Sometimes subtlety is what you need


        What?! An Alice Medrich recipe that has nary a hint of chocolate in it? Impossible! Hard as it is to believe, the Queen of Chocolate has transformed herself into the Master of Pure Dessert. As the lovely Anita so aptly described Alice’s new tome on Desserts First, the lady from Berkely, has reinvented her approach to dessert by embracing the intrinsic flavors of ingredients.

       For this round of my “Medrich fix”, I have decided to use an element I have never tried before in my baking exploits: chestnut flour. This is used extensively in Italian baked goods and has a sweet, slightly nutty flavor. And as I have found out, goes very well with rum too!      

Chestnut Pound Cake

From Alice Medrich’s “Pure Dessert”

2 cups (9 oz) all-purpose flour

1 cup (4.5 oz) chestnut flour

½ tsp baking powder

½ tsp baking soda

½ tsp salt

4 large eggs, at room temperature

½ lb. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

2 cups sugar

2/3 cup butter milk, at room temperature

1/3 cup rum

1 ½ cups (6oz) coarsely chopped walnuts


Two  8 ½  by 4 ½ inch (5 cups) loaf pans

POSITION A RACK in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325 °F. Spray the pans with vegetable oil spray. (Or line the loaf pans with parchment paper.)

           In a large bowl, mix the flours, baking powder, soda, and salt together, then sift the mixture three times. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs with a fork to combine the whites and yolks; set aside.

            In a bowl of a stand mixer (use the paddle attachment) or another large bowl, beat the butter for a few seconds until creamy. Add the sugar in a steady stream and beat at medium speed (high-speed with a hand mixer) until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Beating constantly, dribble the eggs into the butter mixture a little bit at a time, taking 2 to 3 minutes to add them all.

Stop the mixer and add one-third of the flour mixture and beat on low speed only until no flour is visible. Stop the mixer and add half of the buttermilk and half of the rum and beat only until the liquid is absorbed. Repeat with half of the remaining flour, then all of the remaining buttermilk and rum, and finally the remaining flour with the walnuts if using. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan(s). Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, about 40 minutes for a tube pan or 50 to 55 minutes for the loaves. Cool in the pan(s) on a rack for about 10 minute before unmolding.

            If using a tube pan, slide a skewer around the tube. If the sides of the pan are straight, slide a thin knife or spatula around the sides of the pan to release the cake. If using a Bundt or other decorative pan, tap one side of the pan against the counter to release the cake, then tap the other. Invert the cake onto a cooling rack. Turn the preferred side up before cooling the cake completely.

            Wrapped airtight, the cake keeps well at room temperature for up to 3days; or freeze for up to 3 months.


Cooking Notes:

            It is important to sift the flour meticulously and add it in batches so you do not deflate the air you have just beaten into the butter. Additionally, Alice said the reason a cake gets that annoying “dome-shape” is because you have either measured your flour carelessly or you have beaten your mixture too much that you have overdeveloped the gluten. Another method she has gotten into the habit of doing is when eggs were to be “beaten in one at a time”, she just whisks them first to blend the yolks and the whites, and then dribble them in – for the same reason that you do not want to interfere with the air structure that you have already formed when you creamed the butter and sugar.

            As usual, the aroma of something baking in the oven has me rooted to the stove waiting impatiently for the thing to be done. It’s like watching your creation get born, you know? The resulting pound cake had a fine crumb, a faint nutty flavor, a hint of rum, just the right amount of sweetness and pure buttery goodness – perfect with that morning cup of coffee or that nicely-brewed afternoon tea! Taking that first bite has given me a sense of open-space, rolling hills and a little round table set up with tea or coffee and me just relaxing and taking in the refreshing scenery as I have a homey slice (or two) of the freshly baked, subtlety sweet cake.

            Baking Powder and Baking Soda. Many of you probably already know this but I always had the question of: when do you use baking powder and when do you use baking soda? Why do some recipes call for both? I consulted some food science books but was not satisfied by the explanation there. Of course, I finally found the answer in my perennial favorite, The Sweet Life, by Kate Zuckerman.

             In special sections of her book labeled Beyond the Basics, she described these two as chemical leavening agents that when handled properly produce carbon dioxide when exposed to heat, giving baked goods greater volume and lighter texture. Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) does not produce carbon dioxide on its own, it needs an acid like chocolate or juice or vinegar. Baking powder is a complete leavening system; it contains both baking soda and acids it can react with.

            Certain acids react with the presence of heat, while other acids dissolve and react in the presence of liquid. Double acting baking powder is a leavening agent that includes both types of acid so that carbon dioxide is produced immediately in a moist batter and then again when it is in the oven.

            So when do you use both? You want to use baking soda when there is a presence of an acid in your batter like sour cream, buttermilk and molasses. If the leavening is not enough then you add baking powder.

            And since I wanted to make sure I understood this concept correctly I emailed Kate and here is her response (which was pretty similar to the explanation in the book):

"Both baking powder and baking soda are leavening agents. Baking powder is a complete leavening system because it contains baking soda and acid, a mixture waiting to be ignited by liquid. In other words the acid and base in the powder do not react until they are moistened.

            Baking soda is basic and will not leaven a batter unless it reacts with some acidic ingredient in a given batter – buttermilk, sour cream, brown sugar and molasses. Some recipes contain both because there might be a small amount of an acidic ingredient which will react with the soda but it is not enough to leaven the whole batter so baking powder is added also."

            So baking soda is there to react and neutralize the acid in the batter. What will happen if one leaves out the baking soda and use all baking powder instead. Will my resulting baked-goods taste more acidic? That, my friends, will be the subject of another experiment.

19 thoughts on “Sometimes subtlety is what you need

  1. I have never used chestnut flour before. This cake looks wonderful!! I also learned a lot from this post. I, too, have always wondered the differences between baking powder and baking soda!

  2. Veron, how could you? You know that I am on my "bikini project". Stuff like this doesn't help. 😉

    I think I'll have to re-think my strategy. I know! I will continue baking yummy stuff but give them away to colleagues. ha hA HA! (that's my evil laughter).

  3. Hi Deborah – I'm glad you found my baking soda/powder information useful!
    Hi Mary – I'm sure you'll enjoy using chestnut flour!
    Hi Jaden – yes I found Alice's technique very useful.
    Hi Mandy – join the club! 🙂
    Hi Peabody – I'd like to know how that'll turn out with hazelnut flour!
    Hi Nora – and I'm on my fried chicken project…yeh just give it to other people but not after you've had a taste of it!
    Thanks susan – I learn a lot from other blogs and I've heard of chestnut flour before too but this is the first time I have used it.
    Hi anh – yes! turn it into pound cake!

  4. I have heard of chestnut flour in other blogs but have never tried it…I don't think I've ever seen it here either but it sounds really interesting and I will snap it up if I come across it for this very delicious sounding cake! 🙂

    Thanks for the baking soda/powder info! 🙂

  5. Great cake! I am glad you explained others about the baking powder/baking soda. For example, I made a cake this afternoon but I had forgotten to buy baking powder, so I used baking saoda only and increased the sour liquid part in the recipe with sour cream. Cake came out great.It is second nature to me and I often forget to give proper expanation why!

  6. This sounds so interesting, not to mention delicious! I love the texture of cakes that have buttermilk as well. Sadly, in my little southern town, I am certain I will not run across chestnut flour…darn it.

  7. Veronica,
    You are just blazing through this cookbook! Glad to hear you're enjoying it so much, I still have to get on all the recipes I've bookmarked!

    Beautiful cake!

  8. Another reason to try the chestnut flour Veron. I have a bag of it in Dallas but not in Seattle – add to list.
    Really this is beautiful.
    Wish I had command of this powder/soda thing but I have to look it up every time to keep it straight! Maybe this time will be charm!

  9. This sounds yummy… now I know what to do with my bag of chestnut flour as well! I get mine at my local natural foods grocer. They have all kinds of interesting flours that I look forward to experimenting with! I have already tried shortbread with rice flour… the texture was wonderful but they were falling apart. Will have to experiment more to rescue that recipe.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s