Pound Cake Project, Part 1

Pound cake gets its name from the original composition of the cake, which was nothing more than one pound each of sugar, butter, eggs and flour.  It is difficult to make this connection today, at least in the United States, since the majority of home bakers have foregone weighing ingredients in favor of using measuring cups.

For the first installment of this project, I used a recipe from the 1796 American Cookery book by Amelia Simmons.  The simplicity of format of this recipe would leave most modern cooks unable to carry it out.  As it is typical of written recipes from the period, it contains nothing but a list of ingredients and small commentary:

One pound sugar, one pound butter, one pound flour, one pound or ten eggs, rose water one gill, spices to your taste; watch it well, it will bake in a slow oven in 15 minutes.

During a class discussion on this type of recipe format, someone asked “how did they know how to make it?”  It is a valid question, which can be answered in a very simple way: recipes then, as recipes today, made certain assumptions.  This recipe assumes that the cook knows how to prepare a cake; it assumes that it is common knowledge and thus having to explain it is superfluous.  An example from a recipe assumption from a modern cookbook would be the instruction “spray/oil a cake pan…” or “boil a pot of water….”  The writer assumes that the user knows what he/she means and very rarely are there detailed instructions on how to actually perform this task.  The assumption that the preparation of this cake is known to the baker is representative of the fact that most baking in America during this period was done at home and women, the book’s target audience, were well acquainted with the process.

The ingredients for this recipe look simple enough at first glance but it leaves the modern cook with more questions than answers.  What type of flour should be used?  What type of sugar should be used?  This is another set of assumptions based on contemporary common knowledge that the writer makes, which left me at a bit of a loss.  I know exactly what type of sugar and flour I would use if I was making this cake without regard to historical accuracy but I don’t KNOW what type the writer would have used.  I decided to use half unbleached all purpose flour and half whole wheat flour in hopes of simulating what I believe is the type of flour that would have been used.  It wouldn’t have been white flour like today but I don’t believe if it would have been dark flour either.  In retrospect, I should have used stone ground whole wheat flour but I think my method yield the same results the stone ground flour would have.  I used refined (white) sugar.

There was no unsalted butter in the 18th century so the only option for butter was salted, which I used.  Salting the butter is a way of preserving it in the absence of refrigeration.  I know that salted butter was used because of this but also because I have come across other recipes that call for washing the butter (literally) to get rid of some of the salt.  I did not wash the butter as this particular recipe did not call for it and I believe washing the butter would not have been done most of the time.  Perhaps the most uncommon ingredient in the list as far as the modern American cook is concerned is rose water.  Rose water, which today is very common in Middle Eastern and Indian cooking, was used in this period much like we use vanilla today.  The recipe called for a gill of rose water, which is approximately 4 fluid ounces or half a cup.  That is a lot of rose water!  This was the only part of the recipe where I deviated from it.  Rose water is very potent so I scaled back….way back… and used about 40 ml/2.5 tbsp and it was plenty.  As for the spices, I used a large pinch of cardamom.

There are no instructions in this recipe other than to watch the cake well.  Moving past the set assumptions this makes, I will just go ahead and explain what I did rather than why I did it or how I know.  Given what we know of the 18th century, it is safe to assume that they did not use electric counter top mixers, and neither did I.  I creamed the butter and the sugar by hand, something I had never done before.  I was a little bit worried about the amount of time this task would take but I was pleased to find out that it was not terribly time-consuming or difficult.  It does require some elbow grease but not as much as I feared.  I am confident this is how it would have been done in the times of Amelia Simmons and that this preparation would have contributed greatly to the consistency of the cake.  I don’t believe you can incorporate as much air into the butter when it’s done by hand as when it’s done by an electric mixer.

One last thing regarding the preparation; Simmons claims the cake will bake in a slow oven in 15 minutes.  This is yet another contemporary assumption that leaves modern cooks like me scratching our heads.  I don’t know what she means by a slow oven but a slow oven today is approximately 150 C / 300 F.  In a modern oven, this cake will NOT bake in 15 minutes at those temperatures, or at any temperature, for that matter.

Finally, the cake itself. I admit that I had some a priori knowledge of what this cake would be like before I made it.  I knew from my modern baking experience that, based on the ingredient ratio and the hand creaming of the butter, this cake would be very dense.  I was right.  The cake did not rise much, no surprise there as cakes leavened only by incorporating air bubbles into the butter usually don’t.  However, it was not unpleasantly dense, just a fine texture, and it was perfectly edible.  The rose water and cardamom combination worked great.  It didn’t occur to me to see whether cardamom would have been in fact used commonly during this time so I can’t speak for the historical accuracy of that.  If I had to do it again and wanted to remain accurate, I would use something else, maybe cloves.  Everyone who tried the cake liked it and the one comment everyone made was the density and heaviness of the cake, something that clearly reflects the differences in taste between the time when pound cake originated and today.

Here is a modern adaption of the recipe.  I have halved the amounts (but kept the same proportions) since original recipe makes a lot of cake.  This one makes one loaf.

Amelia Simmon’s Pound Cake

1/2 pound salted butter (same as 2 sticks or 16 tbsp)
1/2 pound sugar
1/4 pound unbleached all purpose flour
1/4 pound whole wheat flour
1/2 pound eggs (about 5 large)
1 tbsp rose water
a large pinch ground cardamom

Preheat the oven to 350 °F and grease a 2 pound loaf pan.

Using an electric mixer, cream the butter and the sugar until pale, smooth and fluffy.  Alternate adding the flour and the eggs, starting and finishing with the flour.  Add the rose water and the cardamom and mix once more to combine all the ingredients.

Bake for approximately 50 minutes, checking after 40 minutes.  The cake is done when a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out clean.

3 Responses

  1. Kirsten Wood says:

    About that 15 minute cooking time: I was wondering how many people had clocks accurate even to the minute in 1796.

    Also, might rose water be more concentrated now than then?

  2. junehawk says:

    Those are both good questions. It is entirely possible that rose water today might be more concentrated. As for the time, I wondered that too.

  3. Ari says:

    I wonder how all the liquid in the rosewater changes the texture. Maybe you could try diluting regular rosewater for this recipe.

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