It's pretty much a given that if you're baking, roasting, braising, or doing basically anything that involves your oven, you're going to have to preheat it. But Cold Oven Pound Cake is here to flip everything you know about preheating on its head. That's right-there are some cake recipes that actually rise better in the oven as it warms up.
Pastry chef and cookbook author Cheryl Day (who also wrote Epi's guide to baking on a budget) believes this recipe was originally developed by gas stove manufacturers as a marketing tool. In her Treasury of Southern Baking, Day writes that recipes for cold oven pound cake "first appeared in advertising campaigns designed to entice homemakers into replacing their wood-fired ovens with the gas stoves that were being introduced to the American market in the early 20th century."
"This cake is one of our bestsellers at Back in the Day," Day tells me. "And because it starts in a cold oven, it's actually the first thing we bake every day." In comparison to the dense, tight crumb of a typical pound cake, Day's cold oven version is lighter and more delicate-almost fluffy. "The crust, though-that's the real signature aspect of this cake. I've never had anything like it on a cake before," she says. And the crust is unusually thick, about a quarter-inch, producing flavors reminiscent of caramel and brown butter on the surface.
That all sounds fine, but why does a cold oven make a better pound cake? To find out, I baked two versions of Day's cake-one in a cold oven and one in a preheated oven-and the results spoke volumes. The first cake was like a sweet, buttery cloud wrapped in flavorful, delicately crisp crust, exactly like Day described. The second one, though, was squat, a full inch shorter than the previous cake, dense as clay made from butterfat, and lacked the signature crust.
"Low and slow is the key to this cake," says Day. "That gives the leavening-baking powder in this case-more time to work. The cake is so dense with eggs and butter that it really needs the extra time." Unlike the 350° F cooking temperature called for in many cake recipes, Day's cake bakes at a cooler 325° F.
It also gets some extra lift thanks to how the ingredients are combined. "The 'creaming of butter' stage will make a cake rise even in the absence of baking powder," says Stuart Farrimond, MD, and author of The Science of Cooking. "The longer cooking time gives more time for the air bubble to inflate slowly, and so [it] give[s] a better rise." While those bubbles are inflating, the baking powder has its second chemical reaction (the first occurs the moment you combine the wet and dry ingredients) in the oven. The baking powder has a limited amount of time to continue reacting because once the batter hits about 155 to 180° F, the gluten in the flour starts to firm up. Farrimond explains that the lower starting temperature gives more time for the cake to rise before it sets.
Any crust or browned surface of a cake is the product of both the Maillard reaction and caramelization of the sugars in the batter, but the extra deep, flavorful crust on Day's cake is enhanced by the low starting temperature, and extended cooking time. According to Farrimond, the surface of food will start to brown as it reaches about 266°F, and will start to burn as the surface temperature reaches 355° F to 375° F. "By cooking to a lower temperature and for longer you are giving the surface of the cake longer in the 266 to 375° F temperature window…giving it a thicker, more flavourful crust," says Farrimond.
In addition to harnessing the power of cold oven baking, Day's cake recipe is highly flexible. "I've made this with half-and-half when I'm out of milk, and it comes out so good. You could easily swap in dairy-free milk and butter, too," says Day. And this cake has lasting power. Day says it can be kept at room temperature for up to five days, and my test batch kept perfectly moist and tender for more than a week.
I've been baking for more than 20 years, but this cold oven pound cake recipe has me rethinking all the basics. Could other cake recipes benefit from the "low and slow" method? Good thing I don't need to preheat my oven to find out.