Pound perfect

Fresh fruit and a dusting of powdered sugar makes pound cake extra special.

Pound cakes — the mother of butter cakes — are a good cook's secret weapon, particularly for holiday meals. Any holiday will do, but particularly in the spring. Sliced thinly before serving, they are accommodating in a way heavier desserts are not and have none of the finicky nature of egg-white recipes if rain should fall.

Pound cakes end a sumptuous dinner without demanding to be the star of the show, instead making a final statement of contentment and familiarity. As dessert, they are welcome, delicious and memorable: stars in any hostess' crown. And they are large enough to allow for seconds if anyone desires.

Brought to the South in pre-Revolutionary War days, their origin is believed to be English. Traditional pound cakes containing equal weights of flour, butter, sugar and eggs have a thick batter and do not contain liquid, baking powder or baking soda. They only rise properly after prolonged beating to incorporate enough air to give the cake a fine texture. An electric mixer, the sturdier the better, is an enormous modern-day asset. Imagine doing all this beating by hand with a wooden spoon!

But these two cakes are variations that sizzle a bit more than the classic vanilla pound cake. They both are moist for days after baking, and of course are very good for breakfast if any cake is left over.

Serve alone or accompanied with berries or fruit, whipping cream or ice cream.

Note: It's natural for a pound cake to crack on the top. If a prettier top is desired, check the cake after 40 minutes and make a 1/4-inch-deep slit down the length of the crack using a sharp knife. The cake will always be moister at the crack, so test for doneness with a toothpick NEXT to the crack, not in the crack.

Michelle Avenel Hammond, who is interning with me, tested the cakes and helped with the food styling.

Makes 1 (10-inch) round cake or 2 (9x5x3-inch) loaves

Unusual for its use of cream cheese, combined with brown sugar and buttermilk, this has strayed far from a traditional pound cake, yet it is still ideal for serving alone, or with berries and other fruit. Or even whipping cream. Or both. It toasts well for breakfast.

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened (see cook's note)

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

1 cup light or dark brown sugar

6 large eggs

3 cups all-purpose or cake flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup fresh or reconstituted powdered buttermilk

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Cook's note: Equal amounts of sour cream can be substituted for the cream cheese if necessary. Both sour cream and cream cheese make a very moist cake.

Position rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees. Butter and flour a 10-inch tube pan, bundt pan or 2 (9x5x3-inch) loaf pans. If using a loaf pan, line with 2 pieces of parchment or waxed paper; one cut to the width of the pan and the other to the length of the pan plus 4 inches of overhang to use as handles to lift the loaf from the pan. If using another type of round pan, butter and flour, line with a piece of parchment paper, and butter and flour the paper. We used a very modern “flexible” pan for this, which did not require lining with paper, although it was greased and floured to provide the traditional coating on this.

Beat the cream cheese, butter, granulated sugar and brown sugar with an electric mixer until light, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for 1 minute after each addition.

Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt onto a piece of waxed paper. Combine the buttermilk and vanilla in a measuring cup. Add a third of the flour mixture, alternating with half the buttermilk mixture, to the butter-egg mixture, beginning and ending with the flour. Pour into the prepared pan. Give the pan a light tap on the counter.

Bake 60 to 75 minutes, until a wooden toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. (The internal temperature of the cake should be 195 to 200 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.) Cool in the pan for 10 minutes on a wire rack. Remove from the pan and cool completely. Remove the paper. Freezes well, tightly wrapped, for 3 months.

Makes 1 (9x5x3-inch) loaf

This classic pound cake, adapted from a recipe of Rose Levy Beranbaum's, is enhanced by the sugar syrup used to lavishly baste it. It is necessary to make the cake a day ahead, wrap it tightly, and leave it to moisten throughout and thus prevent crumbling. The syrup should be poured on while the cake is still warm so it permeates the cake. It needs no other adornment, although it can be paired with berries or other fruits, its lemon flavor shining through.

2 1/4 cups all-purpose or cake flour

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon grated lemon rind, no white attached

4 tablespoons black poppy seed

1 1/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened

5 large eggs, lightly beaten

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

For sauce:

3/4 cup granulated sugar

3/4 cup fresh lemon juice

Position rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9x5x3-inch loaf pan. Line with 2 pieces of parchment or waxed paper, one cut to the width of the pan and the other to the length of the pan plus 4 inches of overhang to use as handles to lift the loaf from the pan. Butter and flour the paper.

Sift together the flour, sugar, and salt into a large mixing bowl. Add the lemon rind, poppy seed and butter, a third of the beaten eggs, and the vanilla. Using an electric mixer, mix on low speed until moist. Increase the speed and beat for 1 minute. Add another third of the eggs, scraping down the sides of the bowl, and beat for 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the bowl again and add the remaining eggs, beating for another 30 seconds. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake 60 to 75 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Avoid testing it in the crack, as that stays moister for some reason. (The internal temperature of the cake should be 195 to 200 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Insert the thermometer at an angle next to the crack.)

Meanwhile, make the syrup. Stir the sugar and lemon juice in a small pan over low heat until the sugar is dissolved and the syrup is clear.

Remove the cake pan from the oven and poke the top of the cake with a fork in several places. Brush the top of the cake with the syrup and let soak into the sides and bottom of the cake. Cool slightly in the pan before removing the cake to a rack to finish cooling. Wrap tightly with foil or plastic wrap and let rest a day before serving. This cake keeps nearly a week at room temperature or in the refrigerator. It freezes well when wrapped thoroughly.

Substitute sesame seed for the poppy seed.

Use orange rind in place of the lemon rind and make an orange syrup, substituting orange juice and Grand Marnier for the lemon juice. If no liquor is available, bring a larger quantity of orange juice to a boil and boil to reduce the amount but increase the flavor.

Substitute Courvoisier, brandy, Drambuie or other liqueur for the lemon juice in the syrup.

Nathalie Dupree is the author of 11 cookbooks, most recently “Southern Biscuits.” Visit Nathaliedupree.com.