By Christen Nuzum
A tried and true pound cake recipe is an heirloom, a physical manifestation of cherished memories and generational ties. Specifically, a Sun-Drop pound cake recipe is an heirloom in my family. Decades ago, my great-grandmother, Teensy Mama (1904-1993), wrote out her recipe for Sun-Drop pound cake with blue ink in quick cursive on an index card. As she perfected her pound cake through troubleshooting, she scribbled revisions onto the recipe card.
Pound cakes are fairly easy to make and generally feed a lot of people. For those reasons, pound cakes have graced many a dinner table, especially in the American South. Presumably, each family’s recipe has been fine-tuned and tweaked over the years, as baking is a practice and repetition leads to mastery. That baking mastery is achieved through hours in a kitchen that doubles as a classroom where young and supple hands learn from experienced and wrinkled ones.
Teensy Mama, often with my mother by her side, fixed a sizable pound cake in her silver tube pan on Saturdays to feed company throughout the week. The family gathered at her house in downtown Newton, North Carolina after church on Sundays and she would serve slices of pound cake for dessert along with iced tea sweetened with saccharin pills. She covered the rest of the pound cake and dish it out for guests who stopped by on lunch breaks during the week. Teensy Mama’s door was always open to guests and in order to have a welcoming slice of pound cake ready for them, she kept her pantry and refrigerator stocked with the essentials: all-purpose flour, sugar, eggs, margarine, Crisco, Sun-Drop, lemon and vanilla flavorings, and powdered sugar for the glaze.
Cookbook author and baker Greg Patent wrote, “Please Don’t Call it Pound Cake” for Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies. According to Patent, pound cakes originated in England in the 1700s and were composed of a pound of each ingredient. Over time, proportions of ingredients were tweaked and leavening agents were introduced that cause a cake to rise without the physical exertion of vigorous mixing. Patent suggests we refer to the modern version of the pound cake as “butter cake” or “tube cake” since the ratio of ingredients is different today. You can call it tube cake or butter cake like Patent suggests, but in the American South, if it’s a glazed cylindrical cake missing its center column—it’s pound cake.
An authentic Greg Patent-approved pound cake recipe calls for a pound of the four main ingredients, meaning around three and one-third cups of flour, three and three-fourths cups of sugar, eight large eggs, and four sticks of butter. In contrast, Teensy Mama’s recipe calls for three cups of flour, three cups of sugar, five eggs, and two sticks of margarine. Instead of butter, Teensy Mama’s Sun-Drop pound cake recipe calls for margarine and Crisco, two artery-clogging refined vegetable oil products that cause health-conscious people to cringe but make for a delectably moist cake. She used Happy Home brand lemon and vanilla flavorings that she bought from the women’s group at the church to compliment the Sun-Drop and give the cake a little “oomph.”
Sun-Drop, an exceptionally sweet yellow-green citrus soda, contains sodium and carbonation that effervesce when mixed into batter and act as the leavening or rising agent in Teensy Mama’s recipe. Aside from the soda, Teensy Mama’s pound cakes also rose with the help of mechanical leavening from her white Kitchen-Aid mixer’s rapid beating of the batter. Teensy Mama stressed the importance of the Kitchen-Aid mixer to my mother, who now considers it a mandatory kitchen appliance.
Making a quality pound cake takes practice, but doesn’t require a fancy degree in baking and pastry arts from a culinary school. Pound cake is comforting, filling, and delightfully predictable. Some desserts are so elaborate that taste is sacrificed for artistry and aesthetics. Pound cake isn’t delicate like angel food cake, doesn’t require a blowtorch like baked Alaska, doesn’t involve tricky phyllo dough like baklava, and doesn’t disguise some mystery cake with a layer of fondant. With pound cake, what you see is what you get. It’s an honest dessert.
According to my mother, every occasion deserves a pound cake.
My mother broke into Teensy Mama’s abandoned house a few years ago to retrieve the Sun-Drop pound cake recipe card. The timeworn recipe card is tinged with sepia tone tie-dye, faded blue ink, tattered corners, and smears of antique batter from pound cakes that belong to the past. Though she didn’t really need it to make pound cake because the process is ingrained in her mind and muscle memory, the recipe card serves as a souvenir for my mother. It is an immortal and tangible connection to her late grandmother and the precious occasions of the past.
If that old, tattered recipe card could talk, what would it say? To my mother, it recounts celebrations from the past. It sighs and tells about the time Teensy Mama broke her wrist setting her Kitchen-Aid mixer down on the counter. It mimics Teensy Mama’s quiet voice and reminds my mom to set the margarine out to soften and break each egg individually as to not spoil the rest with a dud. It invites my mom to take the liberty of putting her own touch on the versatile recipe and it encourages her to channel Teensy Mama’s giving spirit and make pound cakes often to share with others.
According to my mother, every occasion deserves a pound cake. She often prepares a classic Sun-Drop pound cake, but she also takes the liberty of jazzing up the recipe with seasonal twists. For Valentine’s Day, she adds crushed maraschino cherries and substitutes Cheerwine soda, a Southern legend, for Sun-drop to give the pound cake a subtle cherry flavor and rosy color. For Easter, she transforms miniature pound cakes into bunnies with candy ears, eyes, whiskers, and noses. For Halloween and Thanksgiving, she alters the recipe with pumpkin spice and orange food coloring. She pulls out all the stops for Christmas pound cakes with wreath-shaped bundt pans and a sprinkle of snowy powdered sugar over the glaze. These Christmas cakes often become gifts wrapped up in cellophane and tied with beautiful bows. She’s also been known to adorn pound cakes with candles for birthdays, ship them as far as California, hand deliver them to hospital rooms and shut-ins, and dish slices out to teachers at PTA meetings.
It is challenging to step back and write about something so familiar. I have realized that any major life event is met with a pound cake in my family. Greg Patent lives in Montana. If he lived closer, I would invite him over so that we could discuss the merits of “butter cake” or “tube cake” and in the end I would win him over and he would agree that it’s pound cake, plain and simple. Purists like Patent who didn’t come of age in Southern pound cake country like Patent need to recognize that it’s not about the ratio of ingredients, what you call it, or even what it tastes like. It’s about how it makes you feel. And in my American South, pound cake just feels like home.
Teensy Mama’s Recipe for Sun-Drop Pound Cake
Mix the following (preferably in a Kitchen-Aid mixer):
2 sticks margarine
1/2 cup Crisco
3 cups sugar
5 eggs (break each egg into a bowl by itself then add to batter)
3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup Sun-Drop
1 teaspoon vanilla flavoring
1 teaspoon lemon flavoring
Pour batter into non-stick or greased and floured bundt or tube pan.
Remove top oven rack and position bundt or tube pan in the center.
Bake 1 hour, 10 minutes at 325 degrees.
Mix for glaze:
2 ounces Sun-Drop
2 tablespoons margarine
add powdered sugar until desired consistency
Loosen cake from bundt or tube pan, glaze cake while warm, cover.