French pastry chef, Dominique Ansel, is no stranger to creativity. The inventor of the cronut® and a multitude of other light-hearted riffs on culinary classics (Frozen s’mores! Cookie shots! Matcha-dusted beignets!), Ansel see each recipe as a collection of building blocks best left to personal interpretation.
In his most recent cookbook, Everyone Can Bake, Ansel disassembles the building blocks into simple chapters easily accessible to even the most novice baker. Each sweet structure begins with the choice of a “go-to” base recipe (such as a classic cake, cookie, pie crust or tart shell), then gives inspired options for filling and finishing. And, as each construction benefits from an educated architect, a chapter dedicated to technique further informs the creative process.
This dense, moist, vanilla-scented pound cake is a case in point. The classic loaf cake is delicious served on its own, simply flavored with lemon, or with a transparent glaze (as here), but can be further embellished with any in an array of potential partners from citrus curd and ganache to Italian meringue and streusel.
Go-To Vanilla Pound Cake
Pound cakes are sturdy: they travel and keep well and are wonderfully receptive to a variety of flavor and topping additions. Vanilla is the most classic flavor and is achieved here with the seeds from a fresh vanilla pod. If fresh vanilla is unavailable, sub in 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract instead. For the simple variation pictured above, make a lemon-scented pound cake topped with a classic Nappage Glaze (see below).
- 4 large eggs (225 g)
- 1 1/3 cups (265 g) granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup (135 g) crème fraîche, at room temperature
- 2 cups (240 g) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 3/4 tsp. (4 g) baking powder
- 1/3 tsp. (2 g) salt
- 6 Tbs. (3/4 stick/90 g) unsalted butter
- 1 Tahitian vanilla bean (6 g), split lengthwise and seeds scraped
Preheat an oven to 325°F (160°C). Butter and flour an 8 1/2-by-4 1/2-inch (21-by-11 cm) loaf pan, or line the bottom and sides of the pan with parchment paper.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, or in a large bowl using a handheld electric mixer, combine the eggs and sugar and beat on high speed until smooth and lightened in color, 2 to 3 minutes. Put the crème fraîche in a medium bowl, add a large scoop of the egg mixture, and whisk it into the crème fraîche to lighten it. Add the crème fraîche to the bowl with the remaining egg mixture and gently whisk until fully incorporated.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt to break up any lumps. Fold the dry ingredients into the egg mixture in thirds, folding until combined after each addition. Combine the butter and vanilla seeds in a small microwave-safe bowl. Microwave in 30-second increments, stirring after each to prevent burning, until the butter has melted. (Alternatively, you can melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat, removing it from the heat as soon as the butter has melted; you don’t want the butter to brown.) While whisking, slowly pour the melted butter mixture into the batter and whisk until combined. Fill the prepared loaf pan to about 1/2 inch (12 mm) from the top.
Bake the cake until golden brown, 55 minutes to 1 hour. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let cool in the pan for 15 minutes. While the cake is still warm, turn it out onto the wire rack, turn it right side up and let cool completely.
Add 2 tsp. lemon zest to the flour mixture. Substitute the vanilla seeds with 1/2 cup (100 g) lemon juice, and proceed as directed.
“Nappage” sounds fancy but is easy to make. Dominque Ansel explains, “Think of nappage as a protective neutral top coat for your desserts. To me, a tart isn’t complete without nappage, especially since it helps prevent the cut surfaces of fresh fruits from browning over time. The nappage itself is only slightly sweet and doesn’t carry very much flavor. But it’s not to be missed if you’re serious about presentation.” It’s important to use pectin NH, which is thermally reversible, which means it can be set, melted and set again. Look for it online or in specialty baking shops.
- 3/4 cup (150 g) granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 cups (345 g) water
- 1 Tbs. plus 3/4 tsp. (15 g) pectin NH (see note above)
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine about half of the sugar and the water. Bring to a boil, then remove from the heat.
In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining sugar and the pectin until combined. (Combining the pectin with some of the sugar before sprinkling it over the simple syrup will prevent it from clumping.) Sprinkle the pectin mixture over the simple syrup and whisk until the sugar and pectin have dissolved. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat. Cook for 2 minutes, then remove from the heat. Let cool for 10 to 15 minutes before using or storing. The nappage can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
To use, microwave the nappage until it’s hot and pourable, with a consistency similar to warm maple syrup (add a little water to loosen it up if it’s too thick), about 30 seconds. If the nappage has separated, blend it using a hand blender for a few seconds to combine, then tap the container on the counter a few times to remove any air bubbles that may have formed during blending.
Recipe adapted from Dominque Ansel’s Everyone Can Bake: Simple Recipes to Master and Mix (Simon and Schuster, 2020)