Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Lovely Lemon Cake

I never want to see another lemon. That may sound like a strange wish, but there you are. I have spent the last two days grating lemons for their zest, leaving the shriveled fruits on my bench like so many faceless naked little rodents. As to why I was spending so much time denuding lemons and leaving them to wrinkle up on my countertop, I must offer a little background.

We have a tradition in my commuting group: we celebrate birthdays with completely inappropriate foods at 7 a.m. Since we’re on a ferry, we don’t have to actually drive the thing (as with a car), or even pay attention to where we are (as with a bus), other than knowing when we arrive so we can get off, but they’re kind enough to announce that, so our commuting time is spent reading, working crossword puzzles, chatting, and sometimes eating. Whenever someone’s birthday comes along, we use it as an excuse to consume as much sugar as possible prior to sunup (noting that sun rise this time of year in the Pacific Northwest is around 7:50 a.m.).

One time it was blood plum jam tart with whipped cream from the Italian-themed issue of the Australian version of delicious. magazine. I had lent a friend that particular issue for some research on restaurants and towns (they were going to Italy that October). She had flipped past several recipes and ohed and ahed and when she came across the blood plum tart she said “Ooo, make that for me.” Knowing her birthday was coming up in two more weeks, I agreed, although I think she thought I was kidding about making it for her. I couldn’t find blood plum jam, so it was just made with regular plum jam, although I did make sure to get an exceptionally high quality jam from Delaurenti in the Pike Place Market. This was also at a time when all my rolling pins were packed, so I had to use various other tools (a wine bottle, my hands, etc) to roll and press out the pastry, which was a typical tart dough and therefore not one that takes kindly to being fondled and fussed with by someone with warm hands. Still, it seemed to turn out fine, if a little spreadier than it should have been.

Yesterday was Jana’s birthday, and the celebratory sugar fix was actually chosen by two other of our regular crowd. Last week I was reading the special issue of Fine Cooking currently on the newsstand, 101 Tips. In addition to all sorts of great ideas and hints, it includes 12 “classic” recipes, including oven braised chicken (which was Sunday night’s dinner). And there was a lemon cake. I showed it to the two crossword puzzlers and remarked that it looked good, and that I needed to think of something to make for Jana’s birthday.

“That!” they both cried.

And so I became as one with the lemon.

Mostly this cake was a mad success. I declined to make the lemon curd from scratch, on the grounds that there’s an outstanding brand of lemon curd available in my local market. Also, I didn’t really have time. I also came rather up against it because my cake pans are 9” and the recipe called for 8”. Perhaps someone could rectify that situation and get me some 8” pans? The cake itself had fabulous lemon flavor, attributable to the two tablespoons of lemon zest in the batter.

And the height of the cake did matter, because the layers are sawed in half like a magician’s assistant and reassembled with all that lovely sticky lemon curd between them. One of the two layers sliced through a little thin, and there was quite a gob of lemon curd in the middle of the cake toward the bottom. Not that anyone complained, mind.

The frosting was a butter cream I actually liked, if you can imagine. Of course, two sticks of butter, two tablespoons of lemon zest, and 3+ cups of confectioners’ sugar, thinned down with a little lemon juice makes a butter cream that anyone could cozy up to. And one that would be amazing on gingerbread, I might add.

So after two days of zesting, squeezing, and generally consorting with lemons, I feel I’ve had my fill of them for a little while. In a week I’ll be back to loving them again, feeling they can do no wrong and that they’ll always have a treasured place in my kitchen.

Yes, the cake is crooked in the picture. Yes, the frosting is uneven. That’s the beauty of a homemade cake—it reflects all the imperfections of its creator.

A Few Notes:
Using the larger cake pans reduced the cooking time by about 10 minutes, it seemed. I didn’t have cream of tartar, but the egg whites turned out fine without it. Since I bought lemon curd, I had 22 oz, all of which I used, and at room temperature. I think that the cup it calls for is perhaps a bit on the low side. Personally I’d rather have too much than too little, and I think if it had been chilled, it would have been hard to spread too.

A Lemon Layer Cake
From Fine Cooking’s 101 Tips

This makes a really puckeringly lemony cake, a condition to which the lemon curd adds significantly. If this just seemed like too much lemon, a simple vanilla butter cream could be substituted for the lemon curd, and the lemon icing used on the top and sides of the cake. This cake could also be made in an orange, or even lime variation. The making of this cake is a fairly lengthy process, but it’s well worth it, and for a friend’s birthday, why not?

For the Cake
9 ¼ oz (2 1/3 cups) cake flour; more for the pans
2 2/3 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 ¾ cups granulated sugar
2 tablespoons lightly packed finely grated lemon zest
6 oz (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature; more for the pans
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
5 large egg whites, at room temperature
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar

For the Frosting
½ lb (1 cup) unsalted butter, completely softened at room temperature
2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest
3 ½ cups sifted confectioners’ sugar
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Generously butter and flour two 8x2 inch round cake pans. Sift the cake flour, baking powder, and salt together into a medium bowl. Pulse ¼ cup of the sugar with the zest in a food processor until well combined.

In a large bowl, beaet the butter and lemon sugar with an electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy (about 1 ½ minutes). Add the remaining 1 ½ cups sugar and beat until smooth (about 1 ½ minutes). Beat in a quarter of the milk until just blended. On low speed, add the flour mixture alternately with the milk in three batches, scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula; beat just until blended.

In another large bowl, beat the egg whites with an electric mixer (with clean beaters or the whip attachment) on medium speed until foamy. Add the cream of tartar, increase the speed to medium high, and beat just until the whites form a stiff peak when the beaters are lifted. Add a quarter of the whites to the batter and gently fold them in with a whisk or a rubber spatula; continue to gently fold in the whites, a quarter at a time.

Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans. Smooth the tops with the spatula. Bake until a pick inserted in the centers comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Let cool in the pans on a rack for 10 minutes. Run a table knife around the inside of the pans and carefully invert each cake out onto the rack. Flip them right side up and let cool completely.

With the palm of one hand pressed on top of a cake layer, cut each in half horizontally, using a long serrated knife. Put one of the four cake layers on a serving plate, cut side up. With an offset spatula or a table knife, spread a generous 1/3 cup chilled lemon curd on top of the cake layer. Lay another cake layer on top, spread it with another generous 1/3 cup lemon curd, and repeat with the third cake layer and the last 1/3 cup lemon curd. Top with the fourth cake layer.

Make the frosting: Beat the butter and lemon zest with an electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add the confectioners’ sugar in batches and beat until light and fluffy. Add the lemon juice and beat for 1 minute. (The frosting may be kept at a cool room temperature, covered, for 2 hours).

Frost the cake: Up to a few hours before serving, spread a thin layer of frosting on the cake, filling in any gaps as you go. Chill until the frosting firms a bit, about ½ hour. Spread the remaining frosting decoratively over the top and sides of the cake. Scatter with bits of lemon zest, or other decoration.


Anonymous said...

The cake was outstanding and such a decadent treat at 7:05 am. Thanks for the birthday treat!


TD said...

So glad you enjoyed it--happy birthday! This Tuesday is an orange glazed pound cake in honor of Jason's first day at OSKA!