The Grammarphobia Blog

Pound for pound

Q: I love pound cake, but I’ve never come across one that weighed exactly one pound. Why then is a pound cake called a pound cake?

A: In the early 1700s, when the pound cake was born, recipes generally called for a pound each of the principal ingredients – butter, sugar, eggs, and flour, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first published recipe that I could find comes from The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747) by Hannah Glasse, one of the most successful British cookbook writers of the 18th century. Here it is (note that the recipe calls for a dozen eggs, not a pound of them):

“Take a pound of butter, beat it in an earthen pan with your hand one way, till it is like a fine thick cream; then have ready twelve eggs, but half the whites; beat them well, and beat them up with the butter, a pound of flour beat in it, a pound of sugar, and a few caraways. Beat it all well together for an hour with your hand, or a great wooden spoon, butter a pan and put it in, and then bake it an hour in a quick oven. For change you may put in a pound of currants, clean washed and picked.”

Yikes! All that hand beating? Nowadays, we use baking soda and electric mixers to give our hands a break. And we improvise on the proportions. As a result, our pound cakes are usually much lighter and a lot less rich.

Why a pound of each ingredient in the original recipes? At a time when many people couldn’t read, according to the What’s Cooking America website, “this simple convention made it simple to remember recipes.”

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