Pound cake is one of those recipes that has changed so much over the years that it bares only a feint resemblance today to what it actually was.
Growing up, light and fluffy “Angel Food” cakes would sometimes be labeled pound cake in the grocery store. Sara Lee corners the prepared pound-cake market today with their intensely buttery frozen confection.
The original is something all-together different, and very old. This recipe, the oldest I’ve attempted, dates from Amelia Simmons’ groundbreaking tome American Cookery from 1796. The recipe certainly predates Simmons’ by centuries.
At a time when few except the wealthy aristocracy were literate (and they were rarely found in kitchens shoulders deep in pots), cookbooks were something of a rarity. Recipes were passed down through training, or scratched out as “receipts,” or were gimicky so as to remember how to do it. The pound cake is an example of the latter.
A pound of flour, a pound of sugar, a pound of butter, and a pound of eggs. Mix it together and you get the basic batter for a cake or sweet bread. From there, the spice and flavor variations are a matter of taste and regional custom.
American Cookery was the first cookbook written by an American for an American audience, using uniquely American ingredients like cranberries and squash. It was also the first published book to offer printed recipes for cornmeal.
Very little is known of Simmons. The most we get is in an advertisement for a subsequent printing of the cookbook, claiming that the author did not have the education to write the book herself, and had thus hired someone to record the receipts for her. This individual, the advertisement claims, took liberties which Simmons was unaware of until after the book’s publication. Thus, the reprint was not only to meet the extraordinary demand for the volume, but to also correct some of the mistakes.
The cake produced by this recipe is an interesting one. Note the vague use of spices, and the use of rose water instead of the now ubiquitous vanilla extract. Vanilla would have been an immensely expensive and rare commodity. The rose water actually gives the cake a flavor similar to banana bread. A gill is roughly four ounces, which I thought would be too overpowering. I used two ounces and thought it gave a nice hint of rose. Discussing with my taste testers / friends, we concluded three ounces would probably be just right.
As for spices, cinnamon would also have been something of a rare treat. Nutmeg was very much the spice of the period, as were cloves and allspice. Be generous.
Originally the batter would likely have been made in a large dutch oven, placed next to a fire, and surrounded with hot coals where it would slowly bake. Wanting to approximate this, I used a greased enameled dutch oven, sans lid, in a low temperature oven, and found that the center was really struggling to cook through despite an aluminum foil crown to prevent the edges from burning. Try a large casserole pan, several round cake pans, or even better, a large bundt. While there is no leavening agent in this cake, be warned that it does expand while baking.
Overall, it’s not a bad cake and certainly the rosey/spicy taste and dense texture evokes an earlier time prior to bleached flours and frozen mechanically prepared cakes. Well worth the experiment and a fun conversation piece.
1 pound sugar
1 pound butter, softened
1 pound flour, unbleached and unenriched
2 to 4 ounces consumable rose water
3 tsp nutmeg
2 tsp allspice
1 tsp ground cloves
Cream together softened butter with sugar. Stir in eggs one at a time. Stir in 2-4 ounces of rose water, to taste. Separately, combine flour and spices. Gradually stir flour mixture into egg mixture until well combined. Pour batter into a large greased dutch oven, casserole, set of cake pans, or a large bundt. Bake 300 degrees until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean – depending on the pan, between 40-60 minutes. Let cool before de-panning. Serves 10.