When winter has dug in its heels, it is time to enjoy citrus desserts. We had a lemon tree in our backyard in California, so I didn’t buy a lemon until I moved to New York. Now I get Florida lemons at the supermarket, although every lemon dessert I make comes with extra nostalgia on top. Here is a cake I recently developed for a big dinner party—to say it was a hit would be a gross understatement.
This cake is NOT fast and easy, but if you are an experienced baker, it will not hold any surprises. In fact, you will be rewarded with a great all-purpose yellow cake recipe and one of the simplest and best lemon curds in my collection. (I give lots of tips on how to keep the curd from curdling...no pun intended.) And if you are a novice, make the components ahead of time and put it all together on the day of serving. In fact, I recommend that tactic because the lemon curd needs time to chill and set up. I like to make the curd, cake, and syrup the day before, and assemble and “meringue-ize” the layers the morning of serving.
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut up
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
6 large egg yolks
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
Softened butter and all-purpose flour, for the pans
3 cups cake flour (not self-rising)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon fine sea or table salt
1 cup whole milk
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 large eggs, at room temperature, separated
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
8 large egg whites
1 cup granulated sugar
Special Equipment: Kitchen torch
1. To make the lemon curd: Set a sieve over a medium bowl near the stove. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk the sugar, lemon juice, and egg yolks together in a small bowl. Gradually whisk in the melted butter. Return to the saucepan and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly with a silicone spatula and wiping down any splash whisking constantly, until the mixture is steaming and just about to come to a simmer, 3 to 5 minutes. It should be thick enough to coat the spoon, and a finger through the curd will cut a swath. Another good way to tell if the curd is thickened is if the chalazae (the small cords attached to the raw yolks) in the curd are opaque and look like cooked egg whites. Finally, the curd will register 190ºF or higher on an instant-read thermometer. Do not the curd boil. Strain the curd through the sieve to remove the chalazae. Stir in the lemon zest. (If you add it soon, you would strain it out, so add at this point to lend its flavor to the curd.) Press a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the curd to keep a skin from forming. Let cool to room temperature. Cover tightly and refrigerate until chilled and set, at least 2 hours or up to 3 days.
2. To make the cake, preheat the oven to 350° F. Lightly butter the inside of two 9-by-1 1/2-inch cake pans. Line the bottoms with waxed paper. Dust the insides of the pans with flour and shake out the excess.
3. Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together. Mix the milk, vanilla, and lemon zest in a glass measuring cup.
4. Beat the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer at high speed until the mixture is light in color and texture, about 3 minutes. One at a time, beat in the egg yolks, beating well after each addition. On low speed, add the flour in thirds, alternating with two additions of the milk mixture, beating well after each addition until the batter is smooth, and scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.
5. Using very clean beaters, beat the egg whites in a medium bowl until they form stiff, but not dry, peaks. Using a large rubber spatula, stir about one-fourth of the whites into the batter, then fold in the remaining whites. Spread evenly in pan.
6. Bake until the tops spring back when pressed gently in the center, about 35 minutes. Cool in the pans for 10 minutes on a wire rack. Run a sharp knife around the edge of the cakes to release from the sides of the pans, then invert onto the rack. Peel off the waxed paper. Turn the cakes right sides up and cool completely. (The cake layer can be wrapped in plastic wrap and stored at room temperature for up to 1 day. Or, wrap the cake in plastic wrap and then aluminum foil, and freeze for up to 1 month. Unwrap and defrost completely at room temperature for a few hours before frosting.)
7. To make the syrup: Bring the sugar and 1/3 cup water to a full boil in a small saucepan over high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice. Pour into a small bowl and let cool completely. (The syrup can be covered and refrigerated for up to 3 days.)
8. To make the meringue: Choose a large saucepan that will snugly fit a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a heavy-duty standing mixer. Bring an inch of water to a boil over high heat, then turn the heat to very low. Whisk the sugar and egg whites together in the bowl. Place over the hot water and stir with the whisk, scraping down any splashes on the side of the bowl, until the mixture is very warm, turns whiter, and the sugar dissolves, about 3 minutes. (Rub a bit of the mixture between your thumb and forefinger to feel for undissolved sugar.) Do not cook or whip the egg white mixture.
9. Beat the egg white mixture with a hand-held mixer or the whisk attachment on the mixer on high speed until the meringue forms stiff, shiny peaks—do not overbeat.
10. To assemble the cake: These cake layers do not dome much, so you probably won’t have to trim their tops to make them level. Place on cake upside down on the serving platter. Brush and drizzle half of the syrup over the cake. Spread the curd in a thick layer over the cake, leaving about 1/2 border around the circumference. Place the second layer, right side up, on the cake, and brush and drizzle with the remaining syrup. Spackle the space between the cake layers with the meringue to seal in the curd. Generously frost the entire cake with the remaining meringue, decoratively swirling the meringue. Using a kitchen torch, wave the flame over the meringue to lightly brown it.
11. The cake can be stored, uncovered, for up to 12 hours. If you refrigerate it, let stand at room temperature for 1 hour before serving or the cake layers will be too firm. To serve, slice the cake with a long, thin knife dipped into a tall glass of hot water between slices.
If you like this recipe, consider:
Mini-Iced Pound Cake Loaves from Lovely Little Kitchen
Meyer Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins from Tutti Dolci