Practically perfect pound cake

Occasionally the feeling overcomes me that I’m not a very good baker because I’m missing a lot of ‘tested til perfect’ recipes from my repertoire. For example, if someone were to say to me, “Hilary, I need the perfect scone recipe”, expecting me to whip one out of my trusty recipe box of perfection, they would be disappointed. I don’t know the perfect scone recipe. Ditto the perfect pastry recipe. Ditto the perfect buttercream recipe. But for all my failings, at least now I can say that I know – if not the perfect – then a very, very good classic pound cake recipe.

Last week I had the unexplained urge to make and eat pound cake. In fact, why not make and eat two of them? Because pound cake is composed of so few ingredients, I thought it would be neat to put two recipes head-to-head and see if all pound cakes are indeed created equal. I figured that because it is composed of so few ingredients, superior flavour and texture would really shine through in the winning cake.

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I put two dynamo bakers head to head. Dorie Greenspan’s Perfection Pound Cake versus Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Perfect Pound Cake. Which one would turn out to be truly parfait?

Taste. Here, I couldn’t tell the cakes apart. The ingredients were nearly identical, albeit in different quantities. I tasted. And tasted. And tasted. I made myself slightly sick on pound cake and still couldn’t make out a genuine difference in flavour.

Appearance. Both recipes delivered a lovely, golden brown loaf. I gave Dorie’s loaf the teensiest edge here, because the cake rose a bit higher and was bit more pleasingly formed.

Texture. The most discernible difference lay here, though it was still subtle. Dorie’s cake-making method involves lots of creaming in a stand mixer, which results in a cake with a tight structure and crumb. Rose uses the ‘one bowl’ method, with the butter and egg mixture being added to the dry ingredients and beaten for considerably less time. Both cakes became tighter in texture the next day, but I found Dorie’s almost too tight, while Rose’s was, I thought, a little more velvety. Here I gave Rose the nod.

Overall winner. Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Perfect Pound Cake

This was a tough one, but in the end I crowned Rose’s cake the winner by the narrowest of margins, mainly because of the simplicity of the recipe. The cake was the quicker and easier to prepare of the two, and I enjoyed the ever so slightly looser crumb that the reduced beating time produced.

So is it perfect? Well, possibly not, but I don’t even know if perfect exists in the world of pound cake. So for me, for now, it is practically perfect.

Perfect Pound Cake
Recipe from The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum

To create a perfect crack along the top of this cake, remove it from the oven after 15 minutes and run a large knife deep down the centre, before returning to the oven to continue baking.

3 Tbsp milk
3 large eggs
1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups cake and pastry flour, sifted (if not available substitute all-purpose flour)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
13 Tbsp (180 g) unsalted butter, softened

Preheat oven to 350F / 180C. Grease and flour a standard-sized loaf pan.

In a medium bowl lightly whisk the milk, eggs and vanilla extract.

In a large bowl using a handheld mixer, or in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the dry ingredients and mix on low speed just to blend. Add the softened butter and half the egg mixture. Mix on low speed until the dry ingredients are moistened. Increase to medium speed (or high speed if using a hand mixer) and beat for 1 minute. This will aerate the mixture and develop the cake’s structure.

Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Gradually add the remaining egg mixture in 2 batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition to incorporate the ingredients.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the surface with a spatula. Bake 55 to 65 minutes or until a knife inserted in the centre comes out clean. If at any point it is becoming too brown, cover loosely with foil.

Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack.