For a cook in the 18th century, the recipe for pound cake was obvious from its name: a pound each of butter, eggs, sugar and flour, beaten together and baked until done. Golden-topped, rich and flavored with a splash of rose water or dash of mace, it was the tight-crumbed grandparent of every butter cake we bake today.
Although the classic recipe needs no improvement, this hasn’t stopped bakers from trying their best over the past few centuries. They’ve tweaked everything from flavorings (Irish cream, peaches and dulce de leche), to texture (lightening it with baking powder or baking soda), to increasing the moistness with buttermilk, cream cheese or heavy cream.
And I kept all these variables in my head over the last few months, when I decided that this pandemic was the ideal time to come up with a pound cake recipe of my own. My loaf pan was already in near constant use, so why not give all that anxiety baking a more concrete goal?
After testing (and eating) my way through more pound cakes than I’m comfortable admitting, I started to see a pattern in the recipes I liked best. They were all on the lighter, softer side of the pound cake spectrum, with some kind of sour or fermented element to mitigate the sweetness. I also liked a glaze on top, preferably one with a candylike crunch that shattered when you bit it, then melted sweetly on the tongue.
Gathering all these characteristics together in one loaf was the goal, and, many incarnations later, this creme fraiche pound cake is the result.
Its golden crumb is velvety moist, with a decided tang from the creme fraiche (or you can use sour cream), and a pronounced character from your choice of vanilla extract or good dark rum. I adore the rum, and have a hunch that bourbon or cognac would be excellent, too.
As for texture, you’ll notice that, in the recipe, I give a range of amounts for the baking powder. To me, 1 teaspoon makes as perfect a pound cake as pound cake gets, a bit airier than, say, Sara Lee, without floating into chiffon cake territory. But if, like my husband and daughter, your pound cake desires skew denser, use 1/2 teaspoon. The difference is subtle, but noticeable.
Or try it once each way and decide for yourself. Once you start such delectable tweaking, it can be hard to stop.
CREME FRAICHE POUND CAKE
- 1 cup (225 grams) unsalted butter (2 sticks), at room temperature, plus more for greasing pan
- 1-1/4 cups (250 grams) granulated sugar, plus more for coating pan
- 1-1/2 cups (190 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1-1/2 tablespoons (10 grams) cornstarch
- 1/2 to 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 4 eggs, at room temperature
- 1/3 cup creme fraiche (or sour cream), at room temperature
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract or dark rum
- >> Syrup/Glaze:
- 1-1/2 cups (185 grams) powdered sugar, plus more if needed
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract or dark rum
- 2 tablespoons water, plus more if needed
- 2 tablespoons creme fraiche (or sour cream)
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Thoroughly butter a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan, including the rim. Sprinkle a little sugar into pan, tilting to coat bottom and sides in a thin, even layer.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cornstarch, baking powder and salt. (Using 1/2 teaspoon baking powder yields a dense and velvety interior, while 1 teaspoon makes the cake slightly airier and softer.)
In a large bowl using an electric mixer, either hand-held or a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Beat in eggs, one at a time, beating well between additions.
With mixer set on low speed, beat in half the flour mixture. Beat in creme fraiche, then remaining flour mixture, scraping down sides of bowl with a rubber spatula. Beat in vanilla extract.
Scrape mixture into prepared pan and smooth top. (Depending on your pan, it may fill it all the way to the top, and that is OK.) Bake until cake is browned on top and a cake tester inserted into center comes out clean, 55 to 65 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool for a few minutes while you make the syrup.
In a bowl, combine 1 cup (120 grams) of the powdered sugar, vanilla extract or rum, and water, whisking until smooth. (It should be quite thin. Add more water, if needed.)
Using a long, thin paring knife, pierce cake all over about 20 times, poking all the way through. Spoon 4 tablespoons syrup over warm cake.
Reserve remaining syrup in the bowl.
After the cake has cooled in the pan for an hour, run a thin metal spatula or butter knife around edges to release them; unmold cake onto rack to finish cooling.
Whisk creme fraiche and remaining 1/2 cup (60 grams) powdered sugar into reserved syrup until you get a thick glaze, as thick as heavy cream. Add a little more confectioners’ sugar or water if needed to get the right texture.
Pour glaze over top of cake, letting it drip down sides. Let glaze set at least 15 minutes before slicing. Serves 8 to 10.
Nutritional information unavailable.