Long before cookbooks became staples in home kitchens, bakers relied upon easy-to-remember recipes for festive desserts. Verbally handed down through generations, these heirloom recipes often called for just a few ingredients to craft fabulous culinary creations.
Back in the day, grocers seldom carried exotic flavorings or bold stir-ins. Their culinary challenge: bake a cake using the local staples available; flour, sugar, butter and eggs. Before you think this to be an easy task, the batter had to take a beating while baking in ovens heated without thermostats.
Out of necessity, the pound cake was born. The name offered an easy to remember the recipe for those bakers who seldom took pencil to paper: a pound of each flour, sugar, butter and eggs. The sweetened thick batter nicely held up to quick moves around hot spots in old-fashioned ovens.
All this rough handling in the kitchen gave pound cake a reputation for feeling heavy on the taste buds. For dinner parties, home bakers got creative with interesting and distracting toppings, such as preserved fruit in syrup along with a splash of brandy. At last resort, one could gently toast and serve with jam.
All this came to my mind while I thumbed through vintage cake recipes, stumbling upon one for coconut pound cake.
The cake's batter, baked in a tall tube pan, stayed true to the original recipe for ingredients with no leavening other than eggs. Buttercream frosting spread on the pound cake's top and sides, holding in place a heavy coating of sweetened coconut.
As I turned the page, it occurred to me that we can do better by the battered poundcake. I always liked the culinary concept of a tight and firm cake texture that hits the taste buds with soft and billowy flavors. Reverse engineering this recipe, focusing upon coconut seemed the place to start.
With reliable ovens and diverse ingredients at our disposal today, why not rework the original pound cake recipe to incorporate the moistness and flavors added after baking? My plan: hold the frostings; lighten up the sugar and amp up the tropical flavor without relying upon any sweetened shredded coconut. Game on!
First up I swapped some of the butter for coconut oil. This exchange infused mild coconut flavor along with the added moistness of oil. Here butter prevents a greasy texture after baking and the oil builds the first layer of coconut flavor.
My original recipe called for all-purpose flour, but I decided to bake with cake flour. This softer flour creates tight-knit texture without feeling overly dense on the taste buds. The softer flour also allowed me to decrease the number of eggs to three and gently lift the batter with baking powder.
Cake flour also helped keep the amount of sugar, also a texture softener, to 1½ cups. That option opened the door to elevating coconut flavor above the dominant nature of sugar. A small amount of salt enhances the batter's reduced sweetness.
Here's where this story gets interesting. The original recipe called for regular milk to loosen the batter. My plan switched coconut milk for the dairy version to infuse more tropical flavors. Not paying close attention, I accidentally used a can of coconut cream, and the results knocked my taste buds over! A splash of rum or extract easily finished the cake's flavor.
With all the moistness and coconut flavors infused into the pound cake's texture, no one missed the frosting, glaze or shredded coconut. I even held back on any powdered sugar dusting. This cake only needs a great cup of coffee or tea to complete an exquisite dessert experience.
For a perfectly sweet ending to an Easter dinner or spring brunch, simply slice and serve with fresh strawberries.
Baker's hint: You can substitute vanilla extract for the rum. Look for canned coconut cream in the Asian foods section.
• Annie Overboe, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, lives in Oakbrook Terrace. Write to her at email@example.com.