Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Pound Cake Alchemy  

So I've mentioned before that I like pound cake, and that I'm working on a recipe. To make this go faster, for a few months I made pound cakes at home, cut them in half, and served half to my coworkers. Based on feedback from me, my wife, my friends, and coworkers (too dry / too moist / just right; more vanilla / less vanilla / you use vanilla?), and based on events during the cooking (collapses, crust cracks, etc.) I made changes to the recipe, which I tried the next time.

At first I thought of this as the scientific method, or at least engineering. And in one sense it is: I'm doing the minimum required to perform science, which is identifying a subject matter, establishing a procedure to study it, taking careful notes about the study procedure, and recording the results. And I'm doing the minimum required to perform engineering, which is identifying the is

But later I realized that my procedure is more like alchemy: tweaking something again and again without a true theory in the hope that tweaking it will somehow make gold.

To truly make it "scientific", I'd need much more. At a minimum, I'd need to make my independent and dependent variables explicit. The independent variables are the things that I control, like the recipe, whereas the dependent variables are the outcomes, like whether the cake collapses and how it tastes. To determine the true sources of power, I'd need to change just one independent variable at a time, such as the number of eggs. To control for confounding factors in ingredients, I'd need to make two cakes at the same time, one "control" cake with the old recipe and one "experimental" with the new recipe. Furthermore, the evaluation should be double blind: I should give slices of the cakes to someone without either me or them knowing at the time which recipe they got, so taste and texture would be evaluated without the knowledge of how the results "should" turn out. Each recipe comparison should be done multiple times to control for the small-n factor. And going beyond this, other things ought to be varied, like temperature, cooking time, egg and flour varieties, etc...

Ultimately, the goal of many such experiments would be a working theory of pound cake baking: what pound cakes are, how they are baked, and what role each ingredient and each baking step has in producing the cake. Only with such a working theory could you actually do true engineering. Engineering is not science; its goal is not understanding. Instead, the goal of engineering is to take a problem description - produce a good pound cake that satisfies my late-night sweet tooth - and use the best available understanding to produce the best possible solution to the problem. Unlike a scientist digging into the unknown, an engineer's task is to think through all the implications of the known for any potential solution to the problem. With a working theory of pound cake baking, an engineer can tell me how large a cake I can bake, whether it is feasible to bake a cake in the ovens that are likely to be available to me, and perhaps even the optimium size of pound cake for the heating characteristics of my oven. If this was a real engineering problem, a well-trained engineer would automatically go further, inquiring about the rate of pound cake consumption and the expected shelf life of baked cake, and might end up suggesting that I bake a smaller (or larger) cake so that I get the most pound cake for the least baking effort, while still ensuring that I eat it all before it goes stale.

Obviously, I'm not going to do all that. I'm going to tweak my recipe until it works right, then bake that cake and eat it. But if somehow I get tossed over into the Groundhog Day universe, I've got a plan to make the Best. Cake. Ever. All it will take is ten thousand trials...

-the Centaur

Labels: ,


Ill be happy to lick the bowl
# posted by Blogger Sandi Billingsley : 7:48 AM
  Did you get yourself a Kitchen Aid mixer yet? It opens up a whole new world.
# posted by Anonymous Diane U : 11:46 PM
  Post a Comment

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pound Cake Reloaded  

So I tried making pound cake again, this time with success! I even brought it in to the Search Engine that Starts With a G to get comments from my coworkers, and none of them died (that I know of) and some of them even liked it (as reported on an anonymous form)! Even more of a success!

Here's what I did differently.

pound cake 2.0

First, I changed the recipe. This time, I adapted one from "I'm Just Here for More Food" by Alton Brown, a chef well known for his excellent, scientifically-based cooking. After cross-referencing against the Joy of Cooking, I felt safe leaving out the vanilla on the suspicion that last time's funny flavor wasn't just the Splenda but my fairly old vanilla flavoring (which I found was labeled "bourbon vanilla" which made me even more suspicious.) This left the recipe:
  • Three cups of allpurpose flour
  • Three large eggs
  • Two cups of sugar
  • One cup of buttermilk
  • One half pound of butter
  • One half teaspoon of salt
  • One half teaspoon of baking powder
Preparation was much easier this time with a $25 handheld motorized mixer from Fry's
. I used a few tricks this time:
  • Allow butter to warm to room temperature by itself - no heating in the microwave
  • Mix the butter and sugar and blend until fluffy with no sugar grains visible in the mix
  • Beat egg yolks and whites together and mix with butter and sugar blend in 3 batches
  • Sift all the dry goods (salt, baking powder, flour) together 3 times
  • Alternate adding the dry goods and buttermilk to the mix
Also, I was more careful flouring the pan to prevent sticking. As before, the oven was preheated to 325, baking was 1 hour, and the cake was allowed to sit a bit before being taken out of the pan.

pound cake 2.0

Results: Yum. The texture was light and flaky, on the edge of being too flaky. The flavor was good, though slightly bland - it could have used more vanilla. The crust had a good texture, but it could have been a bit darker.

pound cake 2.0

This was a good cake, but I got even better feedback from my coworkers and from myself. The cake needed vanilla, a slightly better mixing, and a slightly better cooling procedure. Nevertheless, the pound cake served its desired function:

pound cake 2.0

I will follow up soon with the details on how I tweaked the recipe until it was "perfect".

-the Centaur

Labels: , ,


Wednesday, March 04, 2009

National Pound Cake Day and More  

Thanks to Nancy Kress's blog, I just found out today, March 4th, is National Pound Cake Day.  Who knew? Well, apparently lots of people.  I haven't found out who invented this day based on one of my favorite foods ... but thanks!

Wonder if there's a National Kibbey Nayye Day?

-the Centaur

P.S. In researching this article, I was amazed at the bugs that crawled out from the rocks I turned over.  When looking for National Kibbeh Day I found this lovely bit of prejudice by the prolific Hytham Hammer on the Urban Dictionary:
kibbeh / kibbe
minced meat dish with almonds.
the damn Lebbos think that's a 'national' dish..well, fuck that. It's origins are North African... and yeah, it's taste-o!
Ok, Hytham, thanks for writing the entry.  But let's clear up a few things:
  1. I don't know what dish you're referring to, but kibbey as made in Lebanon does not contain almonds.  In Syria they sometimes put pine nuts in it, but in Lebanon a more typical recipe is: meat (lamb or mutton, or top round beef), bur'ghul (crushed wheat), minced onions, salt, black pepper, cumin, cinnamon.  Occasionally people add minced red peppers, allspice or mixed spice, and when I make it I do try those from time to time.  No almonds, unless you are talking about stuffed kibbey balls, which can contain almonds - in the filling, not in the kibbey, and saying kibbey requires almonds is like saying pizza requires anchovies just because you liked your mom's anchovy calzones. 
  2. "Lebbos"?
  3. Look, I don't care if the dish originated on Mars, it's still the national dish of Lebanon in that we eat it raw more than just about anyone else.  More generally, EVERYONE in the Middle East region has their own version of what EVERYONE ELSE eats, relabeled with their own names - good luck figuring out who invented what.  If you paid attention to the cuisine of the region rather than practicing some form of "my guys are the best" cultural imperialism, you'd find that out immediately.
  4. On the note of "my guys are the best" cultural imperialism, I reject it in all its forms. Send me your recipe - if it's better, it's better!
  5. Yes, it is tasty!
Hoy.  Suprises, surprises.

Labels: ,


Monday, March 02, 2009

Pound Cake: One Pound Each of Butter, Sugar, Flour and Eggs  

pound cake, soy milk and book spread

I enjoy a couple of slices of pound cake and milk as a late night dessert, but have difficulty finding pound cake that meets my standards. Forget the "loaf cakes" made by the big commercial bakeries: they're not bad, but they're not what I'm talking about.

ring pound cake

I'm talking about ring pound cakes. My neighbors made a dense, dry pound cake around Christmastime that was very good, but my favorites growing up were cakes you could get from Ingles: ring-shaped, light-textured, with a fluffy yellow center wrapped in a dark brown crust.

Usually there's only one store in any given region that makes these, the others sticking to loaf cakes. As I moved from Greenville, South Carolina, I found Kroger in Atlanta and later Safeway in San Jose had cakes that were similar, with slight variations in density and crust.

But there's something wrong in our modern commercial paradise: in the pursuit of the dollar or fashion businessmen tweak their good products until they become crappy and then discontinue them. I'm sure that's happened to all of you; and sure enough it happened to my pound cake.

First, Safeway started selling them only as half rings. Then they cut back on quantity. Then they replaced them entirely with "vanilla loafs" pre-cut entirely too thin. Whole Foods had decent-flavored loaf cakes, but they too have started pre-slicing them and cutting back on quantity.

I don't know what people have against pound cakes, but I can't find them locally baked, not even at bakeries - only icing-covered disasters, pudding cakes, and other variants, or alternatively Entenman's not-bad-but-not-good-enough butter loaves.

So, I am working on a pound cake recipe.

I made my first pound cake years ago, back in Atlanta. I was using the approximate "one pound" recipe: a pound of sugar, eggs, butter and flour. I didn't have a motorized mixer, and the hand mixing and stirring didn't cut it. It's fair to say this was a total FAIL. The flavor and crust were good, but the texture was dense as a brick and it was too hard to eat.

More recently, I tried again. I had planned to try this with sugar first, then introduce Splenda on the next cake, but dumb me forgot to buy sugar thinking we had some, which I discovered halfway through prepping the recipe. I adapted the recipe primarily from "Butter Sugar Flour Eggs" with a little help from the 1997 "Joy of Cooking":
  • One pound of unbleached allpurpose flour
  • One pound of eggs, separated
  • One pound of butter
  • Two and a half cups of Splenda baking sugar
  • 1/4tsp vanilla flavoring
  • "Just a pinch" of nutmeg and cinnamon
Preparation was much easier with a $25 handheld motorized mixer from Fry's, which cost less than the ingredients of the cake itself (to be fair, I think I bought other staples the night I bought the pound cake ingredients). The "trick" recommended by "Butter Sugar Flour Eggs" was to beat the egg yolks and egg whites separately; this worked out so-so in the egg whites step. In "Just Here For More Food" Alton Brown recommends a different method, which I will try next time.

pound cake and cookbook

That's right, all of the shots of pound cake shown in this article were from my first try of this recipe. It was a beautiful looking cake. The texture of this cake was slightly dense, but smooth and serviceable. The crust was very slightly dry but serviceable. The flavor I have to say was poor - it was in the right ballpark, one might even say it tasted right, but it had a chemical aftertaste. And I'm sad to say I don't think it was the Splenda ... I may have simply added too much vanilla extract.

two slices

I've been consuming this cake for a while for my late night reading sessions, but I finally broke down and got the Whole Foods cake for comparison, having one slice of each. Ah, drat - the Whole Foods cake was much better, both in texture and in flavor, though it didn't rise to the level of the long lost Ingles, Kroger or Safeway ring cake.

one slice

Oh well. Better luck next time.
-the Centaur

Labels: , ,


Quoting/paraphrasing Douglas Adams: "However, no one knew quite why businesses did market research because they invariably delivered a loaf of solid matter that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike pound cake".
# posted by Blogger bolot : 8:05 AM
  Just won the Pound Cake Class Baking contest the PA Farm Show with an old family recipe. This recipe has now won 3 times. Three generations. Anyway, you were close with yours......ours is:
1 lb butter (1 box salted)
1 lb sugar (2-2/3c)
1 lb eggs (~8xl)
1 lb flour (4c)
ingredients should be room temp.
beat and beat and beat the butter.
add sugar and beat and beat again.
add eggs and beat gently until the egg yolks are broken into small pieces.
add flour and fold or mix until ingredients are just mixed smooth - don't over beat.
put into a well greased bundt pan and bake at 325 for 1 hr 10 min...depends on the oven. check at one hour.
# posted by Anonymous Anonymous : 5:35 AM
  Post a Comment

Monday, November 17, 2008

This isn't going to go away  

I bumped into a couple African Americans in a Safeway line the other day.  All three of us were looking at a magazine cover with Barack Obama's family on the cover.   As the line moved and I turned forward, one of the men behind me said, "Wow, it still hasn't hit me," and the other said, "Yeah, I know, I can't believe it either".  I couldn't help but smile.

Then the first man said "Yeah, and the big thing is, it isn't the big story---" And his friend jumped in and said, "No, Proposition 8 is. And when that fails in the courts, they're going to look at it, and say, California, which is so liberal, didn't pass it twice ... so maybe that will make 'them' think twice."

I was dumbfounded, and had bought my pound cake and mouthwash and walked out of the store before I could think of an adequate comeback: "Did getting turned away from one or two schoolhouses make the civil rights movement stop?  No.  And this isn't going to go away either."

-the Centaur

Labels: , , ,


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?