We can count on a few things in modern life. You can count on an old high school acquaintance to post racist/sexist/all kinds of -ist comments on your Facebook page and claim you’re close friends. You can count on people air-groping Michelangelo’s David for Instagram likes. But you can also still count on the emotionally restorative power of puppies, and you can count on pound cake.
Yes, still. After more than 300 years. Still around because it’s perfect. Like Helen Mirren’s supernaturally young face. Perfect.
It’s even more appealing now, because cooking’s gotten weird. I’m all for weird. Chefs got bored of pushing the envelope and just started making blue cheese foams out of the envelope. To make a delicious consommé, they spin soup in a research-grade centrifuge designed to help scientists analyze human blood. They’re using liquid nitrogen, once popularly available only for ugly mole removal, to make ice cream.
No matter what Bill Nye technique restaurant chefs are using to breathe postapocalyptic thrills into their dessert menu, the pound cake just sits in the corner, smirking and smoking a cigarette, waiting for chefs to come back to it. They always come back.
It’s both dense and light, moist and sturdy (flour and eggs strengthen the molecular structure, fat and sugar moisten it). The recipe is literally in its name (pound of eggs, pound flour, pound sugar, pound butter). That way it can’t be messed up even by the worst cooks, people who put their family in peril every time they turn on the oven. Accessorize at will with almond extract, orange or lemon zest, nutmeg. Get crazy.
And one of the best I’ve found is at Vistal, the new restaurant at the new InterContinental Hotel. Paul McCabe, one of the top chefs San Diego’s seen in the last decade, runs the hotel’s food program. But another of the city’s longstanding top chefs, Amy DiBiase, runs Vistal, and he gives all the credit for the restaurant to her.
It’s a seafood restaurant, but we’ll get to that in SD Mag later on. For now let’s focus on her corn pound cake with corn sauce, honey, mascarpone, macerated figs, and vanilla gelato. It’s a revelation. So I bugged her for the details.
“I stumbled across an old Mexican dessert cookbook that had this corn cake recipe utilizing fresh corn and I knew I had to try and make it,” she says. “As we tested the recipe we made a couple changes to get the texture we were looking for. Then we had to decide what to serve it with. I had made a savory corn sauce for a scallop dish years back, so I modified the sauce into a dessert component with the addition of the popcorn, figs and gelato. What I really enjoy most about the dish is the use of corn in a manner that most people wouldn’t think of and that it actually all works together.”
First she purees yellow corn, condensed milk, vanilla paste, and melted butter in a food processor. Room-temp egg yolks are added to the puree, while the whites are whipped to medium peaks in a separate bowl. The she adds her dry stuff—flour, baking powder, salt—and folds in the whipped egg whites. She bakes the cake on buttered parchment at 350 until golden.
For her “corn sauce,” pureed fresh white corn is pressed through a fine-mesh strainer, brought to a simmer, and reduced until it coats the back of the spoon. It’s finished with honey and mascarpone.
Then the figs are macerated (basically, marinated) in sugar, vanilla bean paste, and lemon juice.
Griddle the pound cake in butter, lay it on the plate, add a scoop of Pappalecco vanilla gelato (“they’re the best in town,” she says), spoon the corn sauce all over the proceedings, and garnish with honey caramel popcorn and those figs.
Pound cake. Perfection. DiBiase says she’ll serve it as long as the local corn tastes good, which should be just about through the end of October.