medium speed with electric mixer about 2 minutes. Gradually add sugar, beating at medium speed 5 to 7 minutes.

Add eggs 1 at a time, beating just until yellow disappears.

Add cake flour to creamed mixture. Mix at lowest speed just until blended. Stir in flavorings.

Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake for 1 hour, or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pan on a wire rack 10 to 15 minutes; remove from pan and let cool completely on a wire rack.

Per serving: 307 calories; 16 g fat; 76 mg cholesterol; 178 mg sodium; 47 percent of calories from fat.

Coconut Cream Poundcake

Makes 18 to 20 servings

3 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 cups sugar

1/2 cup shortening

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) butter or margarine, at room temperature

2 whole eggs

3 egg whites

1 1/2 teaspoons coconut extract

1 cup heavy cream

1 (6-ounce) package (about 1 1/2 cups) frozen coconut

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and lightly flour a 10-inch tube or Bundt pan.

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