This world in the last few weeks has been a place of heartbreak and confusion and frustration and terror. I was bewildered, and angry, and I grieved, and I wrote and deleted various posts on various platforms that felt too tidy, and too ineffectual.
But amidst the heartbreak, and the anger, and the mistakes, there were these moments of strength and of recovery and of determination: one of my students, wearing a t-shirt that said “Caution: educated student of color.” I wanted to hug him. I wanted to say “great shirt.” I wanted to tell him to keep wearing it so proudly and to use that power and that dangerous-in-a-good way truth about himself to help change happen. I just smiled as he sat down at his desk. A sold-out message on every single one of the shirts bearing an excerpt from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony award acceptance sonnet, which were being sold to raise funds for victims of the Orlando shooting. As a friend of a friend commented, agree with their objective or not, and whether their actions and their words were successful or not, the filibuster in the Senate and the sit-in in the House were pretty inspirational. Determination. Strength. Flashes of brightness and connection in an increasingly isolating world.
At first, because there was too much of the world in my brain with all of this going on, I couldn’t think of anything to make. As always, food seemed too trivial to worry about, and perhaps it is. But it is a comfort. Stumbling all unwilling into the kitchen was a chore, until I picked up a knife, and a whisk, and the familiar enfolded me. Perhaps because it was the first kind of cooking I learned to do, standing beside my mom, scooping or mixing or poking at cookies, baking seemed like the right way in. Then, inspired both by N’s recent snack preferences at a certain coffee corporation, and a gorgeous picture on King Arthur Flour’s instagram feed, I knew the answer was pound cake. In a way, it works with my tangled feelings: it’s a dense cake, weighty and substantial and thick, but shot through with lemon zest and topped with a drizzle that becomes crunchy and tart as it bakes it has those flashes of brightness I’m looking for and lifted by. KAF’s version incorporates some cream cheese along with all that butter, which I like for the barely discernible tang it promises.
You don’t need a lot to pair with pound cake; in fact, its very title suggests you need nothing, but I couldn’t resist a bit of excess. Bright, meaty, fuzz laden apricots, pitted and sliced into wedges, and a heaping dollop of barely sweetened whipped ricotta, lightened with cream, make the utilitarian slice a rich-but-not-too-heavy dessert.
Adapted from King Arthur Flour
Makes 1 9×5 inch cake and approx. 1½ cups ricotta cream
2-2½ hours, including cooling time
¾ cups unsalted butter, at room temperature (1½ sticks)
3 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1½ cups + 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
1 tablespoon lemon zest from 1-2 lemons
1 teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoons salt
5 large eggs, at room temperature
3 tablespoons milk
1¾ cups + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour (I know it’s a weird amount; remember “pound” cake is based on weight measurements)
2 teaspoons lemon juice
4-5 fresh apricots, rinsed
1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese, cold
1 cup heavy cream, cold
2-3 tablespoons granulated sugar
additional lemon zest, optional
- Preheat the oven to 350F and lightly grease a 9×5 inch bread pan. KAF is very specific about the measurements of the pan; otherwise you might get batter overflow.
- In a mixing bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer), beat together the butter and cream cheese until well combined with no obvious lumps. Room temperature fats here will incorporate more quickly.
- Rub together the lemon zest and 1½ cups of the sugar with your fingertips. This evenly distributes the zest and encourages it to release its oils, which are what give it that heady, perfumed flavor. Add the zest and sugar to the butter and cream cheese mixture and cream on medium-low or medium speed for about 1 minute, or until the mixture is pale and fluffy.
- Add the baking powder, salt, and vanilla to the creamed butter and sugar and beat briefly to combine. Then, with the mixer running on low, begin to add the eggs one at time, mixing well between each addition. When the eggs are all integrated, add the milk and beat on high speed for 2-3 minutes until the mixture is light and fluffy. KAF notes the mixture may look curdled or grainy as you add the eggs; mine didn’t, though it did look a little grainy after I mixed the milk in. Either way, it’s nothing to worry about.
- Now, sprinkle the flour gradually over the batter with the mixer running, and mix on low speed just until combined. Pour and scrape into the prepared pan, using a spatula to smooth the top.
- Set the cake on a baking sheet for easy handling and in case of overflow, and stow in the preheated oven for 55 minutes.
- While the cake bakes, combine the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and the 2 teaspoons lemon juice in a small bowl, stirring until it reluctantly comes together into a thick syrup. After the cake has cooked for 55 minutes, remove it from the oven on its pan and brush or drizzle the sugar and lemon juice mixture over the top (you may need to re-stir the lemon juice and sugar mixture just before using it). Return the cake to the oven for another 15-20 minutes, or until a toothpick or cake tester comes out clean, or an instant-read thermometer inserted deep into the center reads 200-205F (as KAF notes, there may still be a touch of gooiness to the very top crown where the cake has split; don’t worry about this).
- Cool the cake on a rack in its pan for at least five minutes, then turn out of the pan and rest on the rack until it is completely cooled.
- About 20 minutes before you are ready to serve the cake, place a metal bowl and beaters or whisk attachment into the freezer. This helps the cream whip up faster. While they cool, pit the apricots and cut them into thick wedges. Once the bowl and beaters are cold, add the heavy cream and ricotta to the bowl and begin to mix on low speed. Sprinkle in the sugar and, as you see the mixture thicken, raise the speed to medium. Whip at medium speed until the ricotta cream has thickened to your desired consistency; probably 2-3 minutes if you started with cold equipment.
- To serve, cut the cake into thick slices, and serve one slice topped with a few wedges of apricot, a dollop of whipped ricotta cream, and a few strands of lemon zest, if desired.