To be a holiday set aside just for love, St. Valentine’s Day sure does stir people up—and not always in a romantic way. For every starry-eyed lover, it seems there’s a disappointed, lonely soul who doesn’t care to be reminded that romance is not, for the moment at least, in the cards they’ve been dealt.
But regardless of your romantic state, or of what you may think of this red-heart-splattered holiday, you’ve got to admit that any day celebrated with chocolate can’t be all bad. It’s the perfect food for love—any kind of love. It comforts a disappointed one, enhances the excitement of a new one, rekindles an old one, and warms the calmer kind found between families and friends.
Of course, the most common form of chocolate at this time of year is nestled in heart-shaped candy boxes. But for me, candy—no matter how refined, rare, and expensive—just doesn’t cut it. To my mind this food of love doesn’t approach real perfection until it’s stirred into an old-fashioned pound cake, which is ironic considering that people only started to put chocolate in the batter a little over a hundred years ago. The original “chocolate cake” was actually just a plain butter cake frosted at first with meringue icing dusted with grated chocolate and, later, with a rich fudge; it didn’t become part of the batter until around the middle of the nineteenth century.
No matter: chocolate pound cake recalls every kind of love at every stage of my life. It’s the cake that my mother always made for my birthday, the one used both by others to ply my heart and by me to ply theirs, and, one year by my dear friend Maryan Harrell to comfort me on a birthday when I was especially homesick and too far away from it.
Maryan’s Chocolate Pound Cake
Pound cake came into America with the European settlers, its name a lingering reminder of the original formula—a pound each of butter, sugar, flour, and eggs. Since many American kitchens, especially in the western frontier and Deep South, weren’t equipped with scales a volume-based formula emerged—three cups each of butter, sugar, and flour, with fewer eggs but more liquid (which when combined more or less added up to three cups). Less expensive shortening also replaced some or all of the butter, resulting in a cake that is both sweeter and lighter. Maryan’s cake follows the latter formula.
The secrets to its rich crumb and deeply chocolate flavor are the last two ingredients: evaporated milk and Mexican vanilla extract. Any vanilla naturally enhances chocolate, but that from Mexico just seems to be made for it. For a long time, this flavoring wasn’t sold in our country and could only be brought in for personal use in limited quantities. Fortunately, it is now widely available in specialty food stores and through mail-order baking suppliers and spice catalogs.
Makes 1 tube cake
½ pound (2 sticks or 1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
¼ pound (½ cup) all-vegetable shortening
3 cups sugar
6 large eggs
2½ cups Southern soft wheat flour (such as White Lily), pastry flour, or plain all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup cocoa
1 cup evaporated milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, preferably Mexican Vanilla
Lightly grease a tube cake pan and dust with flour (put in about 2 tablespoons of flour and gently shake and turn the pan until it the surface is lightly coated), then shake out the excess. Using a mixer on medium speed, cream the butter and shortening in a large mixing bowl. Add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, beating well between each addition until the batter is lemony and very fluffy.
Sift or whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and cocoa. Alternating between them, gradually mix the flour and evaporated milk into the batter, beating well between each addition. When all the flour and milk are incorporated, beat in the vanilla extract. Spoon the batter into the tube pan or divide it equally between two loaf pans.
Run a knife through the batter in an “S” pattern to release any large air bubbles, then firmly tap each on the counter several times to force the bubbles to the surface. This will help insure an even texture. Position a rack in the center of the oven and put the pan on the rack. Set the oven temperature at 300° F and turn it on. Bake the cake for 1½ to 2 hours, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Turn off the oven and leave the door slightly ajar. Allow the cake to cool in the oven.