An all-in-one guide to the ultimate pound cake

From cocoa streusel to jam swirls, here's how to build your baking confidence and elevate your next pound cake

By Sohla El-Waylly
January 7, 2021 7:30PM (UTC)
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Prop stylist: Megan Hedgpeth. Food stylist: Sam Seneviratne. (James Ransom / Food52)

This story first appeared on Food52, an online community that gives you everything you need for a happier kitchen and home – that means tested recipes, a shop full of beautiful products, a cooking hotline, and everything in between!

Every month, in Off-Script With Sohla, pro chef and flavor whisperer Sohla El-Waylly will introduce you to a must-know cooking technique — and then teach you how to detour it toward new adventures.

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Growing up, my mother always had a loaf of Sara Lee pound cake in the freezer. I don't remember it ever getting thawed. We'd carve off thin pieces and eat them quickly while still frozen, dense, and chewy. I loved the sticky crust and how cleanly the tight, tender crumb sliced.

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This recipe bakes up just as delicate, has a thick brown crust, and is enriched with sour cream and an extra yolk. All the butter ensures that it will stay moist on your counter for days — but I still prefer it frozen, so the crust is jammy and soft, sticking to my fingers while I devour a sliver.

Because baking is a science, you must adhere to the core recipe. If you swap Greek yogurt in place of the sour cream, your pound cake will bake up dry. If you use brown sugar in place of white, the increased acidity will affect the rise. If you replace the butter (which naturally contains a bit of water) with something like olive or coconut oil (which are pure fats), your batter will look broken and bake up greasy.

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But don't fret! I'm going to show you when to follow the course and where it's safe to meander, so you've got the confidence to take pound cake off-script.

When this pound cake batter is mixed correctly, it's stable enough to handle a few extra folds, so you can stir in blueberries, chopped nuts, cocoa powder, matcha, and more. You can change the flavor by stirring citrus zest or almond extract into the sour cream, topping the cake with a crumb, or adding a swirl of jam. Make it your own.

Behold: the greatest afternoon pick-me-up of all time. For good measure

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Fluffy ingredients, like flour and other starches, can compact in a measuring cup, so one person's cup of flour can weigh more or less than someone else's. That's why it's best to use a scale. But you can still have excellent baking success without one; just take extra care when measuring.

When measuring flour by volume, I first whisk it up (in the container or bag) before spooning it into my cup until heaped. Then I'll level it off with an offset spatula or butter knife. With thick ingredients like sour cream, be sure to give the full cup a few taps on the counter to ensure it's lightly packed.

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Take off the chill

Using room-temperature butter, eggs, and sour cream is crucial in achieving fluffy, tender greatness. Room-temperature butter is flexible, allowing it to expand with air as you cream it with the sugar. With a stand mixer, you might be tempted to slam some cold butter around with a paddle and, while it will get creamy, it will never gain the same volume as softened butter. This volume is game-changing because, even though there is baking powder in this cake, most of the lift comes from the air whipped into the butter.

Cake batter is an emulsion, a blend of two things that don't want to mingle. Butter is mostly fat, while eggs and sour cream are mostly water, so they need a little coaxing to get along. Room-temperature ingredients encourage everyone to play nice. If your batter looks curdled after adding your eggs, somebody was too cold. Let the mixture sit on the counter for a bit, then try and mix again.

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My preferred way to temper the eggs, butter, and sour cream is to set them out the night before. If you're not comfortable leaving dairy out for that long (or live somewhere very cold), the microwave is your best friend. Zap your butter and sour cream in five-second increments, flipping the stick of butter and stirring the sour cream after every blast, so it heats evenly. To gently warm cold eggs, I'll put them in a big bowl of warm tap water for about 15 minutes.

Pick and prep your pan

Not all loaf pans are created equal — a metal loaf pan conducts heat faster than a glass one, resulting in a higher rise and more golden crust. That first hit of heat is a pivotal pound cake moment: The air trapped in the batter needs to expand and lift the cake before it sets; the baking powder reacts to the heat and produces essential bubblage. Avoid glass pans — they only lead to a dense, greasy cake.

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Once you've got your metal loaf pan, skip the parchment and instead smear on a thick layer of softened butter. This will ensure a clean release from the pan and encourage browning for a toasty crust.

Scrape, scrape, scrape

Room-temperature butter will look creamy after a few minutes of paddling, but keep mixing. With more time, the butter and sugar will become feathery and light. This is where the pound cake gets its fluff, so don't rush it. The mixture should be lightened in color and look almost like buttercream frosting.

While mixing, you must stop the mixer, scrape the paddle, and scrape the bowl. Repeatedly! At least once while creaming the butter, after each egg, and at the end to bring it all together. Even if you have a paddle with a bowl scraper attached, you still have to stop and scrape the paddle itself. This is the only way to make sure every spec of the batter is fluffy-city! All you need is one bit of dense, uncreamed batter to create holes and tunnels in your cakes (aka a butter bomb). I know this seems like a fussy step, but it's the difference between a good cake and a great one.

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Fill the pan and bake

This batter is super thick, which is excellent for mix-ins, but needs some assistance to snuggly fill every corner of the pan. When I tested this recipe, some loaves had big holes where the batter didn't settle. To avoid this, after adding the batter, give the pan a few firm taps against the counter, then swirl into it with a butter knife or offset spatula. This will knock out any air pockets and make sure the batter evenly sinks into the pan. A final score down the middle with a wet butter knife makes sure the cake splits right down the center as it rises and bakes.

Because the batter is dense, the pound cake takes a long time to bake. With the addition of streusel or mix-ins, it takes even longer. Don't worry if the crust looks very dark. It's better to overbake rather than underbake this moist cake. If my crust ever starts approaching burnt, I set a wire rack just above the cake and place a sheet pan on it to create a heat shield. This allows the cake to continue baking without getting too dark.

Ready to remix

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Yes, I've given you lots of strict rules to follow. But if you've gotten this far, you will have a creamy, thick, and stable batter that is ready to party! Here's how to go off-script:

KEEP IT SIMPLE WITH MIX-INS

  • Chopped dates and chocolate
  • Toasted almonds and cherries
  • Blueberries and pecans

GET FLASHY BY LINING THE PAN

  • Spiced sugar (cinnamon, apple pie spice, or cardamon)
  • Cookie crumbs (Oreos, graham crackers, or Biscoff cookies)
  • Finely chopped nuts (peanuts or black sesame seeds)

BUMP UP THE SOUR CREAM

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  • Citrus zest (lemon, orange, grapefruit, lime)
  • Any extract (vanilla, almond, or rum)
  • Instant espresso powder

CREATE A SWIRL

  • Your favorite jam (strawberry, blackberry, or marmalade)
  • Lemon curd
  • Cocoa powder–ify half the batter

ADD A STREUSEL

  • Black cocoa
  • Oat and pecan
  • Cinnamon crumble

Highly recommended pound cakes

Recipe: Go-To Vanilla Pound Cake

Recipe: Black and White Pound Cake


Sohla El-Waylly

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Baking Food Food52 Pound Cake