Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Lemon Curd Cake

My family thrives on having certain core rules to guide our daily lives, both for big decisions and little ones. When I went with my mom to the grocery store, she told me to remember her three key attributes for an acceptable olive oil: Extra Virgin, First Cold Pressing, from Italy. When I got old enough to begin buying more fashionable clothes, my dad taught me about the Godzilla Rule: Make sure all your shoes are comfortable enough to run in, just in case Godzilla comes to town and you find yourself being chased by a giant fire-breathing lizard. (Note: Most women I meet do not follow the Godzilla rule -- man, will THEY be sorry when he shows up!)

Perhaps the most simple and yet frequently repeated rule was my dad's project mantra: Always make a mock-up. I can't think of one school assignment where I wasn't forced to draw up a draft or create a model of whatever it was I was planning to make. I was never very good with the mock-ups. After all, why devote time and energy to something that won't end up as your final product? But it turns out, the time you devote to thinking through your mock-up serves to make your final product better. Perhaps this would've given me clarity when I made my 5th grade state "float" (a Southern California tradition where kids decorate shoe boxes with tissue paper to mimic those of the annual Pasadena Rose Parade) and chose a large maple leaf made out of maple sugar as the centerpiece -- maybe then my float wouldn't have melted under the hot California sun.

It was with that singularly pathetic memory in mind that I decided to make a "test cake" in preparation for the one I was making for my sister's birthday. I used a lemon recipe from Cupcake Bakeshop and decided to add even more lemon and throw in some store-bought curd. You can find instructions for making your own lemon curd here, but I couldn't make the time to do that. You'll also notice that I divided the instructions into sections according to the overall function they play in the recipe. I hate long instructional blocks of text.

The result: A smooth, lemony cake that resembles a pound cake. Not for the faint-of-lemon-hearted. The lemon curd adds an extra touch of moisture and tang and pure lemon flavor that contrasts the cake nicely. I additionally made a glaze from lemon juice and sugar and painted the cooling cake with it so it could sit overnight and soak in. When served with fresh sliced strawberries on top, this made for a nice summery dessert.

Lemon Curd Cake
Adapted from Cupcake Bakeshop
Makes 1 8"-round cake

For the cake:

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

1 cup sugar

3 large eggs

1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

½ cup milk
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
zest of one lemon

For the glaze:

1/3 cup lemon juice
3 TBS sugar

- Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F -
- Butter and flour 1 8-inch round cake pan. Set aside.

Assembling the batter

1. Using a standing mixer or a hand mixer, cream butter and sugar in a large bowl, until fluffy. [A wooden spoon may work here, but I get the feeling the electric mixer is key in aerating the cake. Though I might be wrong.]

2. Add eggs one at a time, beating each until fully incorporated.

3. In a medium bowl, use a whisk or a fork to combine flour, baking powder, and salt.
4. In a large measuring cup or small bowl, combine milk and vanilla (you may stir with a spoon if you like, but no implement is really required here)
5. Alternately add dry ingredients and wet ingredients to the butter/sugar/egg mixture, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Mix in with wooden spoon until just combined.

6. Mix in lemon juice and lemon zest (a wooden spoon works fine for this step as well).
7. Using a rubber spatula, transfer the batter from the bowl to the cake pan.

Baking the cake
8. Bake for ~30 minutes initially and check on your cake. It probably will still be liquid-like in the cake's top-middle region. Continue to bake for 3-5 minutes at a time, depending on how your cake smells, for a total of approximately 40-45 minutes (or perhaps even longer if necessary). If your kitchen begins to smell buttery and lemony, your cake is probably pretty close to done. If there's no cake smell, chances are it's probably still batter and not yet cake.

9. Once your cake has been in the oven for ~30 minutes, it's time to make the glaze.

a. Combine the lemon juice and sugar over medium-low heat in a small saucepan
b. Stir the sugar into the lemon juice and continue to cook until the sugar is entirely dissolved into the lemon juice. Make sure the lemon juice boils gently, so as not to burn the sugar before it's entirely mixed in.
10. Remove cake from oven when a thin knife inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Make sure to insert the knife deep enough -- you don't want to remove the cake if it's still raw in the middle. Your cake will be domed instead of flat on top -- this is what you want.

Applying the glaze
11. Let the cake cool in the pan for ~3-5 minutes on a cooling rack. Then, use a clean kitchen towel to help you remove the cake from the pan. You can do this by holding the cake pan (with an oven mitt) in one hand and the towel in the other. Place the towel on top of the cake and place your empty hand on it. Carefully flip your hands over so that the hand with the towel now is also supporting the weight of the cake from the pan. Toss the pan aside and use the rest of the towel and your now free hand to flip the cake back right-side-up and onto the cooling rack.
12. Using a pastry brush, apply the lemon glaze to the top, sides, and bottom of the cake. Let cool until room temperature.

13. Wrap cake tightly in plastic wrap and keep at room temperature overnight, or for a few hours to let the glaze sink in.

Assembling the cake
14. Unwrap the cake and use a serrated knife to make 3 radial cuts in the cake, producing 4 thin layers.
15. Carefully separate the layers and use a butter knife to apply a generous layer of lemon curd to each layer. Reassemble the cake as best you can. Serve with fresh strawberries if you like.

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