And who wants tedious and redundant and snow when we could talk lemon cake?
Lemon cake, after all, is a proven distractor, and potentially highly tasty, to boot. Particularly if it's an Alpha and Omega Lemon Cake. I don't say this as a challenge, or to raise hackles, because I don't have a competitive bone in my body. If I did, I might balk at the fact that although Ohio had snow one day into Spring, Seattle got snow two days in. And then, five and six days after Spring sprung, when we got more? I might say ha HA! and so there and pffbbbtt!
But I wouldn't. Because I'm not. Competitive, that is. I am merely a pilgrim, traveling the long road in search of the ultimate lemon cake.
But wait. Didn't we already find it? That gold and white number, thick with curd and petticoats of cream?
Why yes, yes we did. That was, and is, our acme Lemon Layer Cake. But it has recently come to my attention that cake and layer cake are two different species, entirely. The latter, the layer, is a special occasion confection, towering, indulgent, the high heels of crumbs. It's what you whip out for full transits around the planet, parties of people, polished shoes and posh frocks. Or at least lots and lots of moustaches.
Cake, on the other hand, unmodified cake, unadorned-by-adjectives-or-buttercream cake, is—get this—nothing special. Ordinary eating. Everyday fare. Wedge-with-coffee, sliver-with-milk, dessert-on-any-old-Tuesday material.
Blimey. The memos I miss.
It's not like no one tried to tell me. Everyday cakes have been everywhere, for a while now. But for me, cakes and kids went hand in hand, my baking of one the direct result of my baking of the other. And when your first cakes are birthday cakes, to celebrate first years, first footsteps, first words, all those age-appropriate f-words, well, frosting and frippery just can't be helped.
I'm making up for lost time. Forgive me. I did bring you cake. And if your outdoors look anything like ours, if you're peering desperately out windows, in search of sun...
Oops. Off-script. Alpha and Omega Lemon Cake. I've been searching for such a cake for years (decades?), diligently, unflaggingly, unsuccessfully. Shackelton came to mind more than once, as I tried and failed, tried and failed to escape yet another bleak outcome. Dry cakes. Tough cakes. Pallid, tepid, mild, faint cakes. Sodden cakes. Gooey cakes. All of the above cakes.
Lemon cake should be none of the above. Despair fairly well summed up my state of mind.
Okay, alright, I didn't survive on seal meat for a year. And no, I didn't bake by blubber-light. And, strictly speaking, I lost only sleep, never men, on my quest. Still.
I did endure many a mediocre lemon cake, which was trying, and which, it has always seemed to me, should not only be illegal but also, an oxymoron. How, I ask you, can lemon cake stand to be in the same sentence as mediocre? Lemon cake, by definition, should be fraught with tension, heady and sharp and fantastically vivid. As tart as tart can possibly be, threatening (but not making good) on true sour. And I don't mean a thin tart veneer, along the top. And I don't mean a girdle of pucker around the edge. Because we both know how those stories end, with fought-after edges nibbled carefully away, while the vast interior bland wastelands are left for the crows, sad as snow-bound daffodils.
Thing is, lemon's a tough customer, especially when baked into a cake. Like chocolate, its flavor tends to fade when bolstered by flour and blasted with heat. Layer cake solves the problem nicely, by smuggling in those pillows of curd. But what for a cake with no contraband?
Here's what: make Matt Lewis' lemon bundt cake. Do not pass go. Let me know what you think. I think it's the cat's pajamas. Also, I've officially ended my search.
Lewis is co-founder of the famed Red Hook bakery, Baked, and, it seems, a lemon whisperer. Lewis works every angle in the lemon book to amplify the fruit's bling and zing. Then, he writes a few new chapters. The zest in the batter—ten(!) lemons' worth—is rubbed into the sugar, before either are beaten in. The sugar becomes midwife to the lemon, delivering its essential oils throughout the batter. Clever. Also, he calls for two tablespoons of pure lemon extract. I didn't know pure lemon extract existed, in December. I'm now halfway through my second bottle.
There are other funny bits to the batter, funny enough they first gave me pause. Confectioner's sugar? Eggs and yolks? Unbleached and cake flour? Butter and oil and heavy cream? Really?
Really. As really as the wonky technique, which defies all science and logic. Where's the all-important creaming of butter and sugar? The individual addition of eggs, for lift? What's with this dump and stir? Whence its loft? How will the darn thing ever rise? Is he What is he thinking?
Except apparently I'm illiterate in the ways of lemon cake, at least of the Be All, End All variety. Because this cake bakes up so high that it buckles, with a crumb gold and fine as any I've eaten. And yet—and this is deeply important—strong enough to withstand a downpour.
Like all the best lemon cakes, this one involves a syrup of lemon juice, cut with sugar. This syrup is brushed over the bundt's just-baked curves, which instantly dials the volume to high.
Well, originally, to medium.
I don't really do medium.
So I took, early on, to doubling the syrup, and doubling the drizzle, and inundating the cake. I perforate the thing like a soaker hose—a #2 knitting needle is ideal, though a thin skewer makes a fine substitute—first on the still-hot exposed underside, later over the peaks and valleys. I douse each surface as it becomes available, applying layer after layer (after layer) of syrup. The pinholes work like volcanic conduits, in reverse, funneling the goods right down to the core. That's the theory, anyway. I've done this before with many a cake, and usually, the results are sad. Soggy. Sodden. Sometimes dreadful. Not this time. The cake held.
The cake held, and drank every double drop, saturating each cranny with bright citric kick. The edges are sharpest; the center, still pointed; the whole, like a lemon, masquerading as cake. The glaze (there's glaze) is unnecessary, and excellent. The texture, somehow, still textbook tender. It works.
It's not much to look at, especially sliced, where even its curves end up looking like squat. It pinch-hits for birthdays, if you add candles, and undemanding guests of honor inclined toward supernatural childcare feats. But bundts are, at heart, everyday things, for slivering and whittling over a week. And this bundt, this smug humble bomb of a bundt, might just be a week's finest moment. If nothing else, it guarantees a small burst of sun, no matter what the weather week brings.
Holy Grail Lemon Cake
adapted from Matt Lewis, via Food and Wine, December 2012
equipment: 10" bundt pan
My only adaptations to Lewis' genius formula were to use salted butter, double the lemon syrup, and tweak the glaze slightly, for added lemon and less drip. The initial blitzing of sugar and zest releases the lemon's essential oils into the sugar, and eliminates all trace of peel. I like the effect of both, and find a quick rinse cleans the bowl, but feel free to skip, if rushed. (Lewis' original called for rubbing the two together with fingers, a fine alternative.) I use this lemon extract. Artificial extract is completely different, and not a good substitute. If you wish to leave out the rum, which adds a nice edge, simply substitute additional lemon juice, in both cake and syrup.
Don't let the length of this recipe fool you. It comes together quickly, and the extra elements (syrup, glaze) can be made in minutes while the cake's baking.
1 1/2 cups all-purpose, unbleached flour
1 1/2 cups cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 3/4 cups confectioners' sugar
1/3 cup lightly packed, finely grated lemon zest (from 10 organic lemons)
1/2 cup canola oil
3 large eggs
3 large egg yolks
2 sticks salted butter, melted and cooled
3 tablespoons dark rum
2 tablespoons pure lemon extract
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (from zested lemons)
2 tablespoons dark rum
1 - 1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
1 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (from zested lemons)
1-2 teaspoons pure lemon extract
1 teaspoon pure almond extract
Make the cake:
Preheat oven to 350°. Generously coat the interior of a 10-inch bundt pan with butter (or baking spray), and flour, tapping to release excess. Place oven rack in middle position.
In a medium bowl, whisk together all-purpose flour, cake flour, baking powder and salt. Place confectioners' sugar and lemon zest in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse 15-10 times, to pulverize zest and incorporate its oils into the sugar. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, add sugar, lemon zest, canola oil and cooled, melted butter, and mix at medium speed until well combined, 1 minute. Beat in whole eggs, egg yolks, rum, and lemon extract, until just incorporated, 1 minute. Reduce speed to low and beat, in 3 alternating batches of dry and wet, the flour mixture and the heavy cream, mixing until just barely incorporated. Scrape down sides, and finish any final mixing by hand.
Scrape batter into prepared bundt pan, and smooth surface slightly. Bake on the middle rack for about 1 hour, checking at 50 minutes. Cake is finished when a toothpick inserted at the deepest point emerges with a clean, damp crumb. Other clues: cake will begin to pull away from sides, will have risen dramatically and buckled, and the cracked center will no longer be shiny. Also, you will nearly faint from the scent. Remove cake from oven and let cool on a rack for a few minutes, while you make the syrup...
Make the Lemon Syrup:
In a small saucepan, combine sugar, lemon juice and rum and bring just to a low boil. Turn heat down slightly to maintain a strong simmer, and stir until sugar dissolves, 3-4 minutes. Let cool slightly.
Douse the Cake:
10 minutes after the cake emerges from the oven, while still in the pan, poke cake all over the exposed surface, deep enough to nearly but not quite hit the bottom. A clean #2 knitting needles works beautifully, as does a long, thin wooden skewer. 50 pokes is none too few. Slowly, with a tablespoon or pastry brush, drizzle syrup over the exposed surface, as well as down the sides of the tin, waiting for the syrup to soak in before adding more. Repeat a few times, leaving a few minutes between applications, until cake becomes less thirsty, and slows its soaking speed. You will use 1/2 - 2/3 of the syrup in this fashion. Wait 15 minutes, then carefully invert cake onto a cooling rack. With your needle or skewer, perforate the cake from the newly exposed surface, top and sides. Slowly, in small patient batches, brush remaining glaze over top and sides of cake. Set aside to dry and cool completely, about 2 hours.
Make and Apply Glaze:
In a medium bowl, whisk together 1 cup of the powdered sugar, lemon juice, almond extract, and 1 teaspoon of the lemon extract, until thoroughly combined and lump-free. Taste, and add additional lemon extract, if you wish. Texture should be very thick, like corn syrup or pancake batter. A too-thin glaze will slide right off the cake. Add some or all of of the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar, as needed, and whisk to combine. Slowly and evenly, pour glaze over the completely cooled cake. There may be extra; save to serve on the side. Let glaze set, 15-20 minutes, then slice into wedges and serve.
Cake keeps beautifully, covered or well-wrapped, for 4-5 days. Good luck with that.