Thursday, October 2, 2008

Work in Progress: Are You Searching for Perfection?

Hey—how’s your writing going? Is your latest story/novel/essay/poem/memoir perfect? Mine neither. Ugh.

Getting discouraged? Would you like ONE perfect thing in your life? Yeah, me too.

Is perfect pound cake one of your lifetime goals? Yes! Yes! Me too!

I may not be able to make your writing perfect, but I can show you the pathway to perfect pound cake…and be assured, that this pound cake bears absolutely NO resemblance to that dry, bland, plastic-wrapped crud from the grocery store bakery. Simply follow this recipe exactly and you will have one area of perfection in your life!

This recipe is from an amazingly precise—and demanding—but worthwhile—cookbook called The Best Recipe by the editors of COOK’S ILLUSTRATED magazine. On the cover: “Would you make 38 versions of crème caramel to find the absolute best version? We did. Here are 700 exhaustively tested recipes plus no-nonsense kitchen tests and tastings.” The recipes can be intense, but none has ever failed me. Here’s the edition I use, from 1999, and here’s the new edition, updated in 2004. Highly recommended.

Anyway, this cake is pretty easy as long as you have a mixer—just do exactly what the recipe says:

½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/3 cups sugar
3 large eggs, plus 3 large yolks, room temperature
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1 ½ teaspoons water
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups plain cake flour

1. Adjust oven rack to center position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 9 x 5 x 3 ½ loaf pan (7 ½ cup capacity)* with vegetable shortening or spray. Line bottom and sides of pan with parchment paper by placing two pieces of paper, one lengthwise and one crosswise, into pan.

2. Beat butter in bowl of electric mixer set at medium-high speed until smooth and shiny, about 15 seconds. With machine still on, take about 30 seconds to sprinkle in sugar. Beat mixture until light, fluffy, and almost white, 4 to 5 minutes, stopping mixer once or twice to scrape down sides of bowl.

3. Mix eggs, yolks, vanilla, and water in a 2-cup glass measure with a pour spout. With mixer set at medium-high speed, add egg mixture to butter/sugar mixture in a very slow, thin stream. Finally, beat in salt.

4. Remove bowl from mixer stand. Turn ½ cup of flour into sieve or shaker; sprinkle it over the batter. Fold gently with rubber spatula, scraping up from bottom of the bowl, until flour is incorporated. Repeat twice more, adding flour in ½ cup increments.

5. Scrape batter into prepared pan, smoothing top with a spatula or wooden spoon. Bake until cake needle or tester inserted into crack running along top comes out clean, 70 to 80 minutes. Let cake rest in pan for 5 minutes, then invert onto wire rack. Place second wire rack on cake bottom, then turn cake top side up.** Cool to room temperature, remove and discard parchment, wrap cake in plastic, then foil. Store cake at room temperature.

The recipe also notes that you can double it and bake the cake in a large, nonstick bundt pan (14 cup) for the same amount of time. Also, “though best when freshly baked, the cake will keep reasonably well for four to five days.” If you can keep it around your house that long!

*basic loaf pan

**I usually leave some overhang on the parchment and use that to pull the cake straight out of the pan.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.