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I’ve been on a pound cake bender this year, baking and tweaking and baking and tweaking to define my ideal. Pound cake may not rank high on anyone’s sexy, exciting baking list, but I love their unassuming simplicity — perfect any hour of the day, just begging to have a sliver sliced off each time you spot it on the kitchen counter.
As with the perfect chocolate chip cookie or the perfect brownie, the definition of “perfect pound cake” varies from person to person. My ideal pound cake is buttery with a dense but smooth / creamy / plush crumb. It should be moist but not overly so, and just sweet enough to enjoy without accompaniment (though a glaze can glam it up for show). Finally, a pound cake should boast a beautifully golden crust with an attractive crack down the center. Let’s dive into my formula and top tips for pound cake perfection!
My formula for plush sour cream pound cake
Traditional pound cake formulas use equal parts (by weight) butter, sugar, eggs, and flour. While you can make a delicious cake using these proportions, many modern bakers (including myself) like to tweak things a bit to create a recipe that aligns with our personal tastes. Here’s a rundown of the ingredients in my pound cake:
- Fats: Pound cake equals rich, buttery flavor, so I use mostly unsalted butter in this recipe. Just a touch of neutral oil adds a little extra moisture.
- Leavening: Pound cakes traditionally don’t call for any leavening, hence its characteristic dense crumb. I add a small pinch of baking powder for a little lift, but the lion’s share of the rise comes from proper creaming of the butter and sugar (more on this later).
- Sugar: For cakes in general, I prefer using superfine / caster sugar as the extra-fine granules dissolve quickly during the creaming process and produce an ultra-fine texture. I usually make my own by processing regular granulated in a food processor for about a minute.
- Eggs: I use a combination of whole eggs and yolks for a rich texture that’s not overly bouncy or dry from too much egg white. The yolks add a little extra fat and emulsification power, which allows for more liquid in the cake overall without compromising the structure.
- Flour: For this pound cake, I use bleached cake flour. I tested with all purpose and a mixture of cake and all purpose, but using all cake flour by far produced the most even and tender crumb. All-purpose flour in Canada is usually made from hard wheat, which normally doesn’t pose much of a problem in my recipes. But in this case, I noticed that cakes made with all purpose flour would routinely have a few gummy, dense streaks and a less even crumb overall. It’s possible that bleached and lower protein all-purpose flours would work fine, but I haven’t been able to test them out yet. Cake flour tends to clump, so I always recommend sifting it before mixing. For a thorough explanation on cake flour, see this article on Serious Eats.
- Dairy: My main change to the classic pound cake formula is replacing some of the fat and eggs with full-fat sour cream, which both adds flavor and keeps the cake tender for days. I add a touch of milk as well so the cake doesn’t get too heavy. I do not recommend substituting the sour cream with low-fat varieties, yogurt or any other dairy product.
- Extracts/flavoring: I love the combination of vanilla and almond extracts for a classic bakery-style flavor. Use pure, not imitation, extracts — imitation almond extract in particular can taste harsh and…well, fake. If you don’t like almond extract, replace with more vanilla. As always, a bit of salt helps round out the flavor and keep the sweetness in check.
- Pan size: My pan of choice is a 9x4x4 pullman pan, which results in a beautifully tall cake with straight sides. You can substitute a 9×5 loaf pan. Do not use a smaller pan or your cake may overflow; if you only have a smaller loaf pan (8×4 or 8.5×4.5), fill the pan so there’s an inch of space at the top and bake extra batter in mini loaf pans or cupcake tins.
- Use room temperature ingredients! Ensuring all your ingredients are at room temperature is crucial to a properly mixed cake. Butter and sugar will cream up to the right texture without overmixing, and ingredients will blend properly. Butter should be cool but soft enough that it’ll hold an indent if pressed. It should not feel greasy or oily. (If you have an instant-read thermometer, you’re aiming for 60-65F.) Bring eggs and dairy out of the fridge for 1-2 hours before mixing. You can bring eggs up to temperature quickly by soaking them in warm water for a few minutes. You can warm the sour cream/milk on 30% power in the microwave in short bursts; just take care not to go too far (again, aiming for temperature around 65F).
- Don’t rush the mixing process. Cream your butter and sugar until it’s noticeably expanded in volume and lightened in color. Proper aeration of the butter is what will give your cake a good rise and even crumb, so don’t cut your creaming short! Mix on medium speed and scrape down the paddle and sides of the bowl periodically to make sure no dense pieces of butter remain. When adding the eggs, go slowly — you’re trying to force liquid and fat together, two things which don’t normally like to mix. I like to lightly beat my eggs and extracts together so I can stream them in gradually. If your eggs are at the proper temperature, they should easily mix into the butter-sugar mixture without breaking. While a curdled batter isn’t the end of the world and should still result in a delicious cake, a properly emulsified batter will bake up with the best crumb and texture.
- Bake the cake fully. Pound cakes are thick and dense, so they take a long time to bake — more than an hour! Start checking for doneness until your kitchen smells of buttery goodness and the cake is well risen and golden. Cracks in the surface will be pale, but not wet; a skewer inserted in the middle should come out clean.
- Cool completely. The crumb of the cake will continue to set as it cools. Once the pan is cool enough to handle, turn the cake out and wrap in plastic to cool completely before serving. I find pound cakes taste best on the second/third day: the moisture is well distributed and the flavor has time to bloom.
Plush Sour Cream Pound Cake
Makes one 9x4x4 or 9×5 cake
For the cake:
- 140g full-fat sour cream, at room temperature
- 50g milk, at room temperature
- 150g (about 3 large) eggs, at room temperature
- 54g (about 3 large) egg yolks, at room temperature
- 2 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 1/2 tsp pure almond extract
- 180g unsalted butter, at room temperature
- scant 3/4 tsp kosher salt (Diamond Crystal)
- 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 300g granulated sugar (preferably caster or superfine)
- 28g neutral oil (I like grapeseed)
- 250g cake flour, sifted
For the glaze (optional):
- 70g icing sugar, sifted
- Pinch of kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp hibiscus powder (optional, for color)
- 1-2 Tbsp milk or cream, plus more as needed
- Preheat oven and prepare pan: Preheat the oven to 350F with a rack in the middle. Grease a 9×4 pullman pan or 9×5 loaf pan (I recommend aluminum, not glass or ceramic) and dust with flour, shaking out the excess.
- Prep ingredients: In a medium bowl or glass measuring cup, mix together the sour cream and milk. In a glass measuring cup with a spout, lightly whisk together the eggs, egg yolks, and extracts.
- Cream the butter and sugar: Place the butter, salt, and baking powder in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium until smooth, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the paddle and sides of the bowl. Turn the mixer back to medium and add the sugar in a gradual stream. Once all the sugar has been added, continue mixing on medium until pale and very fluffy, about 5-6 minutes. Scrape down the paddle and sides of the bowl 2-3 times during this creaming process to ensure even mixing. Add the oil and mix well to combine.
- Add the eggs: With the mixer on medium, slowly stream in the egg mixture about a tablespoon at a time, letting each addition fully incorporate before adding more. Take your time — adding too much liquid at once can cause the mixture to curdle and affect the final texture of the cake. Scrape down the paddle and sides of the bowl 2-3 times during this process. Once all the eggs have been added, continue mixing for about 30 seconds to make sure the batter is well combined.
- Alternate the flour and liquid: Turn the mixer down to low. Add the flour and sour cream-milk mixture in five additions, beginning and ending with the flour. Use a flexible spatula to fold from the bottom of the bowl a few times to make sure the batter is well-mixed and no pockets of flour remain.
- Bake the cake: Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Run a chopstick or skewer through the batter to pop any large air pockets, then use an offset spatula to smooth the top. (Note: If desired, rub a butter knife with a little softened butter and slice down the center of the cake — this encourages the cake to split in the middle. Totally optional.) Bake until golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean, about 65-85 minutes. (This is a fairly tall and rich cake; err on the side of a few extra minutes in the oven to make sure it’s fully baked through. The pullman pan will take a little longer than a 9×5 pan.)
- Cool the cake: Cool the cake for 15 minutes in the pan, then run a thin knife around the edges and turn onto a wire rack. Wrap in plastic and allow to cool completely, at least 3 hours or overnight.
- Glaze (optional) and serve: If glazing, unwrap cooled cake and place on a serving platter. Whisk together the icing sugar, salt, and hibiscus powder (if using) in a small bowl. Drizzle in liquid of choice a couple teaspoons at a time, whisking well after each addition, until you reach the desired consistency. Pour or drizzle over cake. Allow glaze to set for 10 minutes before slicing and serving. Store leftovers in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days.