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The Secret to Poundcake That Really Pops


I was eating a corned beef sandwich in an Irish bar in Brooklyn, a quiet shebeen with excellent service and food that was reliably terrible. The corned beef was an outlier, salty and sweet, fat-flecked, spicy, delicious. I told the bartender, an owner of the place, how much I liked it. He flashed a wicked smile, surfer-laconic. “It’s the ginger beer we cure it with,” he said. “Secret ingredient.” He died a couple of years later. I never got the recipe.

I love a clandestine soda in the preparation of food, a flash of carbonation where the French might use wine or brandy. It may be transgressive to say so, but I’m hardly alone, for all those who cringe at the thought or snort in disgust. There’s cola in plenty of barbecue sauces, after all, throughout the South, and in the one used at the restaurant Joe Beef in Montreal. Coke gives barbecue sauce a certain roundness, I think, a kind of caramel hum. There’s 7-Up in the butter slathered on the shrimp at FOB, a Filipino restaurant in Brooklyn, and Sprite in the sabayon that the chef Tim Love, of the Lonesome Dove in Fort Worth, sometimes serves with oysters, at least when he’s not marinating skirt steaks in Dr Pepper.

Once you start looking for it, soda shows up in lots of restaurant cooking. Ohm Suansilphong, a chef at Fish Cheeks, a Thai restaurant in Manhattan, braises his pork trotters and hocks with Diet Coke, along with star anise, crushed garlic, cilantro stems, cinnamon and Chinese yams. The chef Linton Hopkins in Atlanta makes a kind of faux balsamic with Mexican Coke and apple-cider vinegar. It reduces into a kind of treacle. The restaurateur Chris Shepherd, in Houston, serves cola-pickled red onions and put a recipe for them in his new cookbook, “Cook Like a Local.” (I’ve found they’re awesome on carnitas or strewn across a bowl of spicy black beans.)

Page through church or community cookbooks, and you’ll find many more examples: soda-spiked Jell-O situations; root-beer-glazed fillets of salmon; beans simmered in Moxie; hams glazed with cherry cola, with ginger ale, with pineapple pop. Some of these recipes are awful. Apple dumplings made with Pillsbury crescent rolls and Mountain Dew certainly suggests as much. What happened when I made a Chantilly cream with Cheerwine, the absurdly sweet North Carolina cherry soda, proved it plain. (It tasted like rage, with a cancerous finish.)

But I love a 7-Up Cake, though I’m hardly a brand loyalist. You could just as easily make the dessert with Sprite, with an Italian blood-orange concoction, with un soda au pamplemousse. Indeed, you could omit the soft drink entirely and replace it with plain soda water and a spritz of lemon or lime. You could make it with sparkling wine. I’m not here as a shill for Big Soda. I know sugary soft drinks should not be part of anyone’s regular diet. But I will say the stuff does lend a hand to poundcake, making it glossy-crumbed and high-risen, the soda providing zip and loft above the regular sugar, flour, eggs and oil.

Recipes for such a cake are found most reliably in the recipe files of older relatives. They are often of Eisenhower vintage, heavy on the margarine and shortening, a taste of 1950s convenience: science food. You see them made in loaf tins and Bundt pans alike, served plain or drizzled with citrus glaze. Mine came to me a while back from a Times reader who thought I’d appreciate it (I did!), who said she’d got it from a grandmother down South, who stored it on an index card placed in her copy of the cookbook published by the Symphony League of Jackson, Miss., in 1971. The original called for oleo and Crisco oil. I swapped these out for dairy and neutral oil, and a little less soda, and an additional 15 minutes or so in the oven. This leaves the cake toast-brown and glistening, a marvelous moist yellow within.

It’s a dessert I love not satirically but actually, a treat made with ingredients available in any grocery store in any state at any time. And I see no reason to tell anyone what’s in it — unless I’m asked.

Recipe: 7-Up Cake


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