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Lemon Poppy Seed Pound Cake

As far as "authenticity" in food goes, I'm not much of a stickler.

There's a lot of bickering in the food community about what is authentic and what isn't when it comes to certain dishes. I personally dislike the term "authentic" to begin with. Authentic to whom? I think "typical" is a better word to use. As in, "typical southern cornbread does not contain sugar."

In the case of cornbread, which I have talked about before, it is dangerous to talk about authenticity because, while it is true that most southern cornbread is not sweet, there are pockets in the South where sweet cornbread is the preference and is accepted as legitimate cornbread. Now, this would never fly where I'm from--cornbread is not sweet, is baked in a cast-iron skillet, and is thin and crisp on the outside. But who am I to say that sweet cornbread is "inauthentic?"

Of course, there are instances where "authentic" is a proper term to use--hyper-regional cuisines are a good example. Or perhaps in cases where someone claims authenticity but is really just using the word as a badge to give more substance to something than it deserves--that is the time to call out inauthenticity in appreciation of the fact that saying something is so doesn't make it so.

But even within hyper-regional cuisines, there is always a spectrum of variation. After all, a good cook doesn't just take what her mother taught her and stop there. Usually, cooks develop techniques and recipes specific to their experience, which is why, for instance, there are hundreds of variations on mole sauce in Mexico. This is also why the cornbread that my mother makes is different from my grandmother's cornbread (and why my maternal grandmother's cornbread is different from my paternal grandmother's cornbread even though they are from the same area).

Unfortunately, authenticity is often something that those in positions of authority use to express a level of exclusive knowledge or to codify cuisines that they, being outsiders, can never properly understand fully.

I do not mean to say that there is no value in attempting to give traditional cuisines their due. There are many incredible foodways with more or less concrete characteristics that are in danger of being lost or watered down by globalization. There is something to be said for preserving and recognizing distinct foods and cuisines by giving them the caché of authenticity. However, it is important to understand that authenticity is the privileging of one thing over another thing. To take it back to cornbread, is my grandmother's cornbread more authentic than my mother's? Was my great-great-great grandmother's cornbread more authentic than my grandmother's? Is my grandmother's cornbread more authentic than someone else's grandmother's cornbread? These are all very sticky questions that reek of elitism.

Anyway, let's bring this rig back around. I've been thinking very hard for the past several days, not about cornbread, but about pound cake. I've eaten more than my fair share of pound cake along the way. My grandmother makes a particularly lovely one that is heavy with butter and very, very dense. I think of it often, usually when I am very hungry and a little homesick. It is, to my mind, the essence of what pound cake should be.

While I am tempted to call this type of pound cake "authentic," I will refrain from doing so because there are many, many variations on pound cake. In my perfect world, pound cake contains no chemical leaveners (baking soda or baking powder) and is very dense. However, I know that many people choose to add leaveners to their pound cakes to make them lighter. I have also seen instances of separating the eggs, whipping the egg whites, and folding them in. Again, I prefer not to do this because pound cake is dense. That is the nature of the thing. After all, you're not making pound cake for your health. But I won't go so far as to deplore someone's pound cake as "inauthentic" simply because it has baking powder in it.

Below is my interpretation of a southern-style pound cake. It is rich. It is buttery. The crumb is velveteen. While the lemon cuts through some of the richness, you will not be fooled into thinking is it a "light" cake. Do yourself a favor and make this for a large gathering--a small slice will make a serving, and with some macerated fruit there is no finer cake in the world. 

Other articles you might enjoy: Lemon Poppyseed Pancakes, Sautéed Greens, Faux "Smoked" Pulled Pork

Lemon Poppy Seed Pound Cake
Makes one 10-inch bundt cake (easily serves 16)

You can halve this recipe and bake in a 9x5-inch loaf pan for about 1 hour. This is the perfect cake to serve with ripe strawberries. For this recipe, I simply combined fresh strawberries with a miniscule amount of sugar--just enough to get the juices going. At the last minute, I added a chiffonade (oh how I love that word) of basil.

Have all ingredients at room temperature, about 70°F. Preheat the oven to 325°F. Grease a 10-inch tube pan.
Combine in the bowl of a stand mixer:
    3 cups sugar
    Zest of 4 lemons
Mix for several minutes until the citrus oil is distributed throughout the sugar. Add:
     2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until light, 5 to 7 minutes. Scrape down the bowl.
Beat in one at a time:
     8 large eggs
beating well after each addition. Scrape down the bowl.
On low speed, add slowly, mixing only until thoroughly blended:
    4 cups sifted cake flour*
    3 tablespoons poppy seeds
    1 teaspoon kosher salt
Add and mix until combined:
    1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
    2 teaspoons vanilla
Scrape the batter into the pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Let cool for 15 minutes in the pan. Turn out onto a cooling rack and let cool completely.

To make a simple glaze (totally optional--I like it because it adds a really sour lemon flavor), combine in a small bowl:
     1 1/4 cup confectioner's sugar, sifted
     3 tablespoons to 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
     Zest of 1 lemon
Stir until smooth. Pour over the cake, allowing it to run down the sides. Before the glaze hardens, sprinkle with:
    Poppy seeds

*To substitute all-purpose flour for cake flour, simply measure out a cup of all-purpose flour, remove 2 tablespoons of it, and replace with 2 tablespoons cornstarch. So, for the recipe above, you would measure out 4 cups all-purpose flour, remove 1/2 cup, and replace with 1/2 cup cornstarch. Be sure to sift the cornstarch and flour together several times to distribute the cornstarch evenly throughout.


tb's picture

So yummy!! But a bit less sugar works well, too.

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