Aug 9, 2009

Lovely Lemon Layer Cake

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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.

First up is the vibrant lemon curd filling. I am completely enamored with lemon curd as a cake filling. It’s always a great surprise for the eater and basically tastes like sunshine–what’s not to love? Instead of just using the lemon juice and sugar that this recipe called for, I added an extra punch of flavor by working the zest of one of the lemons into the sugar with a mortar and pestle. Incidentally, they need to make a scratch-n-sniff sticker that smells like a kitchen in which someone is making lemon sugar.
After the sugar is sufficiently lemon-nized, it’s blended with fresh lemon juice, egg yolks and butter until it gets so gorgeous and thick and glossy, you can trace a path through it with a spatula. Oh, my. Sieve it and chill it for a few hours, a perfect window to bake and cool the cake (it can also be made a couple days ahead).
And then there’s the cake. The white cake that hugs the luscious lemon filling is the ultimate cake dichotomy–a sweet, delicate vanilla flavor and a light, tender crumb, yet incredibly sturdy for layering. This is thanks to a batter with a two-stage mixing method, which I love because once you get the hang of this method, the results are fabulously consistent. Unlike cakes that start with creaming the butter and sugar together, a two-stage cake starts by mixing the butter right into the dry ingredients, until it resembles fine crumbs.

After the butter is so well-incorporated you can hardly discern any bits of it, a whisked-together mixture of the eggs and milk and vanilla gets drizzled into the spinning batter. The batter for this cake is so velvety, it’s hard not to sigh at the beauty of it all. Oh, I do so love a vanilla cake batter. It is the very definition of dreamy.

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.

Give your lemon filling a good stir. It will be much firmer than a regular lemon curd–the addition of a bit of gelatin gives it excellent structure and helps it sit prettily between the cake layers and not ooze all over and into the frosting.

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.

Repeat with another cake layer (again, golden side down), applying just a bit of pressure so the layers adhere, and then spread on another third of the filling.

I’m pretty sure you know what to do next. You are quick!
Now for the final layer, place it golden side UP. Pulled a fast one on ya, didn’t I? I like to use the bottom half of one of the layers for this step, so that the top of the cake is nice and even.

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.

I don’t really see any other way to use a heavenly, cloud-like frosting than en masse. So just go on ahead and pile it on, sister.
I am so glad that my relationship with Seven-Minute Frosting has completely turned a corner because a) I hate being belittled by icing b) it is really delicious and c) it is a dream to work with. You can giddily swoop and swirl this frosting for hours and the only thing that will snap you out of your fanciful ways is your husband demanding to know if that crazy cake is ready yet.

“Um, yeah, almost!” Swoop, swirl, giggle, giggle, swirl.

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.

I kid! But I totally should.

Lemon Layer Cake

 

Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen

 

Makes 1 9-inch, 4-layer cake

 

With the cake and lemon filling recipes cut in half, this recipe makes one adorable 6-inch cake, perfect for serving 4 to 6. If you opt to make a smaller version of this cake, still make the full frosting recipe–you’ll have a generously frosted cake with a bit left over, but the frosting just doesn’t whip as well with smaller proportions. Trust me on this. The filling can be prepared two days ahead, and the cake can be made a day ahead of assembly–just cool the layers completely, wrap them tightly in plastic wrap and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Make the frosting just before putting the cake together.

 

For the filling:
Zest from two lemons
1 cup fresh lemon juice (from about 6 lemons)
1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
6 large egg yolks (reserve whites for the cake)
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes and frozen

 

For the cake:
2 1/4 cups cake flour, plus more for dusting the pans
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
6 large egg whites, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons, softened but still cool

 

 

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.

  • So gorgeous! That cake is total fairytale material.

  • What a gorgeous cake, oh to have this under my cake dome right now!

  • That is beyond, divine! Love it! I want some … where's my piece???

  • Sam, Kelly-Jane and Ivonne:

    Thanks so much for stopping by! Great to hear from you all.

  • Oh, now the crumb thing, mixing the butter in with the dry ingredients, is just a brilliant idea. I've always been an anything-but-white-cake fan until recently, but now am on a white cake binge and have made it for the last 3 or 4 birthdays. I used this recipe that had you add a meringuey mixture of sugar and eggwhites to the batter as the last step, which made for a fluffier cake, but it never turned out exactly like I'd hope. Now I hope anew. Thanks for the recipe!

  • Kristi: Though the two-stage method tends to not give quite as much lift as the creaming method (though I don't think it's a super obvious thing), I always find the texture of two-stage cakes to be more velvety, with a tighter, more even (but still tender) crumb–great for layering. I've tried a few white cake recipes that have you fold in whites at the end, and usually don't end up loving the results. Like you said, it's sort of fluffier–but also usually tougher because of all that extra stirring after the flour's already been incorporated. Try this one and report back!

  • I adore lemon!
    I can't wait to try out this recipe!

  • I love, love, love a tall cake. There is something so awe-inspiring and celebratory about them. Beautifully done.

  • This cake is a beauty!

  • Tara: How am I just seeing your reply? Anyway, I am beyond flattered that you stopped by; seven spoons is one of my favorite places in the food blogosphere! Thanks!

  • i made this cake for my own birthday after seeing it on America's Test Kitchen. It came out looking beautiful and I enjoyed the frosting and the cake, but turns out, I HATE lemon curd. I only wish I hadn't found out on my own birthday. RATS!

  • Ann–Bummer! But I do think that the curd in this particular recipe is especially tangy to balance out the sweet cake and icing. You might check out the Lemon Pastry Cream recipe in my recipe index instead and see if you like that better–it has more of a creamy, buttery quality and a softer lemon flavor that I love.

  • You have so many great recipe here. Wow! This cake looks particularly good, so maybe I'll try it after we finish up our Boston Cream Pie cake

  • Anna–Thanks for stopping by! I am a big Cookie Madness fan. Hope you try it and love it!

  • Lemon Layer Cake remembered me when I was in the school and every B-day me friend celebrated with my the classroom, it was so nice because they were my best friends22dd, so I think that your recipe is so easy and fast to make , thanks for sharing!

  • I just stumbled on this site and had a blast. You are now in my favorites.

  • Hi

    I made this cake this morning but almost didn’t rise. What I’m doing wrong?

    Can somebody help me?

    Kind regards

    • I definitely need more information to help you. Do you bake cakes often? Have you noticed something similar happening with other recipes? Let me know! :)

  • Hi there, I’m making this for a party (looks so pretty and so yummy!) and just wanted to let you know that the link above, for the seven-minute frosting, is not working. I found it in the search bar though… http://shaunasever.com/2009/07/seven-minute-frosting.html

  • This was a winner for my 30th birthday! Love the technique for the cake and the seven min icing is going to be used again and again! Thanks for sharing.

    • I love this comment so much! It’s almost like I was right there with you, watching the whole celebration go down. Except not as creepy. Happy birthday!

  • I made this cake recently for my sister-in-laws Birthday. It was aaa-mazing. I can’t stop thinking about it and waiting for the occasion to make it again. It was SOOO good – thank god she sent half the leftovers home with us!!! The lemon custard is to die for, the 7 minute frosting? -unbelievable.. I will be using this ever chance I get from now on. And the cake itself – 5 thumbs up. Even my (extremely critical) husband agrees, he said it was the best cake he’s ever had. Thank you so much!

  • Brilliant recipe. Especially the good lemon curd, genius to make the sugar fragrant with the zest! Made it today for a friends birthday, covered it in mascarpone cream frosting as he’s not keen on marshmallow. Lovely!

  • Will be making this as the top layer for my daughters wedding, will let you know how it turns ou.
    I have been looking for a good white cake for years, that did not fall apart when sliced.

  • Hi, Shauna,

    A painter by trade, I’ve been experimenting with learning how to make foods from my childhood recently and I post about these adventures on the Small Pond Arts blog. After searching Google for a nice lemon cake recipe, I saw a picture of your cake here, so I tried the recipe and, although it didn’t turn out as visually stunning as yours, the textures and flavours turned out very well. Thanks for posting this!

    My (poor) recreation of your recipe is below:
    http://bit.ly/1gvMH67

    Thanks again,
    Milé

    • Nice work, Mile!

  • I made this for my mother-in-law’s birthday today because she requested a lemon cake, and it turned out very well. Thanks for this recipe! The only change I made was to substitute 1/2 teaspoon lemon extract for a bit of the vanilla in the white cake. Here’s a picture of how mine turned out (I added a little bit of lemon zest curls on top for garnish).

    Thanks again for posting this recipe!

  • Hi to all! I love this recipe and would like to try it, but I’m from Hungary and we don’t really use “cup” as a measurement so I am always in trouble when I see recipes with “cup”. I tried to check how much a “cup” was, but as I read on Wiki it varies from country to coutry.
    So I’m lost :( Please, help, because I can’t live without this marvelous, amazing cake! :)

  • I am a bit confused with the recipe for the curd. It says 4 large eggs and 6 large yolks..saving the whites for the cake. This means to use 10 yolks and 4 whites for the curd? Thanks in advance for clarifying!

  • I baked this cake for my husband’s birthday. Overall it turned out great, but the cake didn’t rise much and is a little dense. Any idea what might have happened?

  • I was super excited for this cake, regrettably It did not turn out like this, the texture of the cake was very thick not light, and the velvety white that yours displays on the picture is nothing near the grey-ish yellow I got from my cake! where did I go wrong? how do you obtain that awesome fluff in your cake!?

    Additionally my cake crumbled faster than other cakes I tried.

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