Edna Lewis’ white pound cake

Between making yolk-rich pasta, the odd carbonara, or whipping up some crema, I always seem to have a few egg whites lying around — I honestly can’t bear to throw them away. I usually freeze the egg whites, hoping to find something useful for them but inevitably they sit there in the freezer, multiplying. My girls love meringues but I’ve found that defrosted egg whites don’t make the best meringues (or pavlova!). If I have just one or two I might make semifreddo with them, or lemon sorbet, two wonderful treats that often call for fluffy whites to add airiness.

Then, amidst an emotional and turbulent couple of weeks of the Black Lives Matter movement, learning and reading more about Black cookbook authors, I discovered Edna Lewis and her Taste of Country Cooking (1976) book (side note: this was a very interesting article to read, Cookbooks, not Restaurants, are giving Black Foodways an Identity, I’m looking forward to receiving Byron Ford’s New World Sourdough, which just came out, and Bryant Terry’s Vegetable Kingdom looks great; Deb from Smitten Kitchen has a long list here that I suggest you check out too if you’re interested). I honestly feel ridiculous for not knowing about her cooking and her books until now, about what an important culinary figure she is in American cooking (there are many great articles written on her, this New York Times article from 2015 seems particularly meaningful today, Edna Lewis and the Black Roots of American Cooking). I was so hooked, I ignored my family all day and just read it cover to cover. And amongst those page I found the absolute best thing to do with all those leftover egg whites: white pound cake.

It is exactly what I love most in a cookbook – full of personal stories, almost a memoir, with her recollections, a celebration, of an upbringing in a farming community in Virginia, where her family recipes followed the seasons (as do her chapters and the menus in each chapter) with simple, good food inspired by and with great respect for the ingredients and above all, the land. Her recipes are written with love, care and life experience, full of so many tips that are hard to find in cookbooks these days.

I know why Alice Waters said, “When I discovered her cookbook, it felt like a terribly good friend.”

What to cook first from it? I let Mariù choose, and as any 7 year old would, she picked the blackberry cobbler and lemonade, which we filmed. I was inclined to go with the casserole of sage-flavored pork, hot buttered beets and pan-fried chicken (cooked in hand-churned butter and home-rendered lard, served with a cream gravy because in the summer the calves were weaned and cream was plentiful, as was the green grass for them to graze on) from the same menu as the cobbler, the wheat-harvesting midday dinner from the summer chapter. I’m regretting that I didn’t know about dandelion blossom wine earlier but am drooling over the pickled watermelon rind and smothered rabbit, and holding out for the September green tomatoes to make preserves that Lewis says tastes like honey. Maybe with a batch of her corn muffins. The way she describes how her family wrapped the rest of the green tomatoes in tissue paper and stored in a cool, dark place to make it to Christmas reminds me of my mother in law’s recollections of the tomatoes her father would hang, as they often do in Puglia, in the attic to last until Christmas time. As her editor Judith Jones wrote, “I think every reader will feel genuinely grateful for the memories Edna shares with us.”

This white pound cake immediately caught me eye, perhaps because of the resourceful use of egg whites, but also because of all the simple, comforting recipes that fill this book, the very simplest ones like her yeasted bread rolls and this pound cake appealed in an enormous way to me. I knew this was going to be a wonderful recipe before I even made it and now that I have, I can say it is truly the best pound cake I have ever made or eaten. I honestly can’t stop walking over to the kitchen bench just to inhale the perfume of this cake!

I will say I used some special ingredients. I imagine that when Edna Lewis was writing these recipes she was also using the freshest ingredients off the farm. So I chose a very special butter from the mountains near Pistoia, you can eat it right from the packet, it tastes like cream. And I used raw milk from Camporbiano, a nearby farm, that comes in a bottle and still has a thick layer of cream on top. I only ever use organic, free range eggs and organic flour. I think Edna would approve, she speaks often in her book about using fruit or even water without chemicals, often even calling for bottled water in her recipes.

I had to adjust this recipe slightly from Edna Lewis’ original, partly because I don’t have a 10 inch bundt tin, as she calls for. I planned to use a loaf tin and I know from experience having baked many pound cakes in this tin before (like this pistachio, polenta, olive oil pound cake and this peach and jam pound cake from Acquacotta) that there would be too much batter to fit. So if you do plan to make this in a bundt you could probably double this – or go with Edna’s original (admittedly, although I reduced all the other ingredients, I kept the egg whites the same because I had so many)! 

One thing I did not use from the original was almond extract, which I think would be lovely, and would give it a beautiful perfume. But at the last moment, I replaced it with a splash of sassolino, a clear, Italian liqueur with a strong, distinct aniseed flavour. Many Tuscan desserts are made with aniseed in them and I thought this might be a lovely way to bring that local flavour into this recipe from Lewis’ Virginian farm.

I hope you love it as much as I do. I urge you to try this with a few simple quality ingredients if you can – or splurge on just one, the butter would be my choice. It will make a difference.

Edna Lewis’ White Pound Cake
Plum cake bianco di Edna Lewis

For one loaf tin

I don’t normally post in cups, because it’s incredibly confusing, can you believe the US, Australia and the UK have slightly different cup measurements?! So please be aware these are US cup measurements. Since the original was in cups, I based this on that recipe, measuring on my scales in grams too.

200 grams/1 cup sugar
220 grams/1 cup best quality butter, softened
250 grams/2 cups flour
125 ml/ 1/2 cup milk
Pinch salt
2 tsp almond extract (or aniseed liqueur, try it!)
160 grams/2/3 cup egg white (about 4 whites from large eggs)

Prepare a loaf tin (I line mine with parchment paper) and preheat oven to 300°F / 150°C.

Beat the butter until creamy, then add sugar and beat well until pale and creamy. Fold in the flour and milk, alternating each until combined, starting and ending with the flour. Add the salt and almond extract.

In a clean bowl with clean mixers, whip the egg whites until fluffy and soft, not stiff peaks. Fold these in bit by bit (I did it in four lots) until incorporated and you have a smooth, creamy batter. Pour into the loaf tin and place in oven.

After 40 minutes, turn heat up to 325°F / 165°C and continue baking a further 15 minutes or until the top feels firm and a toothpick inserted inside comes out clean (I actually kept mine in 25 minutes; I would start checking from 15 as Edna instructs).

Remove cake from oven and leave in tin for 15 minutes before removing from tin and allowing to cool. Keep the cake covered (Lewis instructs to cover it after 15 minutes to ensure it stays soft), I keep mine wrapped in its original parchment paper and a clean linen teatowel around it. It keeps well without drying out this way for several days. If you can resist.

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Comments

  1. val says:

    I love this post and how it shows the good things about our interconnected world. I can relate to the southern US countryside and the Italian touches (missing your country this year!). And to have a use for egg whites too (I am partial to egg white omelettes). Since you mentioned the liqueur, I’ve had your bay leaf liqueur on my mind and on my shelf. Do you have any ideas for using it aside from sipping?

    • Emiko Davies says:

      Yes I felt that connection too! That bay leaf liqueur is usually for after dinner sips, but now that I’ve got pound cake on the mind, I remember that David Lebovitz has a bay leaf pound cake in My Paris Kitchen that I have been longing to make (you can find the recipe online too, many people have done it!) and after having put liqueur in this one I do think that bay leaf liqueur in that cake would be wonderful!

      • Jennifer says:

        Hi- wondering where I went wrong! I think I am very experienced baker but something was not right. Did not come out. I read and re read the recipe. No yolks in this recipe right? Ok mine came out extremely flat and greasy. Maybe the pan I was trying to use- it was a decorative loaf pan.Maybe I should have beat the whites more. I also weighed all ingredients vs cups ect. I want to try again. Any tips?
        Thanks,
        Jennifer

        • Emiko Davies says:

          Hi Jennifer, I am so sorry to hear that this did not work out for you! Yes, you are correct, this recipe uses only egg whites, not the yolk of the eggs but if you did get some of the yolk in the whites, say, if the yolk broke while separating, then it makes it difficult for the whites to whip properly. Similarly, if the bowl or the beaters that you’re using have any traces of grease, they won’t whip as well. For this reason I sometimes wipe out the bowl with vinegar first or just make sure they’re really clean. You don’t need to whip the whites to stiff peaks like for meringue but they should be very fluffy, but soft. The cake only gets its lift from these whites. I hope this helps!

  2. Carla says:

    What are the measures of your loaf tin?

  3. This is by far the simplest and tastiest cake recipe I’ve ever tried.

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