Pound It: Pound Cake Recipe, Circa 1824

So, here's the deal. Anyone who has ever had the slightest bit of curiousity about why Pound Cake is referred to as such is probably aware that it is derived from the French "Quatre Quarts"--meaning, literally, four quarts--which refers to the equal weight of the four ingredients (eggs, butter, sugar, flour) which went into early versions of the cake. Apparently, this easy ratio was necessary because"  In the days when many people couldn't read, this simple convention made it simple to remember recipes." (What's cooking America".

But what this brief historical lesson does not tell you, however, is how these early versions tasted.

And so, dear friends, I bravely stocked up my reusable grocery tote (I am in Seattle, after all) with a whole lot of eggs, butter, sugar, and flour, and tried it out for you.

Of course, my first inclination was to try this recipe, found on The Food Timeline:

[1817] A Pound cake, plain.
Beat a pound of butter in an earthen pan till it is like a thick cream, then beat in nine whole eggs till it is quite light. Put in a glass of brandy, a little lemon-peel shred fine; then pork in a pound and a quarter of flour. Put it into your hoop or pan, and bake it for one hour."
---The Female Instructor or Young Woman's Guide to Domestic Happiness, [Thomas Kelly:London] 1817 (p. 462)

But as tempting as it was to figure out how to "pork in" a pound and a quarter of flour, something seemed missing from this recipe: namely, sugar. So instead I opted for a variation on the recipe (also from the Food Timeline):

[1824] Pound cake.
Wash the salt from a pound of butter and rub it till it is soft as cream, have ready a pound of flour sifted, one pound of powdered sugar, and twelve eggs well beaten; put alternately into the butter, sugar, flour, and the froth from the eggs; continuing to beat them together till all the ingredients are in, and the cake quite light; add some grated lemon peel, a nutmeg, and a gill of brandy; butter the pans and bake them. This cake makes an excellent pudding if baked in a large mould, and eaten with sugar and wine. It is also excellent when boiled, and served up with melted butter, sugar, and wine."
---The Virginia Housewife, Mary Randolph, with historical notes and commentaries by Karen Hess [University of South Carolina Press:Columbia] 1984 (p. 161)

In this version, the proportions were pretty much a pound each, but in the effort to produce the most pure final product, I did not add the peel, nutmeg, or brandy.

So, here's how it all went down.


  • First, creaming the butter til it was "like cream"--basically, I beat it (in my very not 1824-esque Kitchen Aid) until it was softer than butter itself, and became an aromatic, beautiful sort of thing that begged to be slathered on bread.
  • In my second stand mixer (because yes, I have two...jealous?), I separately mixed the eggs. What did "well-beaten" mean? I took it to mean "beat into complete submission", so I let them thoroughly froth up by mixing them on medium for about 5 minutes (but to be 100% honest, I didn't really look at the clock).
  • Then, I started to add the rest of the ingredients, bit by bit, to the extremely creamy, dreamy butter.
  • This makes a pretty significant bit of batter, so I divided among a few pans. I baked each cake in a moderate (350-degree) oven until lightly golden on top--about 30-45 minutes depending on the pan size.  


But what of the cake that came out of the oven? Amazingly, this cake was far lighter than I would have expected. The crumb was surprisingly delicate, and the texture almost feathery--and yet, and yet, the indescribeably buttery and rich taste allows you to make no mistake, this is a serious cake through and through.

Would I suggest moving back to our pound cake roots? Probably not, because ultimately (for better or worse) I think I do prefer the hefty, dense, sliced loaves of pound cake that are more common these days. But it did make for a sweet experiment, and an even sweeter taste of history.

Want more? You can find a plethora of historic poundcake recipes (and info) on Food Timeline.