Think of pound cake as the original no-recipe recipe. It takes its name from the weight of its four crucial ingredients—flour, sugar, butter, and eggs. Traditionally, the cake was made from one pound of each. The title itself serves as a mnemonic device. If you can remember the ratio (1:1:1:1), or simply the catchphrase "all things being equal," you can bake a pound cake from memory.
Like many beloved American desserts, pound cake originated in England, though the French have long had their own version, known as quartre-quarts, or "four-fourths." The English brought the cake and its no-recipe recipe with them, and in short order, the dessert made its way onto sideboards and tea trays throughout the colonies. Recipes for pound cake appeared in the first American cookbook, Amelia Simmons's American Cookery, published in Hartford, Connecticut in 1796. Though many associate pound cakes with the American South, in truth, they have long been popular from coast to coast.
The original, four-pound cakes were made to serve large groups and were usually prepared by commercial bakers and pastry chefs. Over time, recipes were scaled down to more practical proportions, a boon for home bakers. Proportions and recipes were tinkered with further, and many bakers developed variations all their own. Some added leavening agents such as baking powder or soda. Others replaced some of the butter with other dairy-based staples like sour cream, cream cheese, buttermilk, or heavy cream. Others flavored their cakes with ground nuts or spices (cardamom is especially lovely and warming) and extracts such as vanilla or almond. (Notably, one of the two recipes for pound cake in American Cookery includes rosewater.)
Shape-wise, most people think of loaves when they imagine pound cakes, most likely due to the popularity of store-bought options like the beloved All Butter Pound Cake from Sara Lee. The Chicago bakery, named for owner Charlie Lubin's young daughter, introduced its pound cake in 1951. A few years later, due to developments in freezing and preservation techniques, Sara Lee (the company, which grew from the original bakery) was able to ship frozen pound cakes to 48 states without losing the fresh-baked taste and texture. The cakes have been freezer-aisle favorites in grocery stores nationwide in the 60 years since.
Ring-shaped pound cakes are also quite popular. These are baked in tube pans, including the German kugelhopf and its American counterpart, the Bundt. (Coincidentally, the Bundt pan was developed in the Midwest around the same time that the Sara Lee bakery sold its first pound cake. H. David Dalquist, owner of Minnesota's Nordic Ware, introduced the Bundt pan in 1950.) Thought there's no real difference in flavor between the two shapes, some professional bakers prefer the texture of tube-shaped cakes. As Nick Malgieri, a baking instructor and author of several baking cookbooks, writes in Perfect Cakes, "I find that pound cakes have an excellent texture and superior lightness when they are baked in a tube pan. A tube pan also bakes the cake more quickly because of the heat conducted into the center of the pan through the tube, and this makes for a moister cake."
Advice for Making Pound Cake
Beyond shape, the components of a basic pound cake remain largely the same. Because there are so few ingredients, quality is everything. Seek out the freshest ingredients you can find, especially butter. It is the dominant flavor of any good pound cake, so choose a brand that tastes of nothing but pure, sweet cream.
Achieving just the right texture for pound cake—rich and dense, not at all heavy or greasy—depends on creaming the butter and sugar thoroughly. Warm ingredients blend together more seamlessly than those pulled straight from the refrigerator, so be sure to let everything come to room temperature before you begin mixing. Don't let butter sit out any longer than that, however. (Try the fingertip test: Press your forefinger into the top of a stick of butter; it is ready when the indentation remains but the butter still holds its shape.)
And, by all means, mind the technique. Where many cake recipes begin with an instruction to beat together butter and sugar until pale and fluffy (three to five minutes or so) some pound cake recipes require you to mix them for as long as eight to ten minutes. (This helps to leaven the cake.) Again, temperature is important, even for eggs. If they are not at room temperature, they can cause the perfectly creamed butter-sugar mixture to seize. Finally, you'll want to add the flour gradually, in batches, for optimal blending; stop beating as soon as you no longer see white streaks.
Be Sure to Bake a Lot of Pound Cakes!
Pound cake may seem very old-fashioned and traditional, but its easy formula means it's also easy to play around with. Variations abound, both in the cake itself and in exterior embellishments. Marbled loaves are classic, with equal parts vanilla and chocolate batters swirled and baked together (and then there's our three-layer version above), as are citrusy pound cakes, which lend themselves to glazes, candied slices, and other fine finishes.
You can experiment by trying olive oil in place of butter, for example, or replacing some (or all) of the flour with an alternative option like buckwheat, cornmeal, or barley flour. You could also make a pound cake that features cream cheese in the batter. Slices are so rich and flavorful, they need absolutely so accompaniment at all.