Of the many things that long stood between me and homemade lemon poppy seed pound cake, the hardest to get past was also the smallest. Poppy seeds are not regulars in my spice cabinet, and somehow buying them with only cake in mind seemed too extravagant.
Silly me! This is one of those Platonic ideal recipes—of course it is, it's from Rose Levy Beranbaum—that everyone should have in her repertoire. It would be appropriate at any time of year (or day, for that matter), but perhaps it's especially welcome now, when there isn't much fruit around and even the tangerines are getting kind of sad. She says it keeps a bit longer than regular pound cake, thanks to the lemon syrup—but I'm fairly sure I'll never test this theory.
I have to admit that although I sprung for the poppy seeds, I never buy cake flour—I always use the substitution of 1 cup cake flour = 2 tablespoons cornstarch + 7/8 cup all-purpose flour. (If that sounds complicated, just put the 2 tablespoons cornstarch in your 1-cup measure, fill by spooning in flour, and level off—voila.) I also decided at some point that life is too short for sifting, before or after measuring, and I can't say that skipping this step perceptibly diminished my immense delight in this cake.
Although Beranbaum recommends an 8 x 4 inch loaf pan, I used three disposable foil mini-loaf pans, each with a capacity of about 1 3/4 cups. The cute little slices would make a nice beginning or end to any brunch, and a tiny loaf would be a great hostess gift when you're eating brunch at someone else's place: easy to stash in the cupboard for later but also small enough to be added to the table without overwhelming the meal.
- 3 tablespoons milk, room temperature
- 3 large eggs, room temperature
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
- 1 1/2 cups (5 1/4 ounces) sifted cake flour
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
- 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon (6 grams) loosely packed grated lemon zest
- 3 tablespoons (28 grams) poppy seeds
- 13 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (I got this out of 2 lemons easily)
Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease your pan(s), line bottom(s) with parchment paper, grease parchment, and flour pan interior. In a small mixing bowl, lightly combine the milk, eggs, and vanilla.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, 3/4 cup of the sugar, the baking powder, salt, lemon zest, and poppy seeds. Mix on low speed for 30 seconds to blend. Add the butter and half the egg mixture. Mix on low speed until the dry ingredients are moistened. Increase speed to medium (high if using a hand mixer) and beat for 1 minute.
Scrape down sides. Add remaining egg mixture in 2 batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition. Scrape down sides and scrape batter into prepared pan. Bake until a wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 55-65 minutes for an 8 x 4 inch loaf, 30-35 minutes for mini loaves.
Shortly before the cake is done, put the lemon juice and the remaining 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar in a small pan. Stir over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, put it on a rack, poke all over with a wire tester or a toothpick, and brush with half of the syrup. Cool in pan for 10 minutes, then invert onto greased wire rack. Poke bottom of cake with tester, brush with some syrup, and set right side up. Brush sides with remaining syrup and allow to cool before wrapping airtight. Store for 24 hours before eating for best results, to give syrup a chance to distribute evenly. (Good luck with that waiting.)