A True Heavyweight

Pound cake is a treat that’s been passed down to us, mostly unchanged, from the late Colonial Period. Eating it I imagine myself standing on a veranda somewhere in New England during the American Revolution, resplendent in my powdered wig, waistcoat and pantaloons. But then I remember my anemic calves, and how pathetic they’d have looked in knee-high socks. Some of us were just made for cargo pants.

Pound cakes are called pound cakes because the original recipes called for only four ingredients, a pound of each: flour, butter, sugar and eggs. Quite easy to remember, no? Though as I remarked below a four-pound cake would have been some kinda beast. Given the oven technology that was available at the time, most of them would have been extremely hard and dense. This was probably intentional. In the event the ammo ran out they could be fired at the British. The first known printed recipe dates to 1747:

To make a Pound Cake 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 hald the Whites, beat them well, and beat them up with the Butter, a Pound of Flour beat in it, and 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 bake it an Hour in a quick Oven. For Change, you may put in a Pound of Currants cleaned wash’d and pick’d.”

– Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy

Notice that this recipe calls for you to beat four pounds of thick batter by hand for a solid hour. Now I’ve never seen a picture of Hannah Glasse, but if this is the way she made cake, she was also the kind of woman who could crack walnuts with her bare hands and pimp slap a longshoreman into unconsciousness. I imagine her casting a silhouette like Popeye, her delicate frock specially tailored to accommodate 20-inch round forearms.

From a technical standpoint the recipe does make some sense. With no leavening agent, the only way to prevent a rock-hard crumb would have been to beat as much air into the batter as you could. The bubbles would expand in the heat of the oven, giving the cake at least a little lightness. But with an hour of beating you can be sure the gluten in the flour would have been well activated. At the very least this thing would have had the chew of a Marathon Bar.

Still it’s an interesting technique. Clearly Glasse knew about egg foams (there’s a note in there about beating the egg whites), but the creaming method — the process of beating butter and sugar together to create “seed” bubbles — hadn’t been invented yet. Or maybe it had, but no one had the courage to offer a woman like Glasse unsolicited advice. Those who did probably had to find a way to eat her chewy cake without any friggin’ teeth.

12 thoughts on “A True Heavyweight”

  1. Hm. I just measured, my forearms are 12 inches in diameter. And I made a pound cake last night– but I used a KitchenAid stand mixer.

    Not wearing a frock today, just a cowl necked sweater.

    1. Hehe….maybe I should change that measurement! I was just tossing things out…I do that around here. 😉

      – Joe

  2. I vaguely remember reading a post on a baking discussion board a couple years ago by someone who put a similar mix into his stand mixer and let it run – somewhere after the half-hour mark, the consistency changed noticeably, and the finished product actually baked to a much nicer texture than expected. So maybe – if you have the arms (or a few good kitchen servants) – that very prolonged beating works.

    1. I’m sure that’s true truth be told I generally let the mixer run for another five minutes or so after I add the last egg. I’ll write that into the recipe.

      Thanks Jane!

      – Joe

  3. My grandmother used to mix cakes using her hand. I remember her making my aunt’s wedding cake (wedding cake being a heavy fruit cake) when I was very small. I’m guessing it would take less muscle power than using a “great wooden spoon”, but messy. The heat of your hand would definitely help with softening the butter.

    1. I had a Swedish neighbor growing up, Lily Lundstrom. She did everything by hand…beat cake batter, whipped eggs…she was amazing. I can still remember those big arms of hers flapping. The texture of her angel food cakes was, literally, heavenly.

      Thanks for the trip down memory lane, Bronwyn!

      – Joe

  4. ” the kind of woman who could … pimp slap a longshoreman into unconsciousness.” I love the imagery! Clearly such a woman would be made of very stern stuff. And possibly frighteningly stern stuff.

    As for beating the batter for an hour, I wonder if the change after 30 minutes was the gluten giving up? Color me intrigued.

    1. Hey Laura!

      Yes, I’m curious about that myself. I’d be interested to try the original recipe some time, just to see what would happen. I’ll need to train for it, of course.

      – Joe

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