May 20, 2010

On Peanut Butter Pound Cake and Oven Rack Placement

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I love the idea of taking something awesome and making it…awesomer. Like a good old-fashioned pound cake, for example. When done right—golden, buttery, a slight crust with a tender crumb—it doesn’t get much better. Unless you add peanut butter. And wee chocolate chips, because it’s a natural thing to do. All aboard! The awesomer train is leaving. Am I right? Well, you just hang on there a second.

Okay, so. Because we’re friends, I’ll start by saying that I really sort of messed up this recipe. The finished product didn’t really reach its full potential and I totally take responsibility for that. It all started with so much promise—lots of creamy peanut butter swirled into a billowy, silky batter? I mean, come on—but then, then!, I committed one of the Cardinal Sins of Baking. I didn’t read all the instructions carefully enough before I started. Was it due to a tiny person suddenly overturning something heavy onto herself in the other room? Did I suddenly realize I’d forgotten to put on deodorant AGAIN? I’ll never tell. Either way, it was a very straight-C student thing of me to do, glossing over the instructions like that. Thinks of high school, covers face, runs away.

I’d prepped my (properly-sized) pan with cooking spray and parchment, started with room temperature ingredients, and preheated my oven to the right temperature with my trusty oven thermometer inside to make sure the heat was on point. But! I was a crazy fool and didn’t place my oven rack to the right position within that perfectly heated oven. Wuh-wuuhhhh. So I’ll take one for the team here and be the example of why being a nitpicker about oven rack placement really does matter. I love you guys that much.

So you might be saying, “Really, Shauna? Does oven rack placement make THAT big of a difference, or are you just being all Type A on us again?” . Well. The answer is oh, yes (on both accounts, really), and it separates the just okay results from the stellar ones. Most baking recipes will indicate where you should place the oven rack, and most often this will be in the center of the oven, where the heat will hit both the top and bottom of the baking pans with the same intensity and give even browning and baking. I’ve found that in most recipes where oven rack placement isn’t indicated, it’s safe to assume that the center position will give good results (or for things like cookies when you can bake more than one sheet at a time, go for the upper and lower thirds of the oven).

But other recipes, like those for thick, dense cakes like Bundts, loaf cakes, and ahem, peanut butter pound cakes, call for the oven rack to be placed in the lower part of the oven. With more heat hitting the cake from the bottom of the oven, the center will bake thoroughly without the top getting overly browned or burnt during the long bake (usually an hour or more) that these sort of cakes require.

So if you’ve got a perfectly browned peanut butter pound cake that’s still crazy raw in the middle after an hour, making your total baking time ridiculously longer than what the recipes suggests (and rendering the finished product edible, but undeniably overbaked) then you, too, might be a victim of Oven Rack Placement Issues. Just like me. Sitting here, eating a hunk of peanut butter pound cake with so much potential and great flavor, but an overbrowned crust and “meh” texture due to overbaking. Thinking about how I’ve got to add Oven Rack Placement Issues to all my other issues. I-yi-yi.

And now that I’ve broadcast the error of my ways, I’m still going to pass this recipe on to you with great faith that you’ll do it the right way. And then report back with your success in the comments section to rub it in. Please and thank you.

Peanut Butter Pound Cake

Adapted from Flo Braker’s recipe in The San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook

Now, the original recipe didn’t include chocolate chips, but I literally could not hold myself back from adding them. It was a moral issue of sorts. You do what you like.

Room temperature ingredients are one of the pillars of great baking, but are seriously important here. With no leavening, all the lift in this cake with come from air incorporated into the batter—you’ll get the most air into the mix with truly room temperature butter and eggs.

Serves 8-10

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter (the commercial stuff, not natural)
5 large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups unsifted all-purpose flour
2/3 mini semisweet chocolate chips

Place an oven rack IN THE LOWER THIRD OF THE OVEN and preheat it to 350 degrees. Lightly spray a 9×5-inch loaf pan with cooking spray and line it with a a strip of parchment paper to create a sling with a bit of overhang on the long sides of the pan.

In the bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed, cream together the butter and sugar until very light and fluffy, about two minutes. Add the peanut butter and beat until well-combined. Scrape down the bottom and sides of the bowl. Beat in the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Reduce the speed to low and blend in the flour in two additions. When just a few streaks of flour remain, pull the bowl from the mixer and fold in the chocolate chips by hand.

Spread the batter into the prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 60-70 minutes. Let cool in the pan before slicing and serving.

  • Shauna, longtime reader, first time commenter, thanks for sharing the error of your ways. That got me to thinking, do you have/use a convection type oven? Do you have any sort of quarry stone or pizza stone left in the very bottom of the oven for better heat management? I don't recall reading anything like that about your set-up here in these fine pages you create.
    I have been dutifully going thru many of your recipes, and while they all come out very tasty and look like many of the pictures, I find my oven requires longer bake times than you list. I do use an oven thermometer so I know my temps are where they should be. It's not really a big deal, since I know that is what to expect from the oven, it just got me a wonderin'.

  • Hi Rod! Thanks for commenting. I have used a stone in the bottom of the oven on occasion, especially when I make a Shirley Corriher recipe because she's big into that. And funny about the baking times–most of my recipes are adaptations of other recipes, and the baking times are the same as the original recipes, so I'm not sure about the discrepancy in times there. Thanks so much for reading!

  • Shauna,dear, showed this one to Hubby, who adores the P.B. and Choc. combo – he says he now knows what he wants for dessert on Father's Day! Looks like I'll be adding yet another of your recipes to the list of "oooooo, let's try that one!" list! 😉

  • Hi Shauna. I just wanted to say how much I love your blog. Your photographs are truly stunning – I almost want to eat them! The recipes are great too and your helpful hints, like the placement of the racks in the oven, are great reminders. I thought I was a good baker but your attention to detail has reminded me to be more careful with my baking – and probably explains why things go wrong sometimes.

    I live in the UK – in London – and work with your delightful sister-in-law who introduced me to your blog. Thank you Jennifer!

    One question – we have 'fan' ovens in the UK and I wonder how that affects the placement of items in the oven for baking. The idea of the fan is to distribute the heat more evenly around the oven.


  • Mmmm I llove peanut butter so much, this pound cake looks amazingly good, your step by step pictures are making me hungry hehe!

  • Aw, sorry that happened! Getting a little distracted happens to the best of us. At least now you've got an excuse to try the recipe again, and it sure looks like it would be amazing!!

  • Oooh this looks so good! If you hadn't told me that it didn't turn out the way you hoped I wouldn't have even noticed. Pound cakes and their long times in the oven kind of worry me. I'll remember your words of wisdom the next time I make one.

  • Looks delicious!! Chocolate and Peanut Butter and never a bad thing.

  • hi Shauna
    peanut butter pound cake …wow…with chocolate chips…wow again…I would love a piece!! and thanks for the tip on the oven rack placement!

  • This looks delicious! Pound cake + peanut butter + chocolate = OH MY!!! Thanks for the recipe!

  • Hi Shauna! My husband loves anything chocolate and peanut butter so I made this recipe right away (just now getting around to commenting!), and I'm wondering what you thought of the peanut butter flavor? I was expecting a larger peanut butter taste and was very underwhelmed. Maybe I was expecting too much? I brought the loaf to the cabin for the weekend and my mom cut it up the remainder then cooked it into something resembling not-entirely-hard biscotti. The taste actually ended up working better, for me, that way. Anyway, keep up the good work. I'll probably give into making the apricot (a fave!) and raspberry crisp tomorrow. Haha!

  • Omdg this looks so good. I think if I hand crafted something like this it would totally make my day. Gotta take up cooking…

  • I just found your blog from a tasty kitchen recipe of yours and of course, had to look at all of your recent recipes! It's a good thing I read this one, because I've been having over browning problems when I bake. I was baking cakes and cupcakes in the center of the oven, but had too brown outsides, whether it be bottom, sides, or tops. So I tried baking things in the top third. Still kind of the same problem. Then I bought an oven thermometer thinking that my oven ran hot, but no, spot on! I'm becoming quite frustrated, because before I moved into my current house that has an old, electric oven, I had a glorious gas oven and everything came out perfectly! What's the deal?

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