The party dessert platter. You know what I’m talking about. The dessert platter I mean is not a gorgeous spread of irresistible pastries, but rather a catering essential that feels like an afterthought. It shows up at these kinds of gatherings: an after-school soccer team celebration, a piano recital reception, a working lunch with clients, a buffet-style cocktail party. The platter in question is usually on a shiny black plastic tray lined with a paper doily. It sports an array of baked goods—squares of brownies, lemon bars showered in powdered sugar, and slices of pound cake. It suffers from what I call the “Starbucks pastry effect”—it looks inviting, but the second you bite into any one of the desserts, you realize your mistake. Dry. Overly sweet. Pretty tasteless.
I bring this up by way of explaining why I have never been a big pound cake fan. Having tasted them mostly from the aforementioned dessert platters, I always assumed pound cake was inherently kind of boring. Leaden, dry, and plain. Why order the pound cake when there is…anything else to be had on a dessert menu?
But this is really all wrong. Pound cake is wildly underrated and I am here to give it its due. Consider the ingredients: pound cake is so named because it historically had a pound each of sugar, eggs, flour, and butter. In the words of the wise Ina Garten, “how bad can that be?”
The key to making yourself—and everyone you know—fall in love with pound cake is to not overbake it and to really, really, really beat the HECK out of the batter during the creaming stage.
A proper pound cake is very tender, moist, and dense—but dense doesn’t equal heavy. The texture of a good pound cake is what I would call “plush” or perhaps “velvety”. It’s close-crumbed, but if you cream the butter, sugar, and cream cheese together thoroughly enough (getting plenty of air into the batter at that step), you’ll create a cake that manages to be both dense but delicate at the same time.
Then, of course, you want to be sure not to bake the cake for too long which will prevent it from drying out.
My final trick (ladies and gentlemen, drumroll please….) is: fiori di Sicilia. This extract is a blend of citrus and vanilla flavorings that’s typically used in Italian desserts, so you’ll recognize the flavor most likely. I think of it as a little like the taste of a creamsicle. If you’re thinking, “can’t I just use orange zest and more vanilla extract?”, the answer is yes, but it won’t have quite the same allure as fiori. There’s something particularly specific about the balance of flavoring in the extract that’s hard to replicate.
**Side note: Although this sounds like a walking, talking ad for this extract, I just genuinely love it. Try it, and you will want to spread the gospel, too! These little baking tricks and tips are some of my favorite things to learn about so feel free to reciprocate with your own secret ingredients please. Kidding. No pressure. (Maybe just a little.)
I like to use it in all sorts of recipes, from sugar cookies to pound cake. If you only add a tiny bit, you won’t really taste it but it adds a great depth of flavor to what is otherwise a simple and somewhat plain cake. Think of it like vanilla: it adds complexity to baked goods, even if they aren’t vanilla-flavored, per se.
If you don’t feel like buying it, go ahead and use citrus zest and more vanilla. Or, use this recipe as a jumping off point for any other flavorings you like. A few ideas that I love if you want to swap out the fiori:
- Lemon zest + poppyseed
- Bourbon (add a tablespoon to the batter)
- Chocolate peanut butter (add 1/3 cup cocoa to the batter + a handful peanut butter chips)
- Triple chocolate (cocoa powder + chopped semisweet chocolate + cacao nibs)
- Tahini (add tahini to the batter + sprinkle a mix of sesame seeds and raw sugar on top)
- Toasted coconut (add toasted coconut to the batter and coconut flakes to the top)
- Cardamom (add 1 1/2 teaspoons cardamom + a bit of nutmeg and cinnamon)
Cream Cheese Pound Cake
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 ounces (120g) cream cheese, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups (297g) sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon fiori di Sicilia (or use 1 teaspoon orange zest + 1 teaspoon vanilla extract)
1 1/2 cups (180g) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8 1/2” x 4 1/2” loaf pan.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter and cream cheese until very light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the sugar and beat for an additional 5 minutes. Do not skimp on this step! You want the mixture to be very, very fluffy-looking, which will give the cake a good crumb and texture.
Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well between each addition.
Add the vanilla and fiori di Sicilia (or orange zest and more vanilla). Turn the mixer to low and add the flour and salt, mixing until the batter just comes together.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 60 to 70 minutes, or until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean or with just a few moist crumbs.
Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes before turning it out onto a wire rack to finish cooling.