Progressive Baking, Victorian Style

Reader Chana writes:

I’ve seen quite a few pound cake recipes that call for a bit of leavening, like baking powder. I generally think of this as “cheating.” But in truth, I’ve made pound cakes that I thought were much too dense, so baking powder begins to sound like rather a good idea. (I know, shame on me.) Any thoughts about using leavening in a pound cake? Also, using cake flour rather than AP flour is a great idea, and probably goes a long way in making the cake a bit less dense without the use of any leavening. I’ll give this a go, I think it will be great with the last of the berries.

Very interesting that you should write this note just as I was preparing this post, Chana. Below are a couple of recipes that show the evolution of pound cake-making technique. As you can see, a little supplemental egg foam was considered in-bounds back in 1824. However you can also see a sort of proto-creaming method taking shape here:

Pound cake

Wash the salt from a pound of butter and rub it till it is soft as cream, have ready a pound of flour sifted, one pound of powdered sugar, and twelve eggs well beaten; put alternately into the butter, sugar, flour, and the froth from the eggs; continuing to beat them together till all the ingredients are in, and the cake quite light; add some grated lemon peel, a nutmeg, and a gill of brandy; butter the pans and bake them. This cake makes an excellent pudding if baked in a large mould, and eaten with sugar and wine. It is also excellent when boiled, and served up with melted butter, sugar, and wine.

– Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife

This would would certainly have lightened the crumb relative to Hannah Glasse’s original. Now let’s fast forward another 75 or so years to this 1908 recipe, and we can see we have a creaming method proper, again supplemented by again by egg foam:

Pound Cake

The old rule–and there is none better–calls for one pound each of butter, sugar and flour, ten eggs and a half wine glass of wine and brandy. Beat the butter to a cream and add gradually a pound of sugar, stirring all the while. Beat ten eggs without separating until they become light and foamy. Add gradually to the butter and sugar and beat hard. Sift in one pound sifted flour and add the wine and brandy. Line the cake pans with buttered paper and pour in the well beaten mixture. Bake in a moderate oven. This recipe may be varied by the addition of raisins, seeded and cut in halves, small pieces of citron or almonds blanched and pounded in rose water. Some old fashioned housekeepers alwasy add a fourth of a teaspoon of mace. The mixture may be baked in patty tins or small round loaves, if preferred, putting currants into some, almonds or raisins in the rest. Pound cake is apt to be lighter baked in this way. The cakes may be plain or frosted, and they will grow richer with the keeping in placed in stone jars.

– Emma Paddock Telford, The New York Evening Telegram Cook Book

Wonderful, isn’t it, to witness people in the old days being nostalgic about the even older days? But anyway, it seems that whole egg foam was a standard addition to a pound cake batter until rather recently. Why did it disappear? My guess is that mechanical mixers made a big difference, as did more sophisticated home ovens. Together they helped make pound cakes less brick-like, making the added foam less necessary.

Certainly Ms. Telford had chemical leaveners like baking soda and baking powder at her disposal at that time (heck, they were around in 1824 as well), but apparently none of that newfangled nonsense was for her. A lot of people simply didn’t like or trust those chemical flavors even then. But anyway, if it was good enough for grandma’s pound cake, then it was good enough for hers. Who wants to dispute that logic?

All of which is to say, Chana, that whipping the whole eggs before you add them might get you where you want to go!

3 thoughts on “Progressive Baking, Victorian Style”

    1. Believe it or not there is!

      But there’s definitely room for more than one here. Welcome!

      – Joe

  1. My mother taught me to make a pound cake the way her grandmother taught her, except she said her grandmama did it in a wood stove, without the benefit of an electric mixer. She said it was only made for holidays and served in very thin slices—no wonder!

    It’s not written down—I just remember from when I helped her all those years ago. It was 4 cups all-purpose flour, 2 cups sugar, a pound of butter, and 10 large eggs (supposed to be a pound of each), plus a teaspoon or so of vanilla. We sifted the flour 4 times, then creamed it very well by hand (“until fluffy”—the longer, the better) with the butter. Separate the eggs; beat the yolks and sugar until pale yellow (“like a lemon”) and ribbony. Beat the whites to stiff peaks. Fold the yolks and vanilla gently into the butter/flour mixture, then the whites last. It was always baked in a two-part tube pan, which usually leaked, and we had to tip-toe around the kitchen while it baked.

    People used to ask her for the recipe and she’d give it to them but nobody could make it successfully—they’d tell her it fell or separated into weird eggy layers. I feel kinda guilty that I don’t make it any more—I use the cold-oven/whipping cream kind of recipe now because it’s, yes, lighter in texture, but still don’t use baking powder or soda.

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