Saturday, March 29, 2008

Little Black Dress of Cakes

Pound Cake by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I'm sure I'm not the first writer to make this baking analogy, but then, I'm probably not the first baker to make this cake. Every cook needs a few great recipes that they can commit to memory and pull out whenever the occasion warrants. A little black dress, one might say, just the right thing for any occasion, casual or dressy, winter, spring, summer or fall. Coco Chanel knew that when she designed the LBD, and good cooks should follow her lead.

Cooking LBD's should most certainly include a roast chicken, a special potato something and a perfect vinaigrette for a simple salad. And for dessert, something picked up from the local patisserie? I think not. Especially since the local patisserie, like the boulangerie, is a chain grocery store with a bakery known for making specialty cakes from mixes. My dessert LBD is pound cake, that church potluck staple, dense and buttery and just crying out for strawberries and real whipped cream.

My first chef, my mom, didn't really like kids hanging out in the kitchen, but she would let me make cakes and pound cakes were one of the first I tried. I have made sour cream pound cakes, which are wonderful, including a chocolate pound cake that is to live for. For a time, I was enamored with a recipe that required separating the eggs, beating the whites and folding them into the butter-rich batter. The texture and flavor were wonderful, but I consider separating eggs as enjoyable as emptying the dishwasher. Time to try more recipes.

In a cake decorating class, I was horrified when I was given a pound cake recipe that included Crisco shortening. Crisco? In a pound cake? That's for biscuits, never pound cake. All butter, and only butter, that's the way to go.

I found the perfect pound cake recipe in a community cookbook on my mom's shelf. It was called "Evelyn's Pound Cake." I call it a cream cheese pound cake. This recipe has been around awhile, and my version is not much different than the original. It is always reliable and will win you friends. Start making this cake regularly, take it to work, share it with your family, give thick slices to neighbors. Bake petite loaves and give them at Christmas with a small jar of homemade lemon curd. And before long, like Coco Chanel, you will soon be known for inimitable style and unparalleled taste.

Cream Cheese Pound Cake
3 sticks (1 1/2 cups) unsalted butter, softened
3 cups granulated sugar
6 eggs
1 (8 oz.) pkg. cream cheese (neufchatel acceptable), room temperature and divided into three equal pieces
pinch salt
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp. vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 325. Use baking spray to coat inside of Bundt pan or tube pan or 2 loaf pans.

2. In mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugar for several minutes. When fully incorporated and no longer grainy, add eggs and cream cheese alternately. This means two eggs, fully mixed in, piece of cream cheese, fully mixed in, followed by eggs and cream cheese two more times. When batter is creamy and smooth, add, on low speed, flour and pinch salt. Stir in vanilla extract.

3. Pour batter into prepared pans and smooth the top with a spatula. Cake bakes in 325 degree oven for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. In my kitchen, I bake the cake in a Bundt pan and set the oven at 325 on convection and it takes nearly two hours to bake. The cake is ready when a narrow bamboo skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Let cake cool on rack for at least an hour before giving in to the luscious vanilla and butter smell and slicing generous portions for your starving family.