How To Make Classic Sour Cream Pound Cake from Scratch

Cooking Lessons from The Kitchn

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Having a good recipe for pound cake in your repertoire is a wonderful thing. It's most famous topped with whipped cream and fresh berries as a variation of strawberry shortcake, but it can also hold center stage served plain with just a dusting of powdered sugar.  Toast a slice for breakfast, offer it with tea to unexpected guests, or scoop a ball of ice cream on top and a drizzle it with chocolate sauce.  Pound cake will always be there for you.

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The pound cake is an old recipe that really did originally call for one pound of all its ingredients:  flour, sugar, eggs, milk.  These old-timey pound cakes were quite dense, as I'm sure you can imagine.  Today the concept remains, but the recipes have been modified to produce a more balanced cake — still substantial and tightly crumbed, but with more lightness and flavor from additions like baking soda, vanilla and salt.

Pound cake has many virtues.  It's fairly straightforward to make, and if stored in an air-tight container, it keeps very well for several days.  In fact, some say it is even better after the second day.  It also freezes beautifully: wrap it in a double layer of plastic wrap or wax paper followed by tin foil.  

Do I have to use cake flour?

The beauty of pound cake is that it can be assembled with things most of us have in our refrigerators and pantries:  eggs, sugar, vanilla, salt, even sour cream. The exception is cake flour, a slightly specialized item that may not be in a basic kitchen pantry. 

Cake flour is called for in most pound cake recipes. This is a bleached, low-protein flour that is specially milled to produce the fine, tender crumb you want in a cake.  I'm not a fan of bleached flours, however, and have found that pastry flour works just as well. Pastry flour has a slightly higher protein content than cake flour (more information here), and it can be more easily found in unbleached form. Bob's Red Mill makes an unbleached pastry flour which I picked up at my corner grocery store for $2.50 for a 1 1/2 pound bag. 

I have not had much luck using straight all-purpose flour, although there are recipes that call for it. This said, you can make a passable version of cake flour by substituting 2 tablespoons of corn starch for 2 tablespoons of flour per cup of flour.

Do I have to use a bundt pan?

A bundt pan is simply a round, high-sided cake pan with a central tube or chimney in the middle.  A cousin to the plain tube pan (which can also be used for pound cake), the bundt pan has fluted or grooved sides and bottom, some of which can be quite elaborate.  The bundt pan is not a unitasker, however, as we point out in this article

It is also perfectly acceptable to make a pound cake in a loaf pan. The recipe below can be divided between two 8.5" x 4.5" loaf pans.  This handy chart from The Joy of Baking will help you figure out the sizing.

Do I have to sift the flour?

Modern flour usually does not have to be sifted before measuring, but it does make a difference to sift the flour with the baking soda and salt.  This ensures that the soda and salt are well-distributed in the flour and adds some lightness to the flour.  Just place a sieve or small strainer over a mixing bowl and measure the flour into a sieve.  Add the salt and baking soda on top of the flour, lift up the sieve, and tap the side of the sieve to sift directly into the bowl.  When it comes time to add the flour to the batter, sifting it in again as you add it to the bowl gives the batter additional lightness.

What other kinds of pound cake can I make?

Pound cakes come in endless variations:  lemon or lime, chocolate, with a glaze, with nuts, or spices, or dried fruit. The pound cake offered here is a basic recipe.  It does contain sour cream, which is there more for to add moistness than for flavor.  You can add a tablespoon of finely grated lemon or lime, or a little nutmeg or mace, or sub out the vanilla for 1 teaspoon almond extract.  Be careful of adding a lot of additional liquids, though — these can influence the chemistry of the cake and may not produce optimal results. 

How To Make Classic Sour Cream Pound Cake

Makes one 10" bundt cake, serving 20

What You Need

Ingredients
3 cups unbleached pastry flour, plus extra for flouring the pan
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
2 1/2 cups sugar
6 large eggs (or 5 extra-large eggs)
2 teaspoons of vanilla extract
1 cup (8 ounces) sour cream
Confectioner's sugar, for garnish 

Equipment
10" bundt or tube pan
Pastry brush for buttering pan
Measuring cups and spoons
2 small and 1 large mixing bowl
Sieve (or small strainer)
Beaters or stand mixer (or wooden spoon)
Spatula
Cooling rack

Instructions

  1. Prepare the pan and preheat the oven to 325°.  Butter the bundt pan, being sure to get into all the nooks and crannies.  Sprinkle in a few spoonfuls of flour and tap the pan to distribute.  Tap out excess flour.  
  2. Sift the dry ingredients.  Sift the 3 cups of flour, baking soda and salt into a small bowl and set aside.
  3. Cream the butter and sugar.  In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.  
  4. Add the eggs and vanilla.  Crack the eggs into a small bowl and add the vanilla.  With the mixer running on low, add the eggs one at a time, beating well between each addition and scraping the sides of the bowl as needed.  
  5. Fold in the flour and sour cream.  Sift half of the flour over the butter and egg mixture, and stir gently with spatula.  Add the sour cream and continue to stir gently.  Sift the remaining flour over the batter and stir until all the flour has been incorporated.
  6. Pour the batter into prepared pan. Gently pour the batter into the prepared pan and tap the pan softly against the counter to remove air bubbles.
  7. Bake the pound cake. Bake for 60 minutes and check the cake. The cake is done with the top is deep golden-brown and a skewer or paring knife inserted in the middle comes out clean. If batter or wet crumbs cling to the blade, continue baking. Check every 5 minutes until the cake is done.
  8. Remove from oven and cool.  When the tester comes out clean, remove the cake from the oven and place the pan on a rack to cool for 10 minutes.  Invert the cake onto the rack and wiggle the pan gently until it lifts off of the cake. Allow the cake to cool for another hour.
  9. Dust with powdered sugar.  Dust the top of the cake with powdered sugar and serve.

Recipe Notes

  • A stand mixer is the easiest way to mix this cake.  I used a hand mixer with excellent results. You could also beat it by hand with a wooden spoon as our ancestors probably did, but be prepared for a lot of work! 
  • The batter may break and look curdled after you've added all of the eggs, but don't worry.  Once all the flour is incorporated, it should smooth out.
  • Be sure to beat well after each addition of egg.

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(Images: Dana Velden)

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