Down the Baking Rabbit Hole: History of Pound Cake

Lemon Pound Cake on a Blue Cake Plate with the Title "History of Pound Cake" written on the side

Pound cake is a simple dessert with a ton of history behind it! Learn about the pound cake’s origins; how it got its name; its variations in France, Mexico, and the United States; pound cake sold commercially in the US; and the best time to make pound cake!

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Pound Cake

What do you think of when you hear the term pound cake? A sweet cake that’s perfect for all occasions because it can be dressed up or eaten plain? Or maybe a cake that’s simple to make and a staple in most bakers’ recipe collections?

For me, I think about breakfasts growing up and eating a slice of pound cake with fresh fruit or even munching on a slice of my mother-in-law’s lemon pound cake while catching up in her kitchen.

First Published Pound Cake Recipe

Doing a basic Google search on the history of pound cake results in many entries showing the first published pound cake recipe appearing in American Cookery, an American cookbook written by Amelia Simmons in 1795.

What most websites neglect to say, however, is that the first published pound cake recipe was actually included in The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, an English cookbook written by Hannah Glasse in 1747 (aka over 50 years earlier).

The original recipe was essentially a cake that was made from a pound of flour, a pound of sugar, a pound of butter, and a pound of eggs. This is actually where the pound cake received it’s name. Each ingredient added to the cake weighed one pound. At a time when most people were illiterate, or not able to read or write, this simple recipe was likely easy for anyone to remember without needing to refer to a cookbook.

Pound Cake and Epiphany Celebrations

According to a New York Times article, pound cake was previously a popular dessert served during the “Twelfth Night” or Epiphany celebration. During this Christian holiday, the Twelfth Night was the last day of a festival celebrating the 12 days of Christmas and the 3 magi visiting Jesus. This festival occurred during the first week of January.

Based on the article, it was an English tradition that during this celebration, “one drank mulled wine and ate pound cake.” As part of the festivities, the pound cake was incorporated into a party game. Before the game started, a pea and a bean were either baked directly into the cake or hidden in the sugar glaze on top of the cake with the bean in one half and the pea in the other. Men would eat slices of cake from the bean side and women would eat from the pea side. Whichever guest found the bean would be the “king” of the party and the person who found the pea would be the “queen.”

Pound Cake Around the World

Over the years, pound cake made its way from England to other countries, where they put their own spin on the recipe.

Pound Cake in France

In France, the pound cake is called le quatre quarts. This version originated in Brittany, a peninsula in the northwestern region of France, and the name literally means “four quarters.” These quarters pertain to the 4 main ingredients that are added into the cake in equal amounts. Typically, you would start by measuring the weight of the eggs and then add equal amounts of butter, flour, and sugar.

While most accounts say the pound cake is English in origin, while I was researching the French “four quarters” cake, I came across a recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking cookbook, where she stated, “The English like the formula so much that they use a pound of everything – hence, of course, pound cake.” The implication of this statement is that the French invented the cake recipe and the English then adapted it. I haven’t been able to find any evidence to support this, but it’s possible the pound cake’s English origins are up for debate.

Pound Cake in Mexico

Now, let’s travel to Mexico for another pound cake variation called the panqué. In Mexico, there’s a long tradition of eating pan dulce, or sweet bread. This tradition was heavily influenced by the French when they briefly occupied Mexico during the 19th century. It’s thought, that during this French occupation, the recipe for pound cake was popularized in Mexican bakeries.

Since then, there have been many different panqué versions that are very popular in Mexico including el panqué chino, a sweet bread that’s essentially a pound cake cupcake that’s baked in a paper wrapper; el panqué de chocolate which is chocolate pound cake; and el garibaldi, which is a pound cake glazed with honey or apricot jam and covered with sprinkles.

Pound Cake in USA

Last, but not least, we’re going to discuss pound cake in the United States. Adaptations to the original English recipe were present from the very first American published pound cake recipe in American Cookery. Not only were additinal flavors added like rose water, spices, and brandy, but the baking technique had also changed to incorporated whipped egg whites which helped to lighten the batter.

During the 1800s is also when we start to see toppings added to pound cake recipes. For example, the author of The Virginia Housewife, suggests serving the cake with melted butter and sugar, and in Modern Cookery for Private Families, it’s suggested to ice the cake with sugar glazings.

Over the years, the general pound cake recipe has had many modifications. Not only did recipes get smaller, which was helpful for home bakers, but chemical leavening agents like baking powder or baking soda were also added to make the cake texture less dense. Other variations include adding oil instead of butter, adding cocoa powder to make a chocolate pound cake, substituting sour cream, yogurt, or even ice cream for some of the butter to help increase moisture within the cake, adding flavorings like vanilla, lemon, orange, or almond, or even even adding mix-ins like blueberries, currants, cranberries, cherries, chopped nuts, or chocolate chips. Clearly, this cake lends itself to tons of different flavor combinations, which makes it a very versatile dessert option!

US Commercial Pound Cake – A Brief History

So far, we’ve primarily talked about pound cake made in home kitchens, but at the tail end of the 1800s, we start to see pound cake entering the mainstream retail market in the United States.

Entenmann’s All Butter Loaf Cake

One of the first well-known brands that began selling pound cake in the United States is Entenmann‘s. In 1898, William Entenmann, who was originally a baker in Germany, opened his own bakery in Brooklyn, New York. He began delivering his fresh-baked goods door-to-door in a horse-drawn wagon and during that time, their “All-Butter Loaf Cake,” which is essentially a pound cake, became a best-seller. Since opening, they’ve sold over 700 million pound cakes!!

You also might find it interesting to know Entenmann’s was the first company to invent see-through packaging for baked goods. Before this, baked goods had been sold in cardboard boxes that didn’t allow customers to see the cakes inside. With the invention of the cellophane window in the top of the cardboard box, people were now able to see the cakes in the packaging at the grocery store as if they were shopping at the bakery.

Sara Lee Pound Cake

Another brand that’s popular across the country is Sara Lee. Their Pound Cake was released in 1951 and quickly became a favorite. People from other states began asking for Sara Lee products to be shipped to them. The owner knew he wouldn’t be able to ship his fresh baked products across the country and have them get there in good shape, so he developed a process for freezing that retained the high quality everyone had come to know and love, which offering the ability for mass distribution around the country.

This new process involved freezing and shipping baked goods in the same foil container they were baked in. This is something that’s very common today, but at the time, no one had done this before. This revolutionary process not only helped to reduce production costs and costs to consumers, but it also led to huge success for Sara Lee products including the Pound Cake.

National Pound Cake Day

If you’re looking for the perfect time to make a pound cake, try it out on March 4th or National Pound Cake Day. That being said, you don’t need to wait for a special occasion. This is the perfect cake for a breakfast slice, to have when guests come over, or really anytime you’re craving a cake. The best part, is you can customize it with endless flavor variations and it’s super beginner-friendly.

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