Friday, September 3, 2010

The Best Laid Plans: Lemon Cream Cake

There’s a reason that mis en place is one of the first techniques taught in pastry school. It only makes sense that you should have all ingredients measured and at the ready before starting. I know this well, but sometimes...

When making lavender macarons for an Austin food blogger potluck brunch, after discarding the rejects, I realized I only had a couple dozen cookies to bring. So I decided to make a lemon cake as well. Unfortunately, this decision was made at the end of a long, trying day of macaron making when I wasn’t in the best frame of mind.

We had dinner plans that evening and I needed to clean up and get ready, but instead I started prepping. I figured I could whip up the cake batter, bake the layers, set them out to cool while at dinner, and then ice and finish the cake when I returned home. I hurriedly grabbed ingredients, started combining and mixing, poured the batter into cake pans, and rammed the pans into the oven. Voila! I was running out of the kitchen to take a shower while the layers baked when out of the corner of my eye, I spied the eggs that should have been mixed into the cake batter. Apparently, I neglected to bring them over to the work area where I mixed up the cake. Somehow, I failed to notice my omission when running through the recipe steps at breakneck speed. Damn it!

I pulled the cake pans full of eggless batter from the oven and exacted the small comfort of slamming them into the kitchen sink. Then, I poured a glass of wine went up to take a shower. The wine and hot, soothing water calmed my nerves and I recovered enough to concoct Plan B. Plan B involved picking up another pint of sour cream on the way home from dinner and getting up early the next morning to re-bake the cake before taking off for the brunch. This seemed like a perfectly fine backup plan to me so I went on to dinner and thoroughly relaxed and enjoyed myself.
The next morning, I started prepping to make the cake again and realized I should have picked up more confectioner sugar for the cake icing on my grocery run the previous night. (This is an ongoing saga in my baking trials and tribulations- I never seem to be able to compile a complete grocery list. There is always one key ingredient that I forgot to pick up.) Eric had forewarned me that waiting until the last minute wasn’t a good idea and he knows I’m not a morning person. After pointing out that he was right, he offered to help out in any way needed. So I switched to Plan C, wherein I had him make a lemon curd to spread between the cake layers since the lack of confectioner sugar meant I didn’t have nearly enough icing.

He went to work on the curd and things seemed to be back on track. Then lo and behold, Eric proposes Plan D. (This from a man who trumpeted that he never has to resort to Plan B because he’s always prepared and on his A game.) Plan D was an experiment that was either going to work perfectly and save the day or fail miserably and potentially involve chucking the cake. After reiterating the risk to me and putting the decision in my hands, he explained that Plan D was to combine what little icing I had with the lemon curd he made and whip them together to create some semblance of a buttercream so that there was enough icing to cover the cake. At this point, I figured what the hell.
For a minute there, we actually thought our crazy plan might work. The curd and icing came together in the mixer and thickened up enough to be of spreadable consistency. We congratulated ourselves on our ingenuity and started to ice the cake. Unfortunately, before the job was even finished, the icing took on a sickening sheen that foretold it was only a matter of minutes before it totally melted and started running. So we stuck the whole cake, stand and all, in the freezer to cool it off a bit. Presumably, the icing would set up if chilled thoroughly.  Only we didn’t have much time. We were already running late and had to leave in 5 minutes or risk missing the small window of hostess politesse for guests who are tardy.

Fortunately, Eric had the presence of mind to remember that it was August in Austin and we had to transport the cake in a vehicle that, even this early in the day, would already have heated up to an uncomfortable temperature. No problem- we just turned on the car and blasted the A/C while we were getting dressed. We threw on clothes and were finally on our way, a little late, but still fashionably so; me, with the cake perched precariously on my lap, desperately trying to keep it from sliding around in the carrier. I swear that was the longest car ride of my life.

By the time we got to the brunch, I was worn out and ready to go back to bed. However, the sight of a gorgeous spread of food quickly perked me back up. Conveniently, there was an empty spot on the counter to place my cake, directly adjacent to bloody mary mix and a tall bottle of vodka. We took it as a sign and Eric poured us drinks while I unloaded the cake. Drink in hand, I dove into the food. By the time I had polished off a piece of delicious pizza hot from a mobile wood-fired pizza oven that Christian from Bola Pizza had brought over, that wreck of a cake had completely left my mind. When I checked back on it later, I had to laugh as the melting icing running down the sides and pooling at the base gave the cake a kind of Dalí quality, à la The Persistence of Memory.

          * note tell-tale sheen, a few minutes before total meltdown

We had a great time at the brunch and when we returned home a few hours later, instead of tackling the colossal mess we had left in the kitchen, we took a nap and relaxed for the rest of the day. Good food and great company are amazing stress relievers!

Lemon Cream Cake
adapted from attributed to Ruth Ann Stelfox 

This cake is pretty tasty so I decided to re-make it to redeem myself for the massive flop described above. Note that the batter will be very thick so don’t be tempted to only make two layers or the cake will be dense. The icing tends to set up so work quickly. If needed, you can add a little more milk to the icing to thin it. I think next time I’ll add some lemon juice and zest to a cream cheese icing - easier to spread and even more delicious!

1 c butter, softened
2 c sugar
3 eggs
2 t grated lemon peel
1 t vanilla extract
3 1/2 c all-purpose flour
1 t baking soda
1/2 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
2 c sour cream

1 stick + 1 T butter, softened
6 3/4 c confectioners' sugar
6 T lemon juice
2 1/4 t vanilla extract
1 t grated lemon peel
3 T milk

candied lemon zest, for topping

1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line three 9” cake pans with parchment paper and butter and flour the sides of the pans and parchment.
2. To make the cake, in a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar and then beat in the eggs, one at a time. Add lemon peel and vanilla and mix well.
2. Combine the dry ingredients. Add dry ingredients to the creamed mixture alternating with sour cream.
3. Pour batter into cake pans and bake in the middle rack of the oven for 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool in the pans for 10 minutes and then remove to wire racks.
4. If topping with candied lemon zest, in a small pan, add lemon zest to a simple syrup (1 part water:1part sugar) and boil for 1-2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove the zest from the syrup and place in a small bowl of sugar to coat. Set bowl aside to allow the zest to dry.
5. To make the frosting, cream butter and sugar in a small mixing bowl. Add lemon juice, vanilla, lemon peel and milk and beat until smooth.
6. When layers have completely cooled, ice the cake. Sprinkle with candied lemon zest.


  1. This post once again proves to me that we are our own worst critics. I thought your cake was gorgeous and it tasted divine! And those lavender macarons are still in my dreams.

  2. Thanks Michelle- you're too kind. Read about Braise on your site- thinking I've got to go check out that osso buco.

  3. That's so funny because I am forever forgetting to buy confectioner's sugar. Sounds like you had some great teamwork in your kitchen, and the cake was delicious!

  4. Hey Lisa,
    I was so glad to hear that someone else has the same problem- sometimes my absent mindedness worries me. And yes, it's nice to have a professional chef around during crises (and to know that even pros come up with cockamamie ideas every now and then)!

  5. That cake looks like pure heaven. Heaven, I tell you!

  6. It is comforting to read that even the best cooks among us struggle to compile a grocery list sometimes. My achilles heel is all purpose flour. More than once I've been elbow deep in bread dough-mush when I realize there's no more flour in the pantry. Yeah for willing partners/sous chefs. :)

  7. @AustinGastronomist- Amen to that (helpful partners)! And thank heavens I keep at least three different kinds of flour around the house at all times. I, too, run out of ap flour and have been known to substitute bread,cake, wheat... whatever I have on hand!