You’d think it weighed a pound, right? Nope.
Saturday is National Pound Cake Day and it’s time to debunk the myth. According to the original recipe, four pounds is how much an original pound cake required. That’s one for each ingredient: flour, eggs, butter and sugar. Although it’s believed to originate in Europe in the 1700s, this simple recipe, which has been repeated and modified in American cookbooks as far back as the first one.
American Cookery, written by Amelia Simmons and published in Hartford, Connecticut in 1795, offered this recipe for the dessert: “One pound sugar, one pound butter, one pound flour, one pound or ten eggs, rose water one gill, spices to your taste; watch it well, it will bake in a slow oven in 15 minutes.”
To a modern baker, this recipe looks funny for a few reasons. First, 15 minutes isn’t very much time to bake a whole cake, particularly one that, as Susannah Chen notes for Pop Sugar, is “something far larger than what a modern-day family would consume—an amount over twice the volume of most loaf pans.” Second, it gives measurements in pounds, not cups.
Oven temperature was “more art than science” until the advent of the modern oven, writes Brian Palmer for Slate. So the “in a slow oven in 15 minutes” is just that, an estimate using a relatively cold oven. Into the twentieth century, he writes, cooks only had a few settings on their ovens and "slow" was the coolest.
As for measuring ingredients, by weight, well, that’s an ongoing battle. While American recipes today give ingredient measurements in cups and teaspoons, many other countries—notably in the U.K. and Europe—give measurements by weight.
Proponents of the weight system, like Sue Quinn writing for The Telegraph, argue that the cups system is inexact and produces unnecessary dirty dishes (all the measuring tools required for one recipe). One American baking expert she interviewed, Alice Medrich, told Quinn that she thinks there’s a legacy of suspicion of the humble kitchen scale. U.S. home cooks may have felt in the past that using a scale was too complicated, she says, though today’s love of kitchen gadgets has put the device in the hands of many home cooks.
Don’t throw out those measuring cups just yet, writes J. Kenji Lopez-Alt for Serious Eats (an American publication that gives recipe amounts in both cups and weights). For many recipes, he writes, the “best, most repeatable, most user-friendly system of measurement for home cooks is actually one that includes a mix of both mass and volume measurements.” For baking, though, he writes that measuring ingredients by weight is always best. It requires precision, and measuring ingredients always produces a more precise result.
If you’re celebrating National Pound Cake Day with Smithsonian, perhaps you’re planning to make your own. If you want to try using a scale, this guide from Serious Eats will help you get the best result.