I want, today, to talk about cake.
Lemon cake, actually.
Lemon layer cake, in particular.
Because otherwise, I might dwell a little overly on the fact that Zoë topped off another year, last week. She's officially four, which among other things, means "I don't have to hold down my pinky anymore!" She's so ready for four. Has been for years, really. And it's my great good fortune to be there for the ride. She's one of the finest four year olds I've yet met, and we're only just a week in. Still, it makes my heart hiccup a beat.
So cake! We found ourselves, last Friday, at the end of a loooooong week, a little spent and a lot unprepared. We had her first birthday party the next day—first, that is, to be celebrated with friends—with a cake to make and no plans in hand.
(We were behind because the poor girl had woken up on her actual birthday with a fierce stomach bug. It may sound a lousy way to spend your special day, but it had its upsides. Namely, a tiny blue stuffed bear, a "new" bakelite bracelet, a wee button book, and the fetching-est play food I've yet seen. Mamo pretty much pulled that birthday morning out of the fire. With the afternoon arrival of another [giant] grandparent-given bear, she hardly minded that her special dinner was saltines, not sausages.)
I should clarify: we lacked plans, but we did have a vision. When running through the cake possibilities earlier that week, Zoë picked lemon out of the line-up. I cheered a little inside, as she's ecumenical in her flavors, and might as easily have chosen chocolate or vanilla. I secretly love lemon best of all. In theory, anyway. I also panicked a little, as I've made a half-dozen different lemon layer cakes, and I know their reality is another story entirely.
Cake bakery is tricky business. They are, for one thing, such a commitment. A cookie's a tryst, a two-bite sweet, which in most moments is all I am after. Cake is Dessert, an uppercase Course, requiring a plate, fork and allottment of appetite. Left to my own, I prefer the low-slung ones, dense fragrant wallflowers with huge bang:buck ratios. Mousy brown discs, fudgy with almond paste; fruit-pocked batters, jammy with apple; intensely spiced lovelies, all but black with molasses. Something I can slice into a ten-bite sliver, and whittle away with hot coffee and afternoon homework. Nothing, in other words, you'd serve seven four-year-olds.
Children's birthdays, I think, call for a bit of ceremony. Not a lot—we're on our umpteenth home birthday party, which are true to form highly homespun affairs. Some balloons, some crafts, some small people, some polka dots—by request, that last one, from the birthday girl. But a little height, a little loft, a little pomp suits a cake meant to mark a child's latest jaunt around the sun.
But layer cakes, layer cakes are difficult. I do not mean difficult to make (unless you go fussy-fancy, which I categorically don't). Difficult to stomach, altogether too often. I'm tempted to go all pedantic here, about form versus function and looks trumping taste, the travesties of fondant, the vacuousness of genoise, the complete abdication of good flavor in favor of curb appeal. But that would be tiresome.
Let's just say, then, that with three kids and twenty-plus birthdays behind me, I've baked my fair share of layer cakes. With a few notable exceptions, they've all been disappointments. Some even travelled that extra mile, landing squarely in ghastly territory. (I'm still haunted by Henry's sixth birthday gâteau, whose top layer might as well have been rubber bath mat.) The cakes are dry, or flavorless, or both. Buttercream, which I adore in small doses, is in layer-cake quantities, tasty as an oil slick. Seven-minute frosting, no comment. And for all that, they go down with a thud, a millstone in the belly, a regret for hours, bon appetit!
Not that I have any opinions on these matters.
So last Friday, armed with little than more than the determination to nail delicious, we jumped in, butter first, and made it up as we went.
We began with our lemon curd, a double batch, because it's the most direct path I know to the heart and soul of citrus. Also, we can make it with our eyes half-closed, which they most certainly were, that day. As if to prove a point, we accidentally left it a full three minutes to answer the door. At a gentle boil. Twelve eggs. Over direct heat. It was fine. It always is. I love it for this. And for its defiant yellow in deepest February. And most especially for its take-no-prisoners pucker. I cannot abide lily-livered "lemon" cake. With curd in our arsenal, I knew we had firepower.
Next came the prickly question of cake. I broke out in a brief sweat, considering my baking books, with their parade of proper layer cakes. I despaired a little, remembering the graveyard of chiffons and sponges we'd baked and unceremoniously buried. Like bad sugar cookies, the lot of them, bland placeholders for frosting and sprinkles. ***OUCH!*** Oops, sorry, stubbed my toe on my soapbox. Pardon me while I climb down...
Just as I was ready to call it quits, I remembered Deb's exemplary yellow cake. I stumbled upon it, a year or two back, perturbed that I couldn't find a vanilla cake worth its flour. That was then. I've baked it an easy two dozen times since, most recently as cupcakes for Zoë's school birthday treats. It is simple and quick and incredibly fantastic, and if you think that's redundant, then you haven't tried it yet. There's no separating of eggs, no whipping of whites, no delicate folding of light this into heavy that. (A not insignificant advantage, with underage kitchen help.) Two cups of buttermilk and the finery of cake flour make an admirable crumb, tender, nubbly, damp, nearly plump. As if that isn't enough, there is flavor besides! It tastes of butter, straight and true, a feat few cakes manage, for reasons I've never understood. Ordinarily, it tastes also of vanilla, but I'll bet you see the light bulb: why not teach it to speak lemon?
We replaced the vanilla with two lemons' zest, plus a jigger of fresh juice, to aid and abet. It could probably sustain a doubling of both, but for our gaggle of four year olds, we kept it light. Also, there were four cups of curd in the wings. We took out both golden rounds just before we got the boys, and knew in an instant we'd made the right call. We snuck bites of warm cake, in the name of "levelling", and it was lovely as ever, and fluent in lemon.
All that remained was the frosting—wince, shudder—so often the cause of a layer cake's downfall. What I wanted was frosting on gossamer wings, something ethereal, barely there clouds. That was my fairy tale; this was Friday afternoon, 22 hours and counting. I knew that, in theory, what I wanted was whipped cream, barely sweet, unflavored by anything. I knew also that, in reality, whipped cream's a synonym for heartbreak, at least when it comes to the dressing of cakes. On its own, cream leavened by air is a miracle, but an ephemeral one, with a four hour expiry. We needed at least quadruple that.
I'd been down this road before, see, with different degrees of disaster. Once, ornery soul that I am, I ignored all advice and frosted a gorgeous white pouf. It was beautiful, billowy with straight-up chantilly. Until the next morning, when it was a complete mess. The cream had separated, leaving watery puddles on the plate, plus a sad muddle of cream, slouching down the sides. It was all very Dali, or better, Edvard Munch. I, for one, wanted to scream. (In baking circles, they say the cream "wept". I understood, immediately.)
Several years later, I tried again, armed with a recommendation to add gelatin, to stabilize the cream. It was supposed to prevent such outcomes, and it sort of did. It also left globs of chew and bother throughout. So long, gossamer. I chalk this up entirely to user error: obviously, I didn't dissolve the gelatin adequately. But I am the user, and I am prone to error, and I wasn't willing to flub another entire cake in the name of gelatin trials.
So we googled "sturdy whipped cream frosting", and by gum, there it was. Two cups of heavy cream, cut with cream cheese, a solution as elegant as it is delicious. The cream cheese's natural body gives backbone to the skittish whipped cream (natural, here, hailing from stabilizers, but hey), while its tang lent the tiniest, loveliest echo. We left out all flavors (no almond, no vanilla), and swapped in powdered sugar for softness and strength. We also added only five of the eight tablespoons' cream cheese called for, being three bagels short of a full brick.
No matter: it came together in a wink, held lovely firm peaks, and tasted like whispers. We piped some rough frippery, "polka dots and flowers!!", which exhausted the talents of the whipped cream and I, both. A few silver sprinkles, for flower centers, then we crossed our fingers, wished it well, and whisked it into cold storage. And made a mental note to allow enough time to buy an ice cream pie, first thing the next morning.
Except that, first thing, it was just as we'd left it, no slippage, no sludge, no weeping from any camp. We had ourselves a birthday cake, with enough time leftover to vacuum the stairs. It is not an especially elegant thing, but then again, neither am I. Rustic might fly, if you're into euphemisms. Shabby chic, if such can be said of cakes. Whipping cream's a blunt instrument, as frostings go, and lemon curd's highest form is, in techncial terms, "puddle". Zoë's second birthday cake was more beautiful by far, perkier polka dots, shinier sheen, a classic genoise with swiss buttercream. It also tasted like kitchen sponge with a side of congealed axel grease. Not this. This was a cake worth eating blindfolded, a cake of merit, a wedge of delight. Each bite was a happy trifecta of yum, more-ish cake, cashmere cream, sweet-tart smudge of curd. It was everything I'd hoped for, and rather more besides. Much like the girl it was made to celebrate.
Our Lemon Layer Cake
This dessert has three elements: cakes, lemon curd, and whipped cream. We made and assembled it, start to finish, in a three-hour afternoon, with two underage helpers and no idea what we were doing. That said, the lemon curd can be prepared and refrigerated up to five days in advance, and the cakes, baked and wrapped, a day or two prior. The entire kit-and-caboodle can be made, decorated, and refrigerated 24 hours in advance of serving.
We left a bit of lemon curd and cream in the bowls, not knowing how much of each we would need. That said, the cake would have welcomed all of both. Next time around, there will be no leftovers.
Double Batch of Lemon Curd
Our favorite, foolproof recipe here. Just double it, then set aside to cool, as you proceed...
As written, this produces two faintly lemon-scented cakes, supporting cast to the intensely zippy curd, inside and out. If you'd like to up it a notch, double the zest to 4 lemons. The juice might be increased, also, but I've not yet tested the extra 1/4 cup of liquid. Let me know if you do!
2 large, plump lemons, organic if possible
4 cups plus 2 tablespoons cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (1 cup) salted butter, softened, sliced
2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups full-fat buttermilk, well-shaken
Preheat oven to 350°. Cut parchment circles to line two 9" cake pans, then butter or spray pans, and line with the paper circles.
Zest both lemons, and set aside. Juice one of the lemons, or enough to yield 1/4 cup of fresh juice. Measure buttermilk, then add lemon juice to the buttermilk. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, measure flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Whisk to combine and aerate, and set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer, place butter, sugar and lemon zest. Fit mixer with the paddle attachment, and beat butter on medium speed until very pale and fluffy, scraping sides occasionally, 3-5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well and scraping sides between additions. (Mixture may curdle, but soldier on—it will come together). Turn mixer to low, and alternating between wet and dry, add buttermilk and flour mixtures in three batches (1/3 buttermilk, 1/3 flour, repeat twice), mixing briefly between each addition. Scrape sides, return to medium speed for 15 seconds, then turn off mixer.
Divide batter evenly between both cake pans, and smooth tops. Bake 30-40 minutes, until edges are golden, center is no longer wobbly or shiny, and a knife or wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean. Cool in the pan 10 minutes, then invert gently onto cooling rack. Peel parchment from bottom, then cool completely, about 1 hour.
Sturdy Whipped Cream Frosting
adapted from AllRecipes.com
The original recipe called for vanilla, almond, and reduced-fat cream cheese. We left out the first two for obvious reasons, though I imagine they would be welcome on a vanilla cake. As to cream cheese, we used full-fat, so that is what I call for. Also, we were down to a partial brick, but the five ounces we had more than did the trick. I imagine a full brick would add a touch more tart and stability, but know that 5 ounches is plenty for the job.
5-8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups heavy whipping cream
In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, on low speed, beat cream cheese and sugar until combined. Turn mixer to medium, and beat 30 seconds, until fluffy. Drizzle in a quarter-cup (eyeball it) of the cream, and whip until it begins to fluff up and stiffen, around 30 seconds. Continue to drizzle and whip, waiting until new cream is incorporated and begins to hold its shape before adding more, scraping sides occasionally, until all the cream is incorporated and the frosting holds light, fluffy peaks, 3-4 minutes total.
When cake is completely cool, level tops with a long, serrated knife (such as a bread knife). To do this, simply position the knife horizontally to the lowest point on the cake's surface, and gently saw sideways, across the cake's top. It need not be perfect; frosting covers a multitude of crooked.
Place one layer on cake stand (or whatever your ultimate serving surface), and spoon over a liberal amount of lemon curd, up to half the batch. Spread gently near (but not quite to) the edges, then top with the second cake. I like to invert the second cake, such that the cake's bottom becomes the top—the bottom providing a smoother, less crumb-y surface for frosting.
Next, apply the first coat of frosting. The first coat, a crumb coat, is simply a thin, preliminary layer of frosting, so-called because it gathers all the unsightly crumbs a cake inevitably generates. Think of it as the frosting's first draft. Using an icing knife if you've got one, a long table knife if you don't, apply a thin layer (1/4-1/2") of frosting to the top and sides of the cake, chinking also the gap between the two layers.
Next, spoon the balance of the lemon curd on the top, or as much as you think you might enjoy. Using the back of a spoon, gently spread the curd toward the edges, again stopping 1/2-1" short of the rim.
Rinse your icing knife (to remove crumbs) and dry, and continue on to the second, final frosting layer. We used a pastry bag with a small circle tip for the polka dots, and a medium star tip for the flowers, around the top. Fast, easy, fun. Flowers could be applied all around, or dots, or other shapes, keeping in mind only that this is a big-picture frosting, not up to the minute detail of a swiss buttercream. Think rustic.
Alternatively, apply the balance of the frosting thickly and evenly to the sides, then give a few gentle swooshes of the knife, for a lovely billowy sort of look. Or, rinsing your knife in warm water between efforts, position the warm, clean knife parallel to the cake, and smooth the sides for a sleek, modern effect. Or... you get the picture. It's whipped cream. It's guaranteed lovely.
Refrigerate cake, if not serving the same day, up to 24 hours in advance. Remove 1-2 hours before serving, to return to room temperature. Cake is best served within 24 hours of assembly, and tastes magnificent still, three days out.