Q: My whole family has tried to duplicate my grandma's pound cake recipe without any success. It tastes the same but doesn't rise and if becomes a really heavy dense cake. Any idea why the cake won't rise? I want to be able to figure this out and make it for her. She just broke her hip and she is 93 so who knows how much longer we have.
—Beverly Richards, Mount Prospect
A: I wanted to run your letter not just because your pound cake goes flat — though that's a problem — but because I think it's so important for families to chat among themselves about foods they love and swap recipes whenever they can. Too many people wait too long — until loved ones are dead and kitchens dismantled — before searching, often in vain, for Mom's piccalilli, or Aunt Jo's waterzooi or Brother's chili.
Talk it up, people. Before it is too late.
You are lucky. Your grandmother is still alive. A quick exchange of emails shows you've got an "official" recipe. Your grandmother's daughters made the pound cake successfully from it at one but can't do so now. Sugar may or may not be the culprit, you think.
"Everyone has given up on it," you write.
OK. But what about your grandmother? Has she given up? I would approach her, if at all possible, and tell her your pound cake won't rise. Did she ever have that problem? What did she do about it?
Your recipe is titled "Imperial Pound Cake." It calls for one pound of Imperial brand margarine. I talked it over with Paula Shoyer of Chevy Chase, Md. She's got plenty of experience baking with margarine as author of "The Kosher Baker: Over 160 Dairy-free Recipes from Traditional to Trendy."
Shoyer zeroed in on how your grandmother may have made the recipe, especially how she measured amounts. Did she use a measuring cup designed for dry or wet ingredients, or something else? Was her 1 cup a rounded measure or did she level it off? What kind of flour did she use? Did she add any baking powder? And what size eggs were available to her? Modern recipes call for "large" egg because they are a standard size, Shoyer noted, but cooks years ago used whatever size egg they had on-hand.
All these questions are important because "official" recipes change with time. People tailor ingredients to their taste, techniques to their abilities, baking or cooking time to their appliances. Your grandmother's pound cake surely evolved into a treat truly hers. Ask her about that. Somewhere, unwritten and between the lines of the recipe, may be the solution.
Shoyer, for one, recommends adding another egg to the recipe to see if it will give the cake batter more lift. She also notes that a pound cake by nature is going to be pretty hefty in terms of texture so don't expect some delicate airy thing.
I get a number of questions about lost family recipes. Here are some general tips folks can use in that search:
1.Go to the source if you can, even if earlier requests for recipes have been denied. What have you got to lose? Tell the cook you want him or her to be around for a long time making that wonderful family dish but, eventually, someone else in the family will have to take it on. And you need his or her help to keep the family tradition alive.
2.Convene a family pow-wow and talk to everyone, especially the older members of the family, about the recipe. What do they remember about it? Can they visualize the cook making it? What struck them most about the process: Aromas? Flavors? The messiness of it all?
3.If the cook's kitchen is still intact, check out the cookbooks and recipe boxes for clues to that elusive dish. The recipe may be scribbled out on a piece of paper and used as a bookmark in some food-splattered book. Did the cook have a favorite cookbook he or she turned to often? Check that volume particularly closely.
Here's Beverly Richards' family recipe for "Imperial Pound Cake," in case curious or ambitious readers want to take a crack at solving your problem. Send those solutions to me and I'll forward them to her, OK?
Imperial pound cake
1 pound each: margarine, powdered sugar
3 cups cake flour, sifted and measured for 3 cups
1 teaspoon vanilla
1.Cream margarine and sugar. Add 1 egg at a time beating well after each. Add sifted flour and vanilla.
2.Bake in 10-inch tube pan in a 325-degree oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Do you have a question about food or drink? E-mail Bill Daley at: email@example.com. Snail mail inquiries should be sent to: Bill Daley, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago 60611. Twitter @billdaley.