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Joni Woolf: Stay with the basics

Sometimes it’s a good idea to leave well enough alone, as my mother used to say. If something is working well, perhaps change is not such a good idea. And so I learned (again) recently when I decided to try a new pound cake recipe.
I wanted to make a smaller cake — a loaf pan size — to take to the Book Club dinner/meeting at Calvary Episcopal Church. I had some caramel frosting left (more about that later) to top it off, so all I needed was a recipe for a smaller cake than the one I usually make. I searched and found several; I chose one that called for only 1-2/3 cup sugar, 5 eggs, 2 sticks of butter and 2-/1/3 cups flour (baking power and vanilla). I stirred it all together, poured it into my loaf pan and put it in the oven. In about 30 minutes I began to smell something burning. I opened the oven door and the cake was running over the edges of the pan, into the bottom of the oven. I closed the door and waited. When the baking time was up, I removed the cake, which looked flat on top, and let it cool before turning it out on a rack. Fortunately, the frosting I had saved warmed up nicely, and topped off this slightly sinking cake. I took it to the meeting and folks ate, but I was less than happy with my effort and decided that next time I would use my standard cream cheese pound cake recipe and split it in half, for two loaves. Most readers probably have this recipe, but just in case someone doesn’t, I’ll print it again. It is, to me, the best of all pound cakes, and it never fails.

Cream Cheese Pound Cake
3 sticks butter (1-1/2 cups)
8 ounces cream cheese
3 cups sugar
6 eggs
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups flour, sifted
1/2 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Mix softened butter and cream cheese in electric mixer until light and creamy. Add sugar, a cupful at a time, until well blended. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add vanilla and blend in. Add the flour, to which the salt has been added, one cupful at a time, and mix until well blended. Pour batter into a tube pan that has been lined with softened butter and dusted with flour. Drop the pan on the counter some 30 times to remove all air from the batter. Place in the pre-heated oven and bake 1-1/2 hours. Remove to rack and let cool 15 minutes before turning out onto another rack, then sit upright to cool completely.

For some of my family, I frost this cake with caramel frosting. This was an almost impossible challenge for me until I read Dora Charles’ method in her new cookbook “A Real Southern Cook in Her Savannah Kitchen.” She made it sound possible, and after several efforts, I have become fairly confident when making it. One nice thing about this recipe is that it makes a large quantity, so there is enough to cover the top of a pound cake, with dribbles down the side, and enough to save for another similar cake. Best of all, it’s delicious.

Caramel Frosting
3 cups sugar
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup half-and-half
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick butter, softened
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
(1/2 cup chopped pecans may be added)
In a large saucepan, whisk together 2 1/2 cups of the sugar, the milk and half-and-half. Add the salt. Bring to a boil over high heat and boil, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, for 3 to 5 minutes, or longer, until the mixture coats the back of the spoon. Remove from the heat. Pour the remaining 1/2 cup sugar into a large cast-iron skillet or other heavy skillet. Melt the sugar over medium heat, and then cook, stirring slowly and constantly, with a wooden spoon (I use a metal spatula for this step) until you have a golden brown caramel syrup. The hot sugar can burn you, so be careful. Carefully pour the milk mixture into the skillet — going slowly so that it doesn’t boil over — and mix well. Pour back into the saucepan, stir in the butter and vanilla, and keep stirring until the frosting is cool and thickened. Pour carefully over the top of the cake so that you have attractive drips coming evenly down the sides of the cake. If you are adding pecans, scatter those over the top of the cake. (Printed with permission of Ms. Charles and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publisher.)
Pour remaining frosting into a container and put in refrigerator until you bake again. Then, remove from refrigerator, place in top of double boiler, add a few drops of milk and stir until warm. The frosting is just as good as when you first made it — and saves making it twice. Good luck!

Joni Woolf, a writer and editor, now lives in Schley County, having moved from her home in Macon several years ago. Contact her at indigojoni@windstream.net