Here I am, after a long time, with a new recipe for my cooking repertoire, the pound cake, known as quattro quarti in Italian. This is probably the cake I make more often, especially in its version made with extra virgin olive oil, the most appreciated during our cooking classes, but also the one I rely on when I don’t have a clear idea on what to bake.
It calls for very simple ingredients, from your pantry. It has the scent and flavour of a time past cake, one your grandmother would make, to keep on her kitchen cupboard. Once baked, it can indeed be kept for a few days on a plate, or on a cake stand, at hand, a slice for your afternoon snack, one for your breakfast, along with a cup of tea, one if you feel a little peckish… this makes for a traditional cake to know, and to love, an ace up your sleeve.
The pound cake, how it works
The pound cake, known as quatre quarts in French, quattro quarti in Italian, is one of the simplest pastry recipes, which thrives especially in the households. Originated in the North of Europe, the pound cake spread throughout the continent, in America and in other countries with slightly different names, but keeping the same basic rule in its realisation.
The original pound cake contained one pound each of eggs, sugar, flour and butter. Hence its English name, pound cake, and its French or Italian name, quattro quarti, four quarters.
What you need is therefore a scale to weigh the eggs, with their shell. The weight of the eggs will then give you the amount of sugar, flour and butter to use. Now I add also baking powder. Usually I use 8 grams (1/4 oz, or 1/2 tablespoon) when I use 3 eggs, 12 grams (1/2 oz, or 3/4 tablespoon) when I use 4 eggs. Spices of your choice, a pinch of salt and you’re done: you can imagine infinite combinations, all starting from the same, very reliable recipe.
Why? Because you can make small and large variations to each category of ingredient, and now we’ll see how you can do it.
The ingredients of the pound cake
Before beginning the analysis of the ingredients of the pound cake, a heartfelt thank you to Emanuela, La Dolce Peonia, a dear friend and my favourite pastry chef, who helped me with her knowledge and her kindness to balance them properly.
I always prefer to use organic free range eggs. In Italy the medium eggs you buy in a supermarket have a standard size of about 60 grams per egg (2 1/8 oz). They roughly correspond to US large eggs, which weight about 57 grams (2 oz). You can read this article for further information on the size of eggs.
This means that now, without weighing them, I know that with 3 eggs I will usually use 180 grams (6 1/3 oz) of the other three ingredients, the perfect amount for a 20 cm (8 inch) round baking pan. With 4 eggs, though, I will use 240 g (8 1/2 oz) of the other ingredients, enough for a round baking pan of about 24 cm (9-10 inches), or for a classic loaf pan.
Now that we now use the eggs of our chickens, it is very important to weigh them, because the eggs can vary even by 20 or 30 grams from one to the other. The bright side is the intense yellow hue they give to each cake, and the genuine flavour.
Let’s start with the amount of sugar to use. According to the pound cake recipe, you should use exactly the same quantity of the other ingredients. Cake after cake, I realised that you can safely reduce the amount of sugar without having structural problems, especially if you add fresh fruit to the batter: the apple cake made with a pound cake ratio is excellent, for example, and, for my taste, the sugar should be reduced by 30-40 grams (about 1 oz).
As for the type of sugar you use, choose the regular white sugar, cane sugar, raw cane sugar or even muscovado, according to your taste.
Honey works too.
You can replace it in small quantities, let’s say no more than a 1/3 of the sugar, to add softness to the cake crumb and a distinctive taste, based on the type of honey you use (a robinia honey will be significantly less assertive than a wildflower or a chestnut honey). If you want to replace the sugar completely with honey, slightly reduce its quantity, as it has higher sweetening power than sugar. Remember that it tends to caramelize while baking, so a cake made with honey will darken in the oven faster than a cake made with sugar. I usually prefer to lower the oven temperature to prevent the cake from burning on the outside. So do not be fooled by the colour of your cake: check it with a toothpick to verify that it has been baked properly.
When it comes to the flour to use in your pound cake, choose a regular all-purpose flour, a cake flour, a stone-ground flour or even a whole wheat one. I usually use the Italian type 1 flour, which roughly corresponds to a stone ground flour. It gives me the right compromise between taste and texture. I often use farro flour, either the white or the wholemeal. You can also replace small quantities of flour with almond meal or chestnut flour. A gluten-free flour mix would work just as well.
If you want to make a chocolate cake, you can replace 10% of the flour with unsweetened cocoa powder (about 1/4 cup). Cocoa powder tends to dry the batter, so you should rebalance the quantity of the other ingredients. Add about 40 grams of liquids (1/8 cup), which will serve also to add flavour to your batter: try with water, for a neutral taste, but also with milk, coffee, orange juice, mandarin juice, or even a plant milk.
The fat ingredients
This is when the fun begins, as fat is the ingredient that most affects the flavour and texture of the pound cake. Initially made with lard or butter, I took the liberty of replacing them with any ingredient that would even vaguely remember a fat.
Instead of butter, you can use ricotta, fresh whipping cream, sour cream, whole yogurt, Greek yogurt, mascarpone… Each time you will get a different texture and flavour. If you use mascarpone or sour cream, your pound cake will be dense, moist, rich. With yogurt or ricotta, you will have a lighter, but also drier pound cake, with the texture of a breakfast cake. Especially when you use ricotta, adding also a little butter or olive oil would make your cake softer.
And what about olive oil?
The interesting part comes when you replace butter with extra virgin olive oil (or another vegetable oil). You get a soft, moist pound cake, which keeps for longer. In this case, I prefer not to use the same amount, as the result would be a cake which is at the same time too greasy and too dry.
Butter is usually made of 83% of fat, while the remaining part is water. Extra virgin olive oil, or a good vegetable oil, is 99.9% fat. What is missing in the oil to make the cake soft is indeed a part of water.
Therefore, to simplify it, when I make a pound cake I use 2/3 of extra virgin olive oil and 1/3 of water. Sometimes, based on the other ingredients and on the result I want to get, I replace the water with orange or tangerine juice, coffee, tea, a plant milk, or a sweet wine, like a vinsanto.
This gives to my cake the right amount of fat and moisture, and above all, in the case of lactose intolerances, it allows you to have a very good, soft cake, made without dairy products.
A few more notes
Depending on the ingredients you chose, you will also change the sequence in which they are added into the batter. If you make a pound cake with butter, first you would beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy, and then you would add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Now can you add flour, baking powder, salt, and the aromas or spices of your choice. If you have beaten butter and sugar properly, you could even avoid the baking powder, as in the original recipe. It is very important, especially when you use butter, to have all the ingredients at room temperature.
In the case of the other fats, on the other hand, I usually beat the eggs with the sugar, then I add the fat I have chosen, and then, at the end, the flour and the other ingredients.
Emanuela pointed out that, in the case of the quatre quarts Breton, the most famous French pound cake made in Brittany, the fat is obviously the excellent salted Breton butter, which is however stirred in at the end, as a last ingredient, once melted.
Now you have all the elements to build your ideal cake.
Remember that you can also add fresh or canned fruit, both diced in the cake batter or sliced on top, dried fruit, nuts, raisins and candied fruit, chocolate chips. You can flavour your cake with the spices you like the most, from cinnamon to cardamom, from vanilla to nutmeg, to my favourite aroma, the grated citrus zest – lemon, orange, bergamot…
You can cut your cake in half and spread it with whipped cream, pastry cream, chocolate, or jam. If you want to make it fancy, glaze your cake with a light icing made of icing sugar and lemon juice, cover it with a chocolate ganache, or with buttercream, or soak it with a citrus syrup, a vanilla syrup, or even an elderflower one.
Coffee and vanilla pound cake
Today’s pound cake is meant for breakfast. I chose a white farro flour and, following Emanuela’s precious advice, I layered the ingredients. Not just one type of sugar, but white sugar and dark cane sugar. Not just one fat ingredient, but half Greek yogurt and half butter, melted, and stirred in at the end, as in the quatre quarts Breton. This gives more depth to the cake, and makes it more interesting, certainly softer and richer. As for the aroma, I chose vanilla, a homemade extract I make from year to year with vodka and vanilla beans.
Then I marbled the cake with coffee, to frame the dessert right at breakfast time.
I simply added two spoonfuls of espresso and a spoonful of unsweetened cocoa powder to a third of the batter. To make it even more tempting, something to really wake you up in the morning, as soon as I took the cake out of the oven I brushed it with a vanilla syrup. If you want to be more adventurous, replace this syrup with a cardamom one, or a syrup made with tonka bean. Follow the same method illustrated in the recipe and simply replace the spices.
If you are a chocolate lover, drizzle the pound cake with a chocolate glaze. When the chocolate glaze is still soft, sprinkle the pound cake with two tablespoons of chopped pistachios.
A note on the ingredient conversion.
To make it easier to bake this pound cake, I used grams and ounces in this recipe, not cups and tablespoons, as to respect the pound cake ratio. I rounded down the ounces, too, and they will work perfectly with US large eggs (2 oz each).
For the size of the pan, check this post by Joyofbaking.com.
Now you just have to make yourself a coffee, or a cappuccino, and set your table for breakfast.
Coffee and vanilla pound cake
- 4 eggs, about 8 oz
- 120 g (4 oz) white sugar
- 120 g (4 oz) dark cane sugar
- 120 g (4 oz) Greek yogurt
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 240 g (8 oz) white farro flour
- 12 g (1/2 oz) baking powder
- 1 pinch of salt
- 120 g (4 oz) butter, melted
- 2 tablespoons espresso
- 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
For the vanilla syrup
- 50 g (1/4 cup) water
- 50 g (1/4 cup) sugar
- ¼ vanilla bean
- Heat the oven to 170°C (340°F), fan assisted.
- Beat the eggs and the two sugars until light and creamy. Stir in the Greek yogurt and the vanilla extract, and mix until perfectly incorporated.
- Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt and add them into the batter. Stir to remove all the lumps, then finish with the melted butter. Stir well.
- Transfer 1/3 of the batter into a bowl and add the cocoa powder dissolved into the espresso. Stir until you get a smooth batter.
- Grease a 9x5x3in loaf pan, and line it with parchment paper. Fold the paper so that it sticks to the edges of the pan.
- Pour half of the white pound cake batter into the pan. Spoon half the coffee batter into the pan. Finish with the white batter, and then again spoon the coffee batter on top. Now swirl a wooden skewer or a knife through the batter.
- Bake the pound cake for about 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean.
- While the cake is baking, prepare the vanilla syrup. Pour the sugar and the water into a saucepan, add the vanilla and bring to a boil, then let it simmering for about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and let it cool down.
- When the pound cake is ready, remove it from the oven and brush it immediately with the vanilla syrup, while it is still hot. Remove it from the pan and let it cool completely before slicing it.
- It keeps well for a few days at room temperature, in a tray or on a cake stand, on the kitchen table.
A few ideas from the archive for pound cakes
The possibilities are endless, but these are the ones I bake more often.
- Chocolate pound cake. Replace 30 grams of flour with 30 grams of unsweetened cocoa powder, use extra virgin olive oil as a fat and as a liquid to balance the cocoa powder try coffee, or tangerine juice. Add a handful of chocolate chips and a generous pinch of salt. If you want to add fruit, try pears, as in this pear and chocolate cake.
- Mascarpone pound cake with strawberries. Not too sweet, simple, packed with lots of fresh fruit.
- A pound cake as the starting point for my apple olive oil cake. This is the most loved here on the blog and on Instagram, soft and moist, a cake for every moment of the day, from breakfast to your afternoon break, but also to close with a sweet note a meal.
- Citrus pound cake. A dense, moist, rich cake with candied citrus peels and winter spices.
- Lemon and white chocolate pound cake. The fat component is given by butter and white chocolate. I have also slightly reduced the amount of sugar not to have an excessively sweet cake. Choose organic lemons in order to use their zest light-heartedly.
A pound cake in your cooking repertoire
After reading Cooking for Mr. Latte, by Amanda Hesser, I fell in love with the concept of having a cooking repertoire, and I decided to share here on the blog these recipes, staples of a Tuscan repertoire, analysing the ingredients and the process with plenty of details so that, if you want, you’ll be able to include them into your collection and make Tuscan cooking your signature style.
I chose these recipes not to impress, but to nourish, and because, using Amanda Hesser’s words, they would express my true sensibility as a cook, not my ambition.
All the recipes of my cooking repertoire
These are all the recipes I added so far into my cooking repertoire. This is an ever growing list, an always expanding collection which represents the way I live Tuscan food and cooking. Have you already tried something?
- Crespelle alla fiorentina. It is a handy recipe to learn as you can vary the filling according to the season: asparagus, artichokes and butternut squash are some of my favourites along with spinach and Swiss chard. You can mix the vegetables with fresh milky ricotta or add some béchamel into the filling. Cheese is a welcomed ingredient: Parmigiano Reggiano, Tuscan or Roman Pecorino, ricotta salata, or any other savoury aged cheese that you would happily grate over your pasta.
- Ricotta and Tuscan kale gnudi. There are two crucial ingredients here which can help you ease the anxiety while waiting for your gnudi to float tot the top: ricotta and cavolo nero, the Tuscan kale. Use a well-drained ricotta and squeeze very well the cooked kale. Once you make this, they will be your next success in the kitchen.
- Tuscan ragù. The Tuscan ragù is cooked with red wine, poured in little by little, and with tomato purée (just tomatoes that have been peeled and blended into a sauce), even better if it is your home made tomato purée, made during the heat of summer. To give more character to the ragù and have a more rustic sauce, sometimes I prefer to replace the passata with the same weight of peeled tomatoes, roughly crushed with my hands.
Main courses and side dishes
- Beef and eggplant meatballs. According to the season, you can substitute roasted eggplants with boiled potatoes, roasted butternut squash or breadcrumbs soaked in milk. I usually choose between grated Parmigiano Reggiano, aged Pecorino or Provolone to add flavour to the meat, sometimes adding brined capers, too. This time I opted for Parmigiano, along with a pinch of dry oregano to give a mediterranean touch.
- Stuffed turkey breast. One of the recipes that my mum taught me and that I immediately associate with Sunday lunches is the stuffed turkey breast, roasted on the stovetop and not in the oven. It is a humble dish, but it has an enormous potential.
- Baked eggplants. Colours and textures of that once loved recipe surfaced along with the ingredients: eggplants of course, either the round purple ones or those thin long ones, then breadcrumbs, parsley, capers, garlic and some grated Parmigiano. There it was, my forgiving recipe, thick slices of eggplants topped with boldly flavoured breadcrumbs, roasted in the oven until golden and crisp.
- Italian potato salad. So a potato salad, which I had overlooked for years, becomes a distinguishing element of a menu, especially if you dress it with an Italian twist, with wild fennel, capers and olives. You can find the same aromas in a roasted pork loin with olive oil and wine, or in the baked eggplants that you are planing to serve as an appetiser.
- Apple olive oil cake. You can dress it up for a dinner party: serve a slice of warm apple cake with a scoop of vanilla gelato, a cloud of whipped cream or a drizzle of custard. Wrap in foil a slice of cake for a school break or an office break. Bake the olive oil apple cake on a Sunday and enjoy it for breakfast on the first days of the week with a strong coffee or a cappuccino.
- Ricotta crumb cake. I still have to decide if I prefer the cake warm from the oven, or after a few hours of fridge. This ricotta crumb cake is an unmissable summer cake, and I’ll let you decide when to serve it, if you are in hurry or armed by adamant patience.