Pound Cake Project, Part 2

The recipe for the second installment of The Pound Cake Project comes from The Virginia Housewife, or Methodical Cook, by Mary Randolph.  This book was first published in 1824.  The copy that I own is a facsimile of the 1860 edition, published 32 years after the death of Mrs. Randolph.

The recipe in this book is, indisputably, far more comprehensive than we previously saw in the Amelia Simmons’ book.  However, it still makes a considerable amount of assumptions typical for its time period:
Wash the salt from one pound of butter, and rub it till it is soft as cream — have ready a pound of flour sifted, one 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 [sic], and eaten with sugar and wine.  It is also excellent when boiled, and served up with melted butter, sugar, and wine.

The recipe is relatively lengthy and the assumptions made are less pronounced than in older recipes.  For example, while the recipe does not say what temperature the oven should be nor how long to bake the cake, it is fairly throughout in explaining the preparation.  Mrs. Randolph tells the reader exactly how to mix the cake, from sifting the flour to alternating ingredients.  This is a big leap forward from Amelia Simmons’ simple list of ingredients and nothing else.  Another nice touch is the serving suggestions at the end of the recipe, where she also suggest an alternative method of making the cake: boiling.  Although this may not be clear to the modern baker, she does not mean boiling as in drop the batter in boiling water and cook it.  Instead, she really means steaming.  In this method, the batter is placed inside a pudding mold, covered with paper tied around the mold’s opening, then placed inside a large pot of boiling water and steamed until cooked.  This type of pudding (1) was, and still is, a common feature of British cookery and at one point of American/Colonial cookery as well.

The most interesting aspect of this cake is, by far, the ingredients.  What first struck me as odd was that it called for powdered sugar.  Why is it so odd?  For one, I had a different idea of when powdered sugar first became widely available.  I did not know when exactly but I placed it some time in the late 19th or early 20th century.  I thought that refined white sugar was not commonly available in the early 19th century  either, and perhaps it was not, but considering that a recipe meant for the masses called specifically for powdered sugar indicated that it was, in fact, readily available.  I was still suspicious and did not know what to make of it.  This forced me to do some research which, I will be honest, I love doing.  Surprisingly enough, I could not find much on the history of powdered sugar itself but I did find a secondary source that talks about some industrial changes that took place in the early 19th century which would have allowed the consumption of  refined, and powered, sugar to become more widespread.

The number one factor that influenced the availability of refined sugars was the rapidly growing number of sugar refineries in the country.  In 1689 there was one refinery, in New York City.  In 1800, a small number of American cities had sugar refineries, but by 1830, there were 38 refineries in the United States (2).  This increase in supply made refined sugar not only easily accessible but also considerably cheaper.  Further research finally revealed that perhaps I was right to be suspicious of this “powdered sugar.”  One of the very few references to powdered sugar specifically that I found claims that powdered sugar as we think of it today did not become commonly available until the last part of the 19th century (3).  Instead, the earlier references to “powdered sugar” most likely refer to finely ground sugar, much closer to the caster sugar commonly available in Britain today.  It was finer than regular granulated white sugar but not powdery like our modern powder/confectionery sugar, which contains a percentage of cornstarch.

Another interesting aspect of the ingredient list, and the most alien to the modern cook, is the concept of washing the butter.  When I first came across the concept, some years ago, I could not wrap my head around the idea of washing butter.  How does one wash butter, exactly?  Most importantly, why?  The why is simple: butter is a rather perishable food item, made even more perishable when it is not refrigerated.  Unsalted butter goes rancid quickly so before refrigeration, the only solution to this problem was to salt the butter.  Salted butter remains fresh for longer, even without refrigeration, as the salt acts as a preservative.  This was not usually a problem as salt also made the butter taste better; however, in some instances, unsalted butter is needed.  Their solution to this issue was to simply, and literally, wash the salt out of the butter.  This brings up the how.  It’s not as complicated a process as it seems at first.  The way to do it is to, either under running water or a clean bowl filled with water, work the butter in your hands (like playdoh) until most the of the salt has been released.  If you are using a bowl, the water will need to be changed.  Of course, in the modern kitchen, there is no need to wash the butter as unsalted butter is readily available.  Washing the butter is also a step in the home-making of butter.

The rest of the ingredients are simple variations on taste: specific spices are called for and Brandy is used as a flavoring instead of rose-water.  For this cake I used stone ground whole wheat flour, which is more like what would have been available at the time the book was published.  However, no modern flour is like early 19th century flour; the level of moisture they hold are different, the amount of protein is different, etc (4).

There is one aspect of the preparation of the recipe that I had some concerns with.  Butter cakes that are naturally leavened rely on the creaming of butter and granulated sugar for its rise.  When the butter and the sugar are creamed together, the sugar creates little pockets of air in the butter, expanding the volume of the butter and thus the cake.  That is the first level of leavening.  The second level occurs in the oven.  When the little pockets of air in the butter get heated, they expand, giving the cake a second rising.  This cake had no creaming at all.  The modern method would be to cream the butter and sugar and then incorporate the rest of the dry and wet ingredients.  I was a bit skeptical as to how much, if at all, this cake would rise.  Much to my surprise, the cake did rise a bit.  I do not know what to attribute it to but it was not due to the usual creaming method, to be sure.

Finally, on to the cake itself!  The cake looked beautiful, it was almost evenly risen and lacked the unsightly “hump” that is common in butter cakes.  Because the cake was made with 100% whole wheat flour, it was fairly dense and the texture was much more “tight” than the previous cake.  It was a pleasant tasting cake and it had a better mouth-feel than the previous one but I admit I liked the combination of spices in the first cake better.  Despite not having been creamed properly like the first cake was, this cake was not very noticeably denser.  I would say they were almost equally dense.  Many people that have tried both cakes agree that this cake is better than the first except for the combination of spices but I would also add that I believe that if salted butter had been  used, the flavor of the cake would have been much more balanced.  I used unsalted butter in the spirit of retaining historical authenticity as much as possible.

For the modern adaptation of the recipe, I have halved the ingredients to make a manageable sized cake, as before.  I call for powdered sugar as I used powdered sugar (as opposed to caster) but now that we know what she most likely meant, you are free to choose which type of sugar to use.

Mary Randolph’s Pound Cake

1/2 pound unsalted butter
1/2 pound powdered sugar
1/2 pound stone ground whole wheat flour
1/2 pound of eggs, beaten
zest of half a lemon
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
2 fl oz brandy

Preheat the oven to 350 °F. Butter or spray one loaf pan.

In a large bowl and using a spatula, or an electric mixer, cream the butter until it is no longer lumpy.  Slowly add, alternating, the sugar, flour, and eggs until all is incorporated.  Add the lemon zest, nutmeg and brandy.  Continue mixing until the batter is uniform.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 35-45 minutes or until a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out clean.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool.  Once the cake is cool enough to handle, remove it from the pan and place it on a cooling rack until completely cool.


1. Pudding is the word used in Britain today to refer to desserts.  However, traditionally, “puddings” were specific types, usually the ones steamed.  Some dishes with “pudding” in their name, such as Yorkshire Pudding and black pudding, are not desserts but savory dishes.

2. Wendy Woloson, Refined Tastes: Sugar, Confectionery, and Consumers in Nineteenth-Century America, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2002), 26.

3. Carol Wilson, “Wedding Cake: A Slice of History,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture Vol. 5 No. 2, (Spring 2005): 70.

4. Mark H. Zanger, The American History Cookbook, (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2003), 58.

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