Sometimes I get lucky. I have been working on the quintessential lemon cake for years, and although I have encountered a couple of formulas that are quite lovely in their own right, they are not exactly what I have in mind.
Today, after studying for the umpteenth time the lemon cake recipe grid I composed last year, which compares the ingredients, proportions and mixing methods of a dozen lemon cakes from a dozen respected sources, I quickly threw together a simple cake, proportioned to fit my 7-cup tube pan, and by golly it worked. (To see what is involved in my recipe grid methodology, which I taught to students for years at the Northwest Culinary Academy, check out Recipe Grid: The Ultimate Chocolate Pudding).
The key differences between this new formula and others I have tried is that I used oil instead of butter and the muffin mixing method rather than the more typical creaming method. The result is a somewhat dense, moist, tender, almost chewy cake with plenty of luscious lemon flavor. The moist texture holds for at least 48 hours, plenty of time for a couple of determined adults to eat most of the cake (children may devour it sooner). Of course, you may also freeze a portion of the cake to enjoy later if you like.
A couple of caveats though. I was seduced by a phenomenal picture of a lemon cake topped with candied lemon slices in the June/July 2009 issue of Donna Hay Magazine and spent an afternoon trying to get very thin slices of lemon that did not fall apart (firm lemons and a mandolin are required) and then cooking them in sugar syrup for first 15 minutes as prescribed by the magazine (HA!) and then when I realized that only someone with a jaw of steel could chew these babies, for an hour as prescribed by Martha Stewart. Be forewarned: An hour of simmering produces barely chewable lemon rinds. You may need to cook them even longer.
However, in both of my early tests, the rind was so bitter that most folks would not appreciate it. To get rid of the bitterness in the rind, you must blanch the lemon peels at least three times in fresh batches of simmering water, and THEN simmer in syrup for an hour or longer. You will not be able to maintain the shape of a lemon slice with all that simmering.
Thus, I had to give up on the idea of a cake topped with translucent, shimmering candied lemon slices. Beauty is important but taste is supreme. This gave me the opportunity to rethink the flavor profile. A quick trip to the garden produced a handful of fragrant, silvery sage leaves that added the visual effect I felt the cake needed and also a subtle perfume of fresh sage. Perfect!
Luscious Candied Lemon Sage Tea Cake
This is the kind of cake that I treasure in my repertoire. It’s a simple yet memorable cake, usually served unadorned. It’s the perfect accompaniment to afternoon tea or coffee.
It’s also very easy to make and does not require creaming of butter, sugar and eggs. If you have the Candied Lemon Peel, you can throw it together in a snap and be eating the most delicious, satisfying cake in less than an hour.
I am crazy for cornmeal these days and throw it into cakes, muffins, cookies, and pancakes with wild abandon. The small amount added to this cake adds only the most subtle cornmeal flavor, but the additional textural element is most welcome.
baking spray (combination of vegetable oil and flour)
15-18 large fresh sage leaves
1½ cups King Arthur all-purpose flour
½ cup fine yellow cornmeal
1½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
1 cup sugar
1 cup buttermilk
¼ cup lemon juice
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ cup vegetable or light olive oil
1 teaspoon lemon oil (or 1½ teaspoons lemon extract)
½ cup chopped Candied Lemon Peel
1 cup powdered sugar
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
- Coat a 7- to 8-cup capacity metal ring mold with baking spray.
- Position a sage leave, top side down, on the bottom of the ring mold so that the tip of the leaf will point downward on the outside of the cake when the finished cake is inverted onto a serving platter (refer to photo above). Continue in the same fashion with the placement of the remaining leaves, leaving about ?-inch free space between each leaf. Reserve.
- In a medium mixing bowl, sift together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk to thoroughly distribute the dry ingredients. Whisk in the sugar.
- In another medium mixing bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, lemon juice, eggs, oil, lemon oil and candied lemon peel until thoroughly combined.
- Pour the wet ingredients over the dry ingredients, and then fold quickly and gently to combine. (Overmixing will produce a tough cake.)
- Carefully pour the batter over the sage leaves in the ring mold. Level with a flexible spatula.
- Bake immediately at 350° for about 30 minutes. The top of the cake will be lightly browned (perhaps not evenly) and an instant-read thermometer will register 175° if inserted into the center of the cake. Also, a thin skewer inserted in the center of the cake will come out almost clean. (Do not overbake, or the cake will be dry.)
- In the meanwhile, to make the Lemon Syrup, combine the powdered sugar and lemon juice in a small saucepan, and bring to a simmer, whisking to dissolve the sugar. The syrup should go from foggy to clear just before it comes to a simmer. If not, reduce the heat and keep whisking until the syrup clears. Remove from the heat. Reserve
- Remove the cake from the oven and allow to cool for 15 minutes in the pan on a wire rack. Run a thin knife around the edge of the cake pan to ensure that the cake is not sticking to the pan anywhere. Then, invert the cake pan over a serving platter and carefully remove from the cake.
- Using a pastry brush, gently paint the cake with Lemon Syrup, using most or all of the syrup. The cake will absorb the syrup as you continue to add layers of syrup to it.
- With a damp paper towel, remove any syrup that has collected on the serving platter.
- Serve plain, dusted with powdered sugar, or with a cloud of whipped cream and a handful of fresh raspberries. May be served warm or at room temperature.
Makes 1 medium tea cake; serves 8 or more.