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Credit: Yossy Arefi
Kitchn Love Letters

Edna Lewis’ White Pound Cake Taught Me the Importance of Using Good Ingredients

published Nov 28, 2020
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It is the evening before the Darley July Cup (a horse race at Newmarket in the East of England) and my kitchen is too hot to bake a pound cake, but bake I must. All the doors and windows are flung open in a futile attempt to catch a stray breeze, but all I seem to have caught are skeins of moths attracted by the yellow glow of the oven. The night begins to press against the windows. It is deeply and satisfyingly quiet — soporific even — despite the hum of the oven and the tiny taps of the moths against its glass door. 

This is an important evening, for I am baking Edna Lewis’ white pound cake — a cake that graced her own Race Day menu in The Taste of Country Cooking, first published in 1976. The cookbook author and chef might be known for her traditional American Southern cooking, but her reach is of course far greater. Her cake will crown our race day picnic tomorrow, surrounded by bright summer salads, coral-colored smoked salmon from the Suffolk coast, and tubs of clotted cream. Most of the food in our picnic changes from year to year, but a white pound cake is the non-negotiable part of our Race Day lunch and it must be Lewis’ recipe.

 I went to the races well before I first read Lewis’ The Taste of Country Cooking, but I felt an immediate kinship after reading about her own Race Day menu served beneath a canopy of oak trees “in the fresh November air.” Her white pound cake is an everyday sort of cake; the kind of cake that makes me think of mothers, and home, and hearth. But it’s not as humble as it appears. Lewis’ pound cake and her cookbook taught me that when your ingredients are good — and that doesn’t necessarily mean expensive — you don’t need to gild the lily. No matter how rarefied the occasion, a pound cake made with beautifully grown and locally-produced ingredients needs no other adornment.

Credit: Yossy Arefi

Edna Lewis grew up on a farm in Freetown, Virginia, in a community where eating seasonally was normal — long before it was marketed and commercialized. “The farm was demanding, but everyone shared in the work — tending the animals, gardening, harvesting, preserving the harvest, and every day, preparing delicious foods that seemed to celebrate the good things of each season,” Lewis writes in the introduction of The Taste of Country Cooking. Race Day was a community event, punctuating a year of work after the harvest in November. Her white pound cake was celebration food made with the freshest of ingredients.

“There is no question that African enslaved farmworkers spearheaded the farm-to-table movement,” award-winning author and chef Alexander Smalls tells me. Smalls, who also is also from the South, says this wasn’t just shown through farming skills, but also in the rituals and inherited practices that characterized their approach to working the land. “Edna Lewis was born of this tradition working the lands of her father’s in Virginia and she introduced these influences in her cooking and writings and expanded the narrative of the Black American kitchen,” he explains. 

The high-quality ingredients that characterize both farm-to-table cooking and The Taste of Country Cooking would cost a premium at your local farmers market. So much so, that one might find it hard to justify their use in such a simple recipe like pound cake. But this is a cake that lets its ingredients shine. Its lightly toasted outer crumb gives way to a soft, almost pure-white cake lightly perfumed with the cherry and apricot notes of the almond extract it is flavored with. The full measure of Lewis’ white pound cake can only be attained when you use the very freshest of ingredients and approach its making in the same way you would a more opulently appointed cake. This is not a cake to be rushed, but it is expenditure and effort you won’t regret. 

You could use ordinary supermarket butter, eggs, butter, and flour to bake this cake and sometimes that is all that is available to us; it’ll still taste great. But this is a special cake for a special occasion, and so I take time to shop for the best-quality ingredients I can afford. My raw cultured butter comes from Fen Farm Dairy, made in a town that was once known as “the butter capital of England,” and I buy my eggs and flour from Woosters, a local baker. The shopping is part of the pleasure.

This style of cooking and eating risks being romanticized, so it is important to acknowledge that it was hard work — even if the results were spectacular. Beating four to five egg whites by hand as Lewis once did is a different proposition for today’s cooks accustomed to KitchenAid stand mixers and electric whisks. And this is labor that came after one had already milked the cows at dawn and dusk and churned their milk into butter before heading off to the fields or the kitchen.

Eggs and flour weren’t the only ingredients to consider, however. Lewis’ craft was purposeful, and time was an important component in a recipe for her too, because there are never enough hours in the day when you live and work in a farming community. The pound cake was valued because it was a “keeper,” with a crumb that remained tender days after baking, which reduced waste. And if it did start to taste stale, slices could be grilled at no detriment to its enjoyment.

It’s also an easily transportable cake, so it was often included in the “shoebox lunches” made and eaten by Black Americans during the time of Jim Crow and segregation when dining en-route in restaurants and cafes was not a reliable or safe option and journeys were long and arduous. You might think a need for portability would affect the delicacy of its texture, but this is not the case at all. You could carry a slice in your pocket without it disintegrating, should you so wish. It is a cake which is, as Alexander Smalls reminds me, “foundational to Southern cooking. It is a hallmark as much as a testimonial to the makeup and character of Southern cooks and kitchens.” 

Credit: Yossy Arefi

Just as pound cakes prevail, so did the Southern cooks like Lewis who perfected their recipes, gaining experience by watching and emulating older, more skilled cooks. “People were often defined by their ability to make the best pound cake in town,” Smalls explains. “It was a coveted title that many sought out, but few owned and were recognized for. If your cake was moist and the texture seamlessly consistent throughout — a nice crusty outer layer and a kiss of citrus perhaps — you were celebrated.”

I’ve been baking Edna Lewis’ white pound cake for Race Day for 15 years now. The cake is part of our family history now and when we arrive at the racecourse it feels as if Lewis is there in spirit too — and it is not just the Spirit of Cake, but the thud of hooves and rush of air as the horses fly past, the bright silks of the jockeys, and spreading skirts of the female racegoers, the hats, and even the little cake forks. I slice my pound cake with a flourish and encourage everyone to “have another piece,” and I imagine Edna Lewis doing the same.