Screwing Around with Lemon Cake

My husband’s birthday called for a cake to be served Day Of and I asked him, “What kind of cake do you want?” Most years he picks something chocolate-oriented, but this year he broke down and said, “What I really want is a lemon cake with lemon frosting.” This was very brave of him because he knows I hate lemon cake with lemon frosting, and basically what he was saying was, “I want a cake that I know you will not enjoy making or eating.”
But he works hard, and he supports our little family, and frankly, he deserves a lemon cake, even if he drives me nuts. So I spent some time thinking hard about lemon cake. “Do you mean lemon cake or lemon pound cake?” I asked him, in hopes of really nailing down a concept. He said, “I don’t care.” “You said you wanted lemon frosting,” I pressed on. “Do you mean, like, a light, whipped, fluffy frosting? Or the kind of thick icing that forms a dense layer on top of the cake?” “I mean the dense layer kind,” he said decisively.

“Ok then,” I said. I began to pull out cookbooks and spread them out on the dining table and on the kitchen counter. By 8.30 in the morning, I’d gotten my butter and eggs to room temperature and I was ready to roll.

After reading many recipes, some of which called for more eggs than I had on hand, I settled on a lemon cake recipe that I found via Smitten Kitchen — it’s really an Ina Garten recipe, I’m told. It calls for a manageable two sticks of butter and four extra-large eggs (for which I substituted three jumbo eggs). This is a recipe that produces one nice big Bundt cake or two normally-sized loaf cakes; today I opted to do two loaf cakes.

It took me nearly an hour to assemble the batter for this cake, what with zesting several lemons and squeezing lemon juice. I don’t mind squeezing lemons, thanks to the miraculous Juice-O-Matic I nicked from my parents’ front closet when they got ready to sell their apartment about 15 years ago, but zesting citrus fruit is not a task I really get excited about. But I rose to the challenge. I laid out a sheet of wax paper at the dining table and sat down with a bowlful of lemons and my fine-tooth Microplane and I zested the little fuckers thoroughly until I had 1/3 of a cup of fine lemon zest.

The batter mixed up nicely and I poured it into the prepared (greased, floured, parchmented) loaf pans and then I baked them for an hour. When the cakes came out of the oven, I made a lemon simple syrup (1/2 cup lemon juice, 1/2 cup granulated sugar), and after the cakes had cooled out of the pans for a little while, but while they were still warm, I took a toothpick and carefully poured the syrup into the holes. The idea is this somehow makes the interior of the cake even better than it was originally. How this is possible — these are, after all, just lemon cakes — is beyond me, but hey, I do what I’m told.

I washed the endless dishes and then I took the last of the lemon syrup and used it to make the frosting for the cakes. This turned out to be the one aspect of the cake that I really had to wing on my own because no source I turned to seemed able to give me a recipe that would produce what I wanted. Almost every recipe I saw for “lemon cake frosting” or “lemon cake glaze” produced either the light fluffy sort of thing I’d been told to not make, or a very thin, drippy glaze that would dry to a clear varnish on the cake. This wasn’t what I wanted at all.
I read many, many recipes, and after a while it dawned on me that I had what it took to make my frosting. I did a few more Google searches to see if anyone else was doing what I was about to do, and came up empty handed. It must be out there somewhere, but I don’t see it anywhere.

What I did was I took about three ounces of cream cheese and beat it in the Kitchen Aid until it was smooth — the way I might if I were adding cream cheese to a buttercream frosting. And then I whipped in something like 1/4 of a cup of lemon simple syrup — stuff that was leftover from soaking the cake. I added a couple of cups of confectioner’s sugar and, when this resulted in something a little bit thicker than I wanted (I need to be able to pour this in very thick ribbons over the cakes) I splashed in maybe a tablespoon or two of milk.

The stuff I made was a cross between a frosting and a glaze, really; had I whipped in more sugar, or added a whipped egg white, it could have been an incredibly fluffy lemon frosting. As it was I had a very dense, heavy substance that I knew wouldn’t exactly harden but would form a crust as the top of it dried. Very importantly: it would be visible: white, not just a layer of sugary shine on top of the cakes. I poured it carefully over both of the cooled loaf cakes (pouring this stuff on a warm cake would, I know, be a disaster, don’t you even think about it) and then I set them aside for several hours. By the time we cut into one of the cakes, around eight o’clock, there was indeed a thin crust on top of the glaze, which had hardened into a soft, slightly-glossy, not-quite-solid, white mass on top of the cakes; handsome drippy bits fell down the sides here and there, just like in the magazines.

It occurs to me that it might have made for a somewhat prettier glaze if I’d cooked the lemon syrup with some corn syrup and then added that combination to the cream cheese. There are certainly ways to make this glaze work in a more fondant-y manner and yet taste better than fondant. Maybe I’ll work on that. A chocolate variant of it is already forming in my mind, too.

But regardless: the cake was viewed as a success. When I cut into the cake I had no idea of what to expect. What effect would the soak have had? What would the crumb look like? How would all of this taste?

Well, due to the soak being applied to the bottom crust of the cake, the bottom of the cake had a distinctly more sharply lemony flavor to it than the rest of the crumb; but there was a distinct lemon flavor to the whole cake. I found the frosting too puckery, but my husband and child seemed to like it. I did finish the thin slice I’d cut for myself — probably the first time I’ve eaten an entire serving of any lemon dessert — but am not moved to eat any more. The rest of the family, though, will presumably decimate the rest of the cake very easily in the next couple of days.

And what of the second loaf? “Can we freeze it so I can have lemon cake later?” my husband asked eagerly — the subtext being, “Can you not give this cake away, but freeze it so that  can have it, for god’s sake, some time when I’m tired of eating Mallomars and hot fudge?”

I’ve wrapped it up tight in many layers of plastic wrap. It’s in the freezer. And in the meantime I’m going to think about chocolate simple syrup frostings.


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