Torta quattro quarti in Italian, pound cake in English. Either way, this is one of my favorite cakes to make and to eat. There is something magical about a cake that rises so beautifully without added leavening, producing that deep golden brown, slightly crunchy crust and those dramatic cracks that allow a peek into the pale, buttery interior.
Pound cake is British in origin (you probably know that), dating to the early 1700s. Four ingredients comprised the original recipe: one pound each of butter, eggs, flour, and sugar ~ plus all the elbow grease that was needed to beat enough air into the batter to allow the cake to properly rise in the oven. The stand mixer does the hard work now.
Even so, many modern pound cake recipes call for baking powder and/or soda. These ingredients may insure a good rise, but a pound cake with added leavening lacks the beautifully dense, velvety crumb of a true pound cake. So on this matter I am a purist ~ no extra leavening.
On the other hand, I am big on improvisation, and such a simple, basic recipe practically demands it, don’t you think? I do. For me this typically means an Italian twist. The first pound cake recipe I developed was for my book Big Night In. I played around with ratios a bit, decreasing the amount of eggs to six (about 12 ounces) and increasing the amount of fat to 1 1/4 lbs. I also substituted mascarpone for some of the butter, and folded in amarene (sour cherries).
A few years later I reworked the recipe for Williams-Sonoma Rustic Italian to make a more wintry dessert, omitting the cherries and adding a splash of dry Marsala, plus a compote of poached dried fruit as a garnish. Variations have come and gone since then. Here is the latest, in which Vin Santo takes the place of Marsala. It gives the cake a more delicate zabaglione flavor that is ideal for spring and summer. Farmers’ market strawberries were at their peak when I made this a few weeks ago, but of course fresh cherries, raspberries, or sliced peaches would go just as well, along with a dollop of whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Add a splash of Vin Santo, the Tuscan dessert wine, to classic American pound cake and the flavor becomes uniquely Italian. Serve this plain but rich cake with whipped cream or ice cream and fresh berries or sliced stone fruit.
- 1 1/2 cups (12 oz) unsalted butter, at cool room temperature, plus more for greasing the pan
- 3 cups (15 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the pan
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 3 cups (21 oz) sugar
- 6 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1/3 cup Vin Santo
- 1 cup (8 oz) mascarpone (may substitute sour cream, labneh, or Greek-style yogurt)
- Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream and fresh fruit for serving
Heat the oven to 325 degrees F. Lightly butter and flour a 10-inch tube pan or Bundt pan and set it aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. Set aside.
Put the 1 1/2 cups butter in the bowl of a standing mixer and beat briefly on medium speed to soften. Gradually add the sugar, 1/2 cup at a time, and beat at high speed until light and airy, 5 full minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Beat in the vanilla. Change the speed to medium and beat in 1/3 of the flour mixture, followed by the Vin Santo. Beat in another 1/3 of the flour mixture, and then the mascarpone. Finally, beat in the remaining flour mixture until until incorporated.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and shake lightly to even out the top. Bake until the cake is golden brown and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, about 1 hour 15 minutes.
When the cake is done, transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool for 20 minutes. Invert the cake onto a plate or another rack, and then re-invert to cool completely. Serve with the whipped cream or ice cream and fresh fruit.