The Pound Cake that led to a Marriage Proposal - No. 90
Vertamae, Mama Dip, Miss Edna, Mrs. Chase & Princess Pamela wrote their own rules in the kitchen, plus a poundcake recipe
WHEN I PICK UP A COOKBOOK, I go straight to the cakes.
Cakes tell me a lot about a book and its author. And before Black History Month ends, I wanted to pay special attention to some African American cookbook authors and the topic of pound cake.
Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, Mildred “Mama Dip” Council, Edna Lewis, Leah Chase, and “Princess” Pamela Strobel are no longer with us, but their recipes and words are. Vertamae, Princess Pamela, and Miss Edna were a part of the Great Migration, leaving the South for opportunities north. Mama Dip’s home was always North Carolina, and Leah Chase moved from rural Louisiana to New Orleans to build her life.
Of the five, Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor is perhaps the best known. She was a poet, public radio broadcaster, and author of Vibration Cooking: Or The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, a powerful cookbook memoir. A child of the South Carolina Lowcountry, she descended from West African ancestors who were enslaved and spoke Gullah Geechee, a form of Creole English. Her family moved to Philadelphia when she was young, and with travel she began a global immersion defying soul food stereotypes, perfecting omelets in Paris and learning feijoada in Brazil.
Vertamae seldom measured, preferring a more intuitive style. “I cook by vibration,” she said, thus the title of her book. Active in the Black Arts Movement, Vertamae brought all her senses to cooking. And some opinions. “Some people got such bad vibrations that to eat with them would give you indigestion.”
On page 18, Vertamae says baking “poundcake” got her a marriage proposal, in spite of not being much of a baker. The story goes her dinner guest came early while she was scrubbing floors and frying chicken, and her poundcake was still in the oven.
But in nearly the same breath that she instructs us in the recipe to pour the rich cake batter in a pan lined with greased wax paper, she adds, “The dude asked me to marry him but I didn’t.”
What I love about re-reading Vertamae’s recipes are her stories involving relatives back home and friends she found along the way in Paris or her New York apartment. They include Mrs. Jackson who made homemade wine with berries picked in Central Park and a signature chocolate cake. “Lord she can cook chocolate cake.”
And I am drawn to her honesty. Vertamae confessed she was no good at baking because her oven was unpredictable. I’ve baked in an oven like that, and it takes any joy out of baking.
Voices in cookbooks come alive if we let them in
“Princess Pamela” Strobel was an iconic, outspoken Manhattan chef of the ‘60s with Spartanburg, South Carolina, roots. After her mother died when she was 10 and she was raised by her grandmother, she cooked in other people’s kitchens and moved to New York with a dream of opening a soul food restaurant with her mother’s recipes.
And by the time she wrote Princess Pamela’s Soul Food Cookbook in 1969, because so many of her restaurant patrons begged for her recipes, Pamela Strobel was indeed royalty, feeding Pearl Bailey and Ringo Starr and putting on her own show of fried chicken and collard greens, homemade potato salad, hot cornbread, and a “Little Kitchen Special Rum Cake” each night.
That was a lemon-scented pound cake baked in a sheet pan and sliced horizontally and filled with raspberry preserves and “liberally” soaked in rum. She cut the cake in little squares, and topped each with real whipped cream.
Celebrating seasons and baking with wisdom
I was introduced to Edna Lewis’s cooking in the mid-‘80s when Miss Edna, as she was often called, was in a culinary residency at Middleton Plantation outside Charleston. She brought recipes from her restaurants in New York and some from back home in Freetown, Virginia, too. Her style was what people today call farm-to-table, but back then it was just seasonal, almost sacred, repeating recipes at specific times of the year like you’re paying reverence to a beloved ancestor.
My favorite Edna Lewis book is The Taste of Country Cooking, where she tells her story of growing up in a farming community settled by freed slaves. Her cakes reveal ingredients picked up in the fields (sweet potatoes) and the brambles (blackberries). And she tells how you baked using a wood stove and toted cake to gatherings before refrigeration and Tupperware. (Much of the South was rural, and if you were cooking in a farming community before the 1930s, you knew how to light a wood stove.)
Edna Lewis recipes read like stories, and her words were carefully chosen. She had spent her life perfecting the cake taught to her by the older generation. “It was my dream to make a pound cake to equal theirs. I learned that the formula for a good pound cake is a slow oven, cold butter, carefully measured flour (too much flour will cause the cake to crack on top), and the proper mixing of butter, sugar, and eggs.
(And I learned from reading Edna Lewis that if while beating the butter, sugar, and eggs in making a pound cake the mixture begins to curdle or separate, you just add a tablespoon or two of flour, which will pull it back together. Then, fold in the rest of the flour and proceed.)
Mama Dip and recipes altered to fit
Mildred Council was born the year of the stock market crash and nicknamed “Dip” by her older brothers and sisters because her long arms could reach way down into the deep rain barrel with a gourd dipper and pull up water.
Her mother had died when she was just 23 months of age. As a child she found her place in the family’s kitchen on the sharecropping farm, just south of where her Rosemary Street restaurant in Chapel Hill—Mama Dip’s Kitchen—stands today. It still feeds college students and celebrities their fill of fried chicken, mac and cheese, and banana pudding, the kind of cooking Mama Dip was raised on.
I met Mrs. Council when I was on book tour a decade ago. My media escort asked me where I’d like to go for lunch, and surveying we were somewhat close to Chapel Hill, my quick answer was, “Mama Dip’s.” (In truth, I think we drove 50 miles to get there!)
I bought her cookbook that day, and I started reading it the minute I got back in the car. Buttermilk pound cake, chocolate pound cake, cream cheese pound cake, a cold-oven rum pound cake. Here she tells of a lifelong work ethic, a freestyle “dump” method of cooking and baking, and how as a slave’s granddaughter she was able to build a business that still employs her family today.
“I grew up and lived in poverty most of my life without knowing it. My children, too, grew up in poverty never knowing that they were poor…Our family was happy to sit around the table at dinner time, eating, poking jokes, and having fun…Early childhood experience equipped me to raise my children to accept life by being happy, learning about life and its struggles and disappointments.”
With the strong assurance of a grandmother, Mama Dip encourages readers to experiment with what you’ve got on hand and see her recipes as sewing patterns—“stretch or alter them to fit.”
Leah Chase and a special butter cake
I was so curious as to why someone would bake a pound cake with powdered sugar and what that might bring to the cake (spoiler alert…velvety texture!) that when I was in New Orleans in the fall of 2014 and after a bowl of impeccable gumbo at Dooky Chase restaurant, I walked back into the kitchen with my copy of The Dooky Chase Cookbook to find Leah Chase and ask her.
Past the vats of hot oil and sizzling fried chicken, Mrs. Chase sat directing the production of lunch. She rose out of her chair, a diminutive woman with glossy silver hair and a wide smile. She had spent her life greeting people—neighbors in the small Louisiana town where she was raised, restaurant patrons as she built the business with her late husband, and civil rights leaders who traveled to New Orleans during the turbulent 1960s.
She knew culinary diplomacy and how to make people feel at home even if she didn’t agree with them. She knew food could bring people together.
As for the powdered sugar in her pound cake?
“That’s what we had.”
You will find just two cake recipes in her book, the butter cake—a celebration type of pound cake sliced after midnight mass on Christmas, which I shared in my book, American Cake, and depression cake, made by soaking buttered day-old bread with local strawberries and their sweetened juices.
Leah Chase could have shared all kinds of cake recipes in her book. But she didn’t need to. She chose the two closest to her heart.
So what to bake?
I settled on Vertamae’s Poundcake. I just had to know if it was good enough for someone to propose marriage.
So I baked the cake several times over the weekend. And the recipe I’m sharing today is an updated Vertamae cake because eggs and flour have changed. Believe me, I didn’t want to change anything about her recipe, which is a classic with a pound each butter, sugar, flour, and eggs.
But eggs are bigger than they used to be. So I reduced the eggs to six.
And flour varies. I baked the cake with White Lily flour first and then I baked it with King Arthur all-purpose. (In the spirit of Mrs. Chase, I was using what I had!) And I’ll be honest, I liked the results and flavor of the King Arthur flour better even though it is a flour higher in protein and I’ve always been told to use low-protein, cake, or pastry flour when baking a pound cake.
And as far as flavoring, Vertamae adds lemon extract, which used to be a popular addition to pound cakes. She also calls for a teaspoon of ground mace, which is a lot of mace in my opinion, and not everyone has mace - the spice, not the spray, she advises! - on hand. So you can substitute nutmeg, or do your own thing with the flavoring. (Vibration, right?)
I chose to add vanilla and a little grated lemon rind. What you get is old-school pound cake that still works today. And it’s even better the next day and the next.
If they were here, I believe these ladies might tell me to wrap up the cake in foil and let it sit and cure a while.
Well, maybe not Vertamae.
She’d be slicing right into that warm cake, throwing caution deliciously to the wind, and telling everyone to come grab a slice.
Ironically, I’ve been striving for perfect pound cake all my life. Only the best butter, the right sugar, the freshest eggs, the perfect flour. But this weekend, I broke those rules and used what I had.
And it was mighty good pound cake. Worth a hand in marriage?
Anne Byrn: Between the Layers is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
To read more from these distinguished cooks
Here are the cookbooks I’ve explored today. Some are still in print and others are not, but you can always check your local library or search for a copy at an estate sale, Goodwill, or a rare book website. And there are so many other talented Black cooks whom I could pay tribute to as well—Cleora Butler and Lena Richard, the Darden sisters, and Dori Sanders and Sallie Ann Robinson. Next time.
The Dooky Chase Cookbook, by Leah Chase. Pelican Publishing Company, 1990. (Listen to Poppy Tooker’s tribute to Leah Chase on Louisiana Eats.)
Mama Dip’s Kitchen, by Mildred Council. The University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Vibration Cooking or The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, by Vertamae Grosvenor. Doubleday, 1970.
The Taste of Country Cooking, by Edna Lewis. Knopf, 2003.
Princess Pamela’s Soul Food Cookbook, by Pamela Strobel. Rizzoli, 2017. A reprint of the 1969 book, published by New American Library, which if you have is a collector’s item.
This is the simplest recipe in the world, and at the same time, it’s complicated. A pound cake works because you beat enough air into the butter and sugar and then add eggs one at a time, also to aerate the batter. There is no baking powder to fall back on. This is a dense cake. Which is why I preferred the King Arthur all-purpose flour to the White Lily in baking it. I felt the KA flour gave it more structure and better flavor. And I know there are thousands of ways to bake a pound cake, and you probably have a favorite method in your family recipe box. Some use sour cream and others cream cheese or even heavy cream. A few call for 7Up. But this is pound cake the way it started. And I can empathize with Vertamae as she was baking this cake, making apologies that she wasn’t experienced. But at the same time, you have to sometime just dive in and try a recipe and not be a spectator anymore! And so here’s a chance to celebrate pound cake—and celebrate the ladies who baked it—as something that helps us step back into another decade into someone else’s shoes and share some love.
Makes 16 servings
Bake: 1 hour, 20 to 25 minutes
1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature but not too soft
2 cups granulated sugar
6 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon salt (3/4 teaspoon if using kosher salt)
1 tablespoon vanilla
Optional flavorings of your choice: 1/2 teaspoon almond extract, 1/2 teaspoon lemon extract, 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest, 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg or mace
3 cups unbleached flour (measured by spooning flour into the cup measure and sweeping a knife across the top to level it)
Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Lightly grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan.
Place the butter in the mixing bowl of a KitchenAid or other stand mixer. Beat on low speed until creamy, about 30 seconds. With the mixer running, gradually add the sugar, beating until creamy and lighter in color, about 2 minutes. Turn off the mixer, and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.
Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the salt, vanilla, and any flavoring you choose, or none at all. Scrape down the sides of the bowl again and beat on low to combine. Add the flour in three increments, mixing on low just to incorporate. Or, fold in the flour by hand using the rubber spatula to combine. (Vertamae says you can make a pound cake with an electric mixer or with 900 strokes by hand.)
Turn the batter into the prepared pan, smooth the top, and place the pan in the oven. Bake until the top of the cake is golden brown, and it is firm to the touch, about 1 hour, 20 to 25 minutes.
Remove the pan from the oven, and place it on a wire rack to cool 20 minutes. Run a knife around the sides of the pan, and invert the cake once and then again so that it rests right side up. Let cool 1 hour before slicing.
This Thursday for BTL Subscribers:
More cooking with what you’ve got: A good friend’s amazing Spaghetti Carbonara, which is having a bit of a moment right now! And five quick dinner suggestions that begin with box of pasta—any kind of pasta. Thursdays are turning into a secretly simple kind of newsletter. Thought I’d share a comment from a subscriber:
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Haven’t baked your King Cake yet for Mardi Gras? Here’s how…
Have a great week!