My aunt visited us in Texas all the way from Northern Ireland a few weeks ago, and she and her immediate family are some of the best gift-givers around. They’re so good at choosing gifts that aren’t necessarily over-the-top, but are so personal and useable. On this visit, she was kind enough to bring a copy of one of her cookbooks. I don’t mean like, from her collection, I mean a cookbook that she wrote. #coolestfamilyever So now I have (almost) the full collection. She’s done another one recently that I hope to get my hands on.
When I was in Ireland cooking at my aunt and uncle’s restaurant, the cooks there often used recipes from their cookbooks. I remember one day I was scrambling through cold starters, finally running the section and giving the other guy a day off here and there, when the pastry chef (let’s call her Lane), beckoned me from across the tiny kitchen.
After only two months immersed in a kitchen filled with the lilting (and famously incomprehensible) Belfast accent, I pick out her Dublin intonations; when she calls me, instead of “Randle,” I hear something like, “Ran-dohl.”
I put down the fava beans I’m skinning and wipe my starchy fingers on a towel as I edge up to her pastry stone. It’s slightly cooler over here, and her world of coulis and ganache and little tubs of fresh wood sorrel is where I secretly want to be.
“Taste that lemon pudding,” Lane says, offering me a sliver of lemon cake from the pile of trimmings on the corner of her cutting board.
“Oh god. Yum,” I say, looking longingly toward the lemon curd she’s working on.
“Does it taste like your aunt’s?” Lane asks insistently, “Have you tasted her lemon pudding? What’s missing?”
“Oh, I see,” I reply, closing my eyes and remembering the lemon cake we had pulled out of the freezer at home and eaten in tiny slices until a plate of crumbs was left on the counter. “Okay, it’s hard to put my finger on it, but hers is more…lemony?”
“More lemony?” Lane asks, “Do you think I should add more zest?”
“I would try it. Maybe it needs to sit for a few hours. That might develop the flavors a bit more?”
My egg bath timer dings, Lane nods, and I leap back to my little section.
So, here I am with another lemon cake. Like other artistic creations, I don’t know that it’s possible to replicate someone else’s vision, even when you follow a recipe exactly. But that’s one of the exciting things about cooking.
This recipe is adapted from the cookbook Ideal Home Cooking from 1998, and I only changed a few things, eliminating the poached rhubarb and lemon syrup, and swapping the buttermilk for whole milk soured with lemon. The original recipe calls itself “pound cake,” but I don’t think that name does it justice here in the States. The weighty, heavy connotations that sometimes follow the term “pound cake” have no place here. I used a light powdered sugar glaze, but this fluffy cake could stand up to a buttercream.
You’ll also noticed that the cake and syrup recipes are in ounces and grams, and my glaze is in cups. Ehh, sorry. If that bugs you, just improvise on the glaze.
Makes 9-inch round cake
Adapted from Ideal Home Cooking
Note: because lemon zest will vary in strength, I recommend tasting this batter before baking and adding more zest, juice, or extract if desired. That involves eating a teensy bit of raw eggs, a risk I’m not too worried about, but just keep it in mind.
6 oz. unsalted butter, room temperature
10 oz. sugar (I used fine Domino sugar, as the original recipe calls for caster sugar)
Zest of 1 lemon
250 grams/9 oz. self-rising flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of table salt (1/8 – 1/4 teaspoon)
180 mL/6 fl. oz. whole milk
4 Tablespoons lemon juice, divided
6 Tablespoons lemon juice
175 g/6 oz. powdered sugar
1 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon lemon extract (you can do zest if you don’t have lemon extract)
1-3 Tablespoons cold water
1. Preheat oven to 325 F and line a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
3. Zest lemon and set aside. Juice lemon and set aside. In a small bowl, crack eggs and whisk gently. Set aside.
4. Add 2 Tablespoons lemon juice to the whole milk and stir. (This will curdle/sour the milk. That’s the goal).
5. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat butter, sugar, and lemon zest on high until a white, fluffy cloud fills the bowl. Approximately 5 minutes.
6. Add about 1/3 of the egg and 1 Tablespoon of the flour (to keep the butter and sugar mixture from curdling). Beat until combined. Continue adding the egg a little at a time until combined.
7. Remove bowl from mixer and finish the batter by hand. You’ll add the dry ingredients and the soured milk a little at a time. First, mix in about 1/3 of the dry ingredients, folding in with a spatula. Then add 1/3 of the soured milk. Continue until all the dry ingredients and milk are combined, ending with milk. Finally, stir in remaining 2 Tablespoons lemon juice.
8. Bake for 75-90 minutes, placing the cake pan on a cookie sheet in case any batter spills over. Test for doneness by inserting a toothpick or butter knife. It’s done when it comes out clean.
9. Optional syrup (I didn’t do it. The point of this is to add moisture to the cake if it has dried out and to add an extra pop of lemon flavor): In a small saucepan, combine 6 Tablespoons of lemon juice and 175 g/6 oz. powdered sugar. Stir and cook until sugar is dissolved. Set aside.
10. For the powdered sugar glaze: whisk together 1 cup of powdered sugar, 1 teaspoon lemon extract, and 1-3 Tablespoons cold water. Add the water a little at a time, just until a thick gel forms.
11. When cake is done, let cool completely. Once cool, turn out onto a plate. If desired, poke holes (using a toothpick or fork) into the cake and drizzle with the optional lemon syrup. Pour the powdered sugar glaze over the top of the cake and spread with a knife, forming a smooth layer over the top that drips a bit down the sides. Alternately, you can drizzle the powdered sugar glaze over the top of the cake using a piping bag.
Cake keeps covered for several days at room temperature, and honestly tastes a bit more lemony after one day.