Food & Drink

It takes the right temperatures for the ideal pound cake recipe

In the ideal pound cake, technique matters as much as ingredients.
In the ideal pound cake, technique matters as much as ingredients. Washington Post

It started as a simple enough task: Find a really good pound cake recipe.

After all, how much variation could there be in a time-honored recipe that combines flour, sugar, butter and eggs?

A lot, as it turns out.

I started with a recipe from King Arthur Flour that hewed mostly to the traditional formula of using a pound of the four main ingredients, except halved because I wanted to stick to one loaf pan. I decided a head-to-head competition was in order, so I thumbed through my cookbooks for something different and made Elvis Presley’s Favorite Pound Cake from “Gourmet Today.” It was a big departure in that it used cream instead of some of the butter and cake flour (and less of it) instead of all-purpose.

Tasters were torn. They liked the flavor of Elvis, but the texture of the other King. So naturally, I had to throw a third into the mix. This contender, similar in ratios to the Elvis cake but with sour cream instead of heavy cream, came from pastry wizard Stella Parks of, with whom I had consulted about why the original two were different and why the Elvis cake looked so odd and lumpy on top.

Her cake was perfect – moist and dense in the way you want a pound cake to be; golden, domed – but a few folks could not get behind the distinctive sour cream flavor (which I loved). So I created a mash-up: The Brave King Elvis Pound Cake.

Parks’ advice was invaluable. She encouraged me to look at the ratios of the ingredients compared to each other, which I was able to use to my advantage when I started tweaking the amounts of flour, sugar and butter to bring the flavor of the Elvis cake in line with the textures of hers and King Arthur’s.

The most crucial tip, however, was that technique matters as much as ingredients. Just from looking at my photo of the Elvis cake, she diagnosed what had gone wrong: The temperature of the ingredients was off (butter and eggs too warm), the bowl was not scraped enough during mixing and the wet and dry ingredients were not added gradually enough. All those can cause the emulsion of the cake batter – yes, just like a mayo, where ingredients are supposed to be held in an even suspension – to break. This recipe combats all those problems.

Cool room temperature is a good benchmark when it comes to ingredients. And, yes, temperature also plays in to how long you are supposed to wait before eating the cake – letting it cool slowly and completely helps lock in the moisture for the best texture. But I’m not going to tattle if you aren’t that patient.

To be honest, the many pounds of ingredients I went through (and the ones I may have gained sampling the various iterations) should be illegal. But in the end, it was worth it for a loaf that is tender yet firm, moist and bright yellow on the inside with a downright addictive crackly sugar crust – one of my tasters’ favorite features – on top. I would settle for nothing less, and now you won’t have to either.

Brave King Elvis Pound Cake

Yield: 12 servings; makes one 9-inch loaf

Adapted from recipes from King Arthur Flour, “Gourmet Today: More Than 1000 All-new Recipes for the Contemporary Kitchen” (Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009) and pastry chef and cookbook author Stella Parks.

10 tablespoons (1 stick plus 2 tablespoons) unsalted butter (5 ounces), at cool room temperature (firm but a finger will leave a dent), plus more for the pan

1 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, preferably low-protein (8 ounces), plus more for the pan

1 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar (11 ounces)

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

3 large eggs, at cool room temperature (place in hot tap water for 3 minutes)

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2/3 cup heavy cream (5 ounces)

Position an oven rack in the lower third of the oven; preheat to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with butter and dust with flour.

Combine the sugar, butter, baking powder and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer; beat on low speed to combine, then increase to medium. Beat until fluffy and light, about 5 minutes, stopping to scrape down the bowl and paddle attachment or beaters halfway through.

With the mixer still running, add the eggs one at a time, letting each fully incorporate before adding the next. Reduce the speed to low and sprinkle in 1/3 of the flour, then add the vanilla extract and 1/3 of the heavy cream. Repeat with remaining flour and heavy cream, working in thirds as before.

Scrape down the bowl and paddle or beaters with a flexible spatula and resume mixing on medium speed for a second or two to ensure everything is well combined. The batter should look creamy and thick.

Transfer the batter into the pan and bake until the crust is golden (although the interior of the split crown will be quite pale), about 1 hour and 5 minutes, or until a toothpick or cake tester inserted toward the middle of the cake to one side of the crack in the crown comes out clean.

Cool the cake for 3 to 4 hours, then loosen with a round-edged knife and remove from the pan. To minimize moisture loss, wrap the cake tightly in plastic and continue cooling until no trace of warmth remains, which can take an additional hour or two. Slice and serve.

Notes: Stella Parks recommends getting the eggs and butter to a cool room temperature of about 65 degrees (the butter will still be relatively firm but a finger will leave a dent). We found it made a difference in how well the batter came together and in the texture of the final product. An instant-read thermometer is helpful here, not only to check the temperature of the butter but also the cake once it has finished baking.

To bring the eggs to the right temperature, place them in hot tap water (110 degrees) for 3 minutes.

Make ahead: The cake can be stored at room temperature tightly wrapped in plastic or in an airtight container for several days. For long-term storage, tightly wrap in plastic, place in a zip-top bag and freeze for up to several months.

Nutrition | Per serving: Calories: 320; Saturated Fat: 10 g; Cholesterol: 90 mg; Sodium: 70 mg; Carbohydrates: 41 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugars: 26 g; Protein: 4 g