From Venetian Crusade to Triangle Trade: The Not-So-Sweet History of Poundcake

Few breads can rival the simplicity and ingenuity of the poundcake. Though humble in name and appearance, the poundcake is rich in history (and of course flavor). Don’t allow it’s short ingredient list and elementary construction to deceive: poundcake is one of the most fascinating confections on either side of the Atlantic.

To understand the history of poundcake, one must first understand the history of its ingredients. Flour, butter, and eggs are all products native to Britain. But sugar, perhaps the component which most clearly delineates cake from bread, is a tropical export. It was first shipped on a large scale to Europe in the 12th century, in a fascinating link to the Crusades. The First Crusade, in 1099, established the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the Levant. In 1122, the leader of the Kingdom, Baldwin II, a Christian Frank, lost territory to the Turkish leader Ilghazi. He called upon the pontiff, Pope Callixtus II, for help. Callixtus declared Crusaders willing to help their fellow Christians fit for heaven. The Doge of Venice, Domenico Michiel, sent a fleet of 15,000 men to the Holy Land. Now, it’s important to note that Crusades resulted in rewards both divine and earthly. Lots of gold, silver, and other precious materials was to be found in the Near East. The Venetians conquered the city of Tyre, in Lebanon. Along with its riches, they gained access to sugar farms. They began bringing sugar back to Venice. The archbishop of Tyre, William of Tyre, described sugar as “a most precious product, very necessary for the use and health of mankind”. Before long, Europe was hooked.

Crusader States Map

The Venetian Siege of Tyre
The Venetian Siege of Tyre

From then on, the sugar trade took a dark turn. Sugar was an extremely lucrative product in Europe, and burgeoning merchants realized in the 15th century that it would more than pay off the hefty investment of a tropical colony. Sugar was planted first in the Atlantic Islands near Spain, such as Madeira and the Canaries. By the 16th century, the British had planted sugar cane in their colonies in the Caribbean. There was only one problem: they needed more labor. The solution was to ship West African slaves to Barbados and Jamaica to work on the sugar plantations. In fact, the sugar trade is most likely the main reason for the African slave trade.

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As it turned out, unpaid labor produced very inexpensive sugar. By the 18th century, sugar was cheap enough to be eaten by everyone in Britain- not just the aristocracy. A whole new cuisine sprang up. Jams, treacles, and sweet deserts were affordable, and became hugely popular. Unsurprisingly, the availability of sugar encouraged the invention of new confections such as poundcake, which was first made in the early 18th century. No original formula survives; who would have needed one for a dish of but four ingredients?

The simplicity of the recipe is both indicative of and caused by poundcake’s egalitarianism. Earlier pastries (such as brioche) were made by professional bakers for the European aristocracy (and infamously its monarchy). Poundcake was made of inexpensive ingredients, and could be made quickly due to its unsophisticated formula as well as its lack of yeast. After all, fine Continental pastries took many hours and years of training to produce: poundcake could be made by anyone with a scale and an oven. Even in our age of technology, poundcake and its progeny retain their spirit of accessibility; home bakers routinely bake cakes, but rarely do we bake croissants and tortes.

The innovative nature of poundcake’s recipe comes from its leavening. It uses no yeast, and chemical leavening did not come into use for another hundred years. So what makes poundcake a high-rising loaf, rather than a flat stone? The secret is in the technique. Poundcake recipes begin with creaming together the butter and sugar until it creates a fluffy mixture. The eggs are added next, followed by the flour. This technique allows steam from the liquid ingredients to be trapped in the batter as it bakes, allowing the cake to rise.

Poundcake is really the root of all modern day cakes. Though other cultures, such as the Ancient Romans, had baked sweetened breads with honey and fat, poundcake was the first sweet bread to be made without the help of yeast. A yeasted, sweetened bread (such as the Italian panetonne) has the texture and heartiness of a traditional bread. Poundcake, made with low-protein British wheat, and enriched with dairy, has a soft texture and  a small, even crumb- aspects of cake familiar to the modern birthday-party goer.

Thus, from the 18th century onward, poundcake spread in popularity and geography. Versions were baked in Britain and in the colonies, reflecting the abundance of sugar and dairy. When chemical leaveners (baking soda and powder) were popularized at the end of the 18th century, variations on the poundcake emerged. American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, the first cookbook published in America in 1796, includes a poundcake recipe as well as others which used more sophisticated techniques such as beating the egg whites or using pearl ash (a precursor to baking powder). The American cake making tradition began with the humble poundcake and continues to the modern day.

While the recipe for poundcake is, in its traditional form, simple, a few adjustments can be made to create the perfect loaf. I use the Cook’s Illustrated recipe, which is authentic in its omission of baking powder.



16 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled, plus extra for greasing pan
3 large eggs plus 3 large yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups (7 ounces) cake flour, plus extra for flouring pan
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups (8 3/4 ounces) sugar
1. Cut butter into 1-tablespoon pieces and place in bowl of stand mixer; let stand at room temperature for 20 to 30 minutes to soften slightly (butter should reach no more than 60 degrees). Beat eggs and yolks and vanilla in 2-cup liquid measuring cup until combined. Let egg mixture stand at room temperature until ready to use.

2. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Generously butter 9 by 5-inch loaf pan; dust pan liberally with flour and knock out excess.

3. Fit stand mixer with paddle and beat butter and salt on medium-high speed until shiny, smooth, and creamy, 2 to 3 minutes, scraping down bowl as needed. Reduce speed to medium and gradually pour in sugar (this should take about 60 seconds). Once all sugar is added, increase speed to medium-high and beat until mixture is fluffy and almost white in color, 5 to 8 minutes, scraping down bowl as needed.

4. Reduce speed to medium and gradually add egg mixture in slow, steady stream (this should take 60 to 90 seconds). Scrape down bowl. Increase speed to medium-high and beat mixture until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes (mixture may look slightly broken). Remove bowl from mixer and scrape down bowl.

5. In 3 additions, sift flour over butter mixture; after each addition, fold gently with rubber spatula until combined. Scrape bottom of bowl to ensure that batter is homogenous.

6. Transfer batter to prepared loaf pan and smooth surface with rubber spatula. Bake until golden brown and wooden skewer inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 1 hour 10 minutes to 1 hour 20 minutes. Let cake cool in pan on wire rack for 15 minutes; invert cake onto wire rack, then turn cake right side up. Let cake cool completely on wire rack, about 2 hours. Slice and serve.

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