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Homemade & heavenly

Most of us have a signature dessert, salad or appetizer that we offer regularly at potlucks, office parties and dinner get-togethers. These dishes live on because they are easy to make and people like them.

Dessert always falls into the old-standby category for me. I'd rather spend time on new and interesting appetizers and entrees, then make a simple dessert. At that point, it's all I can do to brew decent coffee.

In recent years, I've leaned on Sara Lee, whose pound cake is a great platform on which to layer seasonal fruits and canned whipped cream. (You know there's a chocolate variety now?!) Ice cream is a good partner, too, especially with the parade of flavors found in the freezer case.

My usual topping is sliced strawberries bathed in orange juice and sweetened with a bit of sugar (or Splenda). Sugar draws from the berries juice that mingles with the orange juice to make a sweet, light syrup. When the syrup permeates dense, vanilla-tinged cake, every diner is happy. It never fails.

I used to make my own pound cake. It didn't take much time, but I fell away from that just as a lot of you have taken a step back from scratch cooking. It's so much easier to buy a cake, especially when it costs less than $3, and people don't seem to notice the difference.

Or maybe they are just being nice. Truth is, with the right recipe, a homemade pound cake is always tastier than store-bought. It's bigger and buttery-moist, and its irregularities are more enticing than the robot-precise versions in aluminum loaf pans.

I've found the perfect recipe, thanks to the genius of Christopher Kimball, the persnickety chef at the magazine he founded, Cook's Illustrated. Kimball and his chefs think nothing of testing dozens of recipes for dishes such as vegetable lasagna and barbecue sauce before hitting one that will make culinary whizzes of amateurs.

Their tenacity results in tips that most cookbooks don't regularly offer. It's a good idea to follow the advice they dispense in detail in the magazine and their cookbooks.

"Although it sounds simple, a good pound cake is in fact quite difficult to make perfectly if the ingredients are not at the proper temperature," Kimball writes in The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook (Little, Brown, 1998, $27.95).

The butter should be malleable but not room temperature, he says. He likes it at 65 degrees, but my meat thermometer doesn't go that low, so I let the butter sit on the counter until it yielded just slightly to pressure. Where my finger met firmness, the butter was still cold. (I would have let it sit longer for cookie dough.)

The eggs _ and this rich cake has five of them _ should be warm, Kimball writes. Ensure that by setting them in a bowl of very warm water for about 5 minutes; change the water once.

Don't succumb yet to store-bought pound cake; the results are worth this seemingly overwrought preparation. Remember, baking is a science, and each ingredient and step play a factor in the quality of the final product.

Take mixing. Mixing is especially important in a cake that has no leavening such as baking powder or soda. Besides blending the ingredients, mixing adds air (volume) to batter, which ultimately lightens the cake. I've been turned off by homemade cakes, mostly my own, because they taste no better than bricks. Ah, the mixes are so much better, I say.

Part of my problem has been the way I've mixed the batter.

Kimball's Pound Cake recipe is quite detailed about mixing. Because he has gone to the trouble of specifying times, I followed them. Even down to the 30 seconds of electric beating after the addition of each egg.

He suggests switching from electric beater (or large spoon, if you're mixing by hand) to a big spatula to mix dry ingredients into wet. You've spent time putting air into butter, sugar and eggs, so why deflate it by pounding the flour in? Fold, gently.

And how beautiful were the results. The pale yellow batter was dull and thick, not grainy or shiny, just as Kimball said it should be.

In the end, I had a cake that baked gorgeously, the brown top split as expected, and inside was a dense crumb so rich that my fingers were slick with butter. Yes, we ate unadorned slices after the suggested one-hour cooling.

The only change I'd make next time is to use a light-surfaced loaf pan. Dark versions absorb more heat, so the sides and bottom of the cake were drier and darker than I would have liked.

Many variations of pound cake have evolved since it was created in England in the early 1700s. The biggest change has been the pound part. The name comes from the amounts of the ingredients initially used: 1 pound each of flour, butter, sugar and eggs.

Over the years, leavening was added to lighten the cake, and other ingredients changed the basic vanilla flavor. Today, pound cake can include coconut, rum, nuts, raisins or dried fruits. Kimball's recipe is truer to original intentions.

Though I've heard of someone who toasts pound cake and slaters it with even more butter, this cake is best when adorned simply. Ripe, juicy fruit is the yummiest accompaniment, the juice drawing slowly into the cake.

Because it is the beginning of fall and I don't want to pay $5 or more for berries, I made several sauces with pears and pineapples. Forget frozen rhubarb; what a mush that turned into. Tastes good, looks bad.

I used the syrup recipe for a pineapple upside down cake. Melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a skillet (either cast iron or aluminum; nonstick won't brown the fruit). Add about cup brown sugar, 2 cups of chopped fruit (blot liquid from canned fruit) and a tablespoon of lemon juice. Keep it on low for about 15 minutes. You can ladle it warm or at room temperature over thick slices of pound cake.

I also whipped my own heavy cream and added a tablespoon of Cointreau for a warm citrus kick.

I can't say I'll abandon Sara Lee forever. After a fussy meal for company, she still makes sense to close an evening meal.

It's nice to have a friend like that when time is short.Janet K. Keeler can be reached at (727) 893-8586 or krietasptimes.com.

Pound Cake

1 cups cake or all-purpose flour

{ teaspoon salt

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened but still firm

1{ cups sugar

5 large eggs, room temperature

1{ teaspoons vanilla extract

1 teaspoon lemon zest

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Grease (with soft butter or vegetable oil spray) and flour a standard loaf pan, 9 by 5 by 3 inches. Sift together the flour and salt onto a large piece of wax paper.

Place the butter in a large mixing bowl and beat until smooth, light-colored and creamy. This can be done by hand, about 1 minute, or in an electric mixer, about 30 seconds. Gradually add the sugar and beat until the butter turns almost white and is very fluffy, about 5 minutes by hand or 3 minutes with an electric mixer.

Add the eggs one at a time, beating for 20 seconds after each addition. The mixture should be dull and smooth. (If the batter appears grainy or separated, the butter or eggs were too cold. If this happens, simply let ingredients set a few minutes until they warm.) Add the vanilla and lemon zest and beat 10 seconds.

Add the flour in three equal parts, folding into the mixture with a large rubber spatula until the batter is well mixed. Scrape from the bottom of the bowl frequently.

Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes. The top should be split and nicely browned, and a cake tester or straw inserted into the center should come out clean. If not, continue baking and check every 5 minutes. When done, empty cake upside down onto one covered hand (use two pot holders) and then place the cake right-side up onto the cooling rack. Cool at least 1 hour before slicing and serving.

Serves 12 to 15.

Nutritional information per serving (12): 325 calories, 17g fat (10g saturated), 5g protein, 38g carbohydrates, less than 1g fiber, 129mg sodium.

Source: "The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook" by Christopher Kimball (Little, Brown, 1998).

Whipped Cream

2 cups heavy cream

{ cup confectioners' sugar

{ teaspoon vanilla extract

Chill bowl and beaters of an electric mixer in the freezer for at least 10 minutes.

Beat heavy cream on high until it starts to take shape. Add sugar and vanilla and beat until stiff peaks form.

Boozy variations: Add 1 tablespoon of any liquor such as dark rum, bourbon, brandy or Cointreau along with the heavy cream.

Almond, orange and lemon Variations: Use { teaspoon of almond extract, orange extract or lemon extract in place of the vanilla.

Source: Adapted from "The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook" by Christopher Kimball (Little, Brown, 1998).

Pineapple Sauce

4 tablespoons butter

2 cups {-inch pineapple chunks (canned or fresh)

cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Melt butter in skillet, preferably not nonstick. Add pineapple chunks. (If using canned, drain and blot them before adding to pan). Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add brown sugar and lemon juice. Let cook on low for 10 minutes.

Serve warm or at room temperature over slices of pound cake with whipped cream and ribbons of lemon zest.

Serves 8.

Note: Sliced apples or pears can be substituted. If using fresh, peel and core fruit.

Nutritional information per serving: 131 calories, 6g fat (4g saturated), trace protein, 20g carbohydrates, less than 1g fiber, 10mg sodium.

Source: Janet K. Keeler, Times food editor.

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