A Lemony Lemon Cake

April 19, 2013 § 1 Comment

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Without wanting to sound like an over-scripted response to an interview question, my absolute biggest personal challenge is perfectionism. The character trait has become a cliché in that interview setting because we think it’s the clever answer to give, the admittance of a weakness that, in the work context at least, is actually a strength. Yet in work and in life, perfectionism is no kind of strength. It can be a crippling limitation, something that stops you from trying, from doing anything because you fear that the end result will not live up to expectations, your own and those perceived in others. It stops you from enjoying the journey, because you fixate on the end goal rather than the process and challenges along the way. It makes you judgmental, of yourself and of others. In other words, it sucks.

It’s not like I have suddenly and recently had that AHA! moment of realizing this personality trait. It’s my life’s work in many ways, finding that balance between fulfillment, effort and ease. But, boy, does motherhood bring these characteristics out kicking and screaming. With my gorgeous munchkin about to hit the 7 month mark, I’m starting to feel more pressure (from nowhere but myself I hasten to add) to figure out where the boundaries are between career and caretaker, to reclaim my body but to continue to nurse for another half year or so, to be able to go out late again but have energy for a giggling infant at 6am. And I’ve found myself shying away from decisions because of this pressure: if I can’t practice yoga 6 times a week for a couple of hours at a time, I will barely crack out a forward bend all week; if I can’t put down a few thousand words in one sitting, I won’t write at all, and so on. No more! If nothing else I’ve been keeping some cracking recipes away from you because I haven’t had the time or energy to write more than a few headwords about them. Yes, this is basically a very long-winded way of saying that I might be knocking out some shorter posts over the coming weeks, which means less naval-gazing from me and more food for you. Win-win all round then!

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This lemon cake had all the signs of being perfect. I hunted out the recipe while considering the best use for a pile of meyer lemons I scored from a friend’s tree that was groaning with the gems. The promise was high: the recipe called for not only a considerable amount of lemon juice, both in the batter and then in a syrup that you pour over the cake while still warm from the oven, but also for a whole one-third-of-a-cup of lemon zest (for two loaves). No mincing about with a whisper of lemon in the background here, thankyouverymuch. And the author of the recipe was none other than Ina Garten, a brilliant self-parody of the ‘perfect’ life, tablescapes and florist friends and all, but who does know a darned good cake and, I suspect, how to throw a corker of a party.

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The baking didn’t get off to the best start, or so I thought. I dutifully removed the butter and eggs from the fridge to come to room temperature when I first got out of bed, planning to knock out the cake during Henry’s morning nap. But I had forgotten to pick up buttermilk and the butter and eggs remained on the kitchen counter for the rest of the day, while other minor tasks like, you know, trying to convince your son to get the avocado IN THE MOUTH HONEY, were completed to varying degrees of success. Child fast asleep in bed, finally, my heart sank when I saw the ingredients neglected and imploring me to dust off the mixer, when really my energy levels were just about enough to mix up a Negroni and stare into the mid distance until the clock reached a time that was reasonable for a grown adult to go to bed. But, you know, What Would Ina Garten Do? and all that (actually Ina would be already on her second Negroni), and since the butter was about fit to become intelligent enough to bake the cake itself, I sucked up whatever minor reserves I had and got to creaming the butter and sugar together. And that’s where the magic actually happened. We all know that our butter should be soft, at room temperature, or whatever instruction we think that a half hour on the countertop constitutes, but it has to be one of the most under-appreciated steps in baking. I know that now, having seen the very-much-room-temperature butter and eggs and sugar transform into a pillowy light batter, rising into soft mounds reminiscent of beaten egg whites. And since I was not in any way working with mise en place, the batter got a touch of extra beating while I frantically grated lemon zest into a bowl.

The end result: a loaf cake that was feathery light, pungent in lemon flavor and aroma, with a gratifying fragility to the crumb. Was it perfect? Well: I would like to go back and prick the cake all over with a skewer before pouring over the lemon syrup, so that it penetrated every corner and crevice of the cake. I’d like not to have had to leave the cake to cool overnight covered with a towel, since there was no chance it would be wrappable before I turned into a pumpkin. I left off the suggested icing since I tend to prefer an un-iced loaf cake but am now curious as to what that extra layer of sweet and tang atop the cake would have produced. But, sitting munching a slice under tree shade in our local park, with Henry rolling around on a blanket and trying to eat grass, it was more than enough and perfect just as it was.

Lemon Loaf Cake
Adapted from Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Parties!

The original recipe yielded two loaves. I halved it and made just one, but know that you can easily double this and potentially freeze a second loaf.

115g (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups/225g sugar
2 eggs, at room temperature
1/6 cup grated lemon zest (3 to 4 large lemons, or 5-6 smaller meyer lemons if available to you)
1 1/2 cups/165g flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 plus 1/8 cup (90ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
3oz/90ml buttermilk, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For the icing (optional):
1 cup/200g confectioners’ (icing) sugar, sifted
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Butter and flour a loaf pan (ideally about 8.5 x 4.5 inches). Line the bottom with parchment paper.

Cream the butter and 1 cup/200g granulated sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. With the mixer on medium speed, add the eggs, 1 at a time, beating well between each addition. Then add the lemon zest.

Whisk or sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In another (small) bowl, combine 1/8 cup/30ml lemon juice, the buttermilk, and vanilla. Add the flour and buttermilk mixtures alternately to the batter, beginning and ending with the flour. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, a cake tester comes out clean.

Combine 1/4 cup/50g granulated sugar with 1/4 cup/60ml lemon juice in a small saucepan and cook over low heat until the sugar dissolves. When the cake is done, allow to cool for 10 minutes. Remove from the pan and set the cake on a rack set over a tray or sheet pan. Prick the cake all over with a very fine skewer then spoon the lemon syrup over so it penetrates through the cake. Allow to cool completely.

For the icing, if using, combine the confectioners’ sugar and the lemon juice in a bowl, mixing with a wire whisk until smooth (you may need to add more juice or sugar to get the right consistency). Pour over the top of the cake and allow the glaze to drizzle down the sides.

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