On my favorite running route, there is an old house that has a huge, neglected lemon tree. It is an absolute crime, I tell you. The branches are always heavy with fruit–the kind of bright, fragrant, thin-skinned lemons that bakers covet. One of these days I am going to break my stride, pound on their door and–panting and flailing my arms in the direction of their insane lemon tree–shout, “What the @#*! is wrong with you?!”. I will also threaten to call the Department of Citrus Protection if they don’t step up and take care of their bounty. I will even encourage them by sharing my favorite lemon dessert recipes, like this lovely lemon layer cake.
From the moment I first saw the recipe, I was on this cake. Delicate white cake, a tart lemon filling and a billowy, marshmallow-like topping? Yes, please. It pretty much dominated my thoughts until I could find the time to work on it. Because in all honesty, this cake is a bit of a Project. That’s not to say the steps are difficult–the cake, filling and frosting are all simple standbys–but each element does take some time. But it had been a while since I’d made a real Wondercake, and it’s easy to plan out your prep for this recipe even if you’ve got obstacles. Like, say, a tiny person who really likes to hang on to your legs as you limp from the stove to the sink. Taking your time putting it together also makes for some delicious antici…pation.
When the cake layers have baked and cooled completely and the filling has chilled for a few hours, the real fun begins. I always love assembling a layer cake. I like to pretend I’m a Real Live Pastry Chef, with a charming little bake shop decorated in pink and white and bits of damask, with a big copper espresso machine behind the counter and acres of stainless steel workspace in the back room…what, huh? Oh, yeah, no I’m here. Sorry. Um, anyway.Start by slicing each layer in half. Admire the beautiful crumb and snowy white interior of this cake.
Now we get to some layering action. Place one cake layer (golden side down) on a serving platter. Tuck a few strips of parchment paper under the edges to keep the plate nice and clean while you pretend to be a Real Live Pastry Chef. Spread a third of the filling evenly over the layer, leaving the outer edge of the cake bare.
Some might call this next step optional, but I don’t think so. Use your impeccably clean index finger to swipe up any wayward lemon curd. I think you can guess what the next natural step is after that. Slurp.
And now comes my favorite part of cake making–the prettifying via a gorgeous frosting. Those that follow the goings-on of the Piece of Cake kitchen know there was a recent victory that involved a smackdown with Seven-Minute Frosting. And this cake was the impetus for said victory. Let’s revel in that sweet success one more time, shall we? Ahhhh.
And here she is. A debutante of the cake world. The kind of cake that everyone should have in their repertoire. Light, whimisical, ooh and ahh-inspiring, it is the ultimate cake for celebrations of all kinds. Even if you’re just celebrating something like making it through another week with an 11-month-old. Or successfully stealing armfuls of contraband lemons from your neighbor’s totally neglected lemon tree.
Begin by preparing the filling: Measure 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice into a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over the top to soften. With a mortar and pestle or with your fingertips in a small bowl, work the lemon zest into the sugar until the sugar is fragrant and evenly moistened with the oils from the zest.Heat the rest of the lemon juice, the lemon sugar, and salt in a medium non-reactive saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is hot but not bubbling. Whisk the whole eggs and egg yolks in a large, non-reactive bowl. Slowly whisk the lemon syrup into the eggs, then return the mixture to the saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook the curd, stirring constantly, until it reaches 170 degrees and it’s thick enough to draw a trail through it with a spatula. Stir in the softened gelatin until completely dissolved.
Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the frozen butter until the butter has melted and the curd is smooth. Pour through a fine mesh sieve into a non-reactive bowl. Cover the surface of the curd with plastic wrap and chill until firm, at least four hours or up to two days.
To make the cake, adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper.
In a large measuring cup, whisk together the milk, egg whites and vanilla. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt at low speed. With the mixer running on low speed, add the butter pieces one at a time until the mixture resembles fine, even crumbs. Stop the mixer and add all but about 1/2 cup of the wet ingredients. Beat the batter at medium speed until it is pale and fluffy, about 1 1/2 minutes. With the mixer running on low, slowly pour in the rest of the wet ingredients, then crank the speed back up to medium and beat for 30 seconds more. Scrape down the bowl and beat for 30 more seconds.
Divide the batter equally among the two cake pans and smooth the tops. Bake for 23 to 25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean–do not overbake. Let the cakes cool in the pans for 10 minutes, then remove the cakes from the pans, peel off the parchment and cool completely, right side up.
When the filling has chilled and the cake layers are cool, begin assembling the cake. Slice the cake layers in half horizontally. Place one layer golden side down on a serving platter, and tuck a few strips of parchment paper under the edges of the cake to protect the platter. Spread a third of the lemon filling on the cake layer, leaving a 1/2 inch border around the edge of the cake. Repeat twice more with cake layers and filling. Place the top layer of the cake golden side up. Frost with Fluffy White Icing. This cake is best served as soon as possible, but the finished cake can be covered with a cake dome and refrigerated up to one day before serving.
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