If winter is all about chocolate (at least, it is for me), then spring is all about lemon. Lemon is bright, cheerful, with just a touch of a zing to it. Isn’t that what spring is all about? Spring gives you a big sigh of relief, then occasionally turns around and bites you on the butt.
So while spring has slowly limped along this year, I have been ensconced in my kitchen, keeping warm by the oven, and testing recipes to find the perfect lemon cake. Making a perfect lemon cake is no easy task, since lemon flavor often gets lost when you bake it. This recipe solves that problem three ways: first, by using lemon curd between the layers. Second, I added a little extra oomph by adding lemon zest to the batter by rubbing it into the sugar before mixing. (Try this whenever you use citrus zest. It makes the citrus flavor pop). Finally, a simple buttercream that replaces some of the milk with fresh lemon juice finishes it just right. And my triple lemon cake was born.
The recipe for the lemon curd filling makes a generous amount. You can use all of it in your filling, of course, and make your cake extra zing-y. Or you can put some in a little jar and feel sophisticated and British for having lemon curd handy in your fridge.
The cake is very light and airy- it should be, having a half dozen egg whites in it!- and it is prone to crumbs. You’ll definitely want to do a crumb coat on it, which is just a first, light layer of frosting designed to hold all those errant crumbs in check. Chill the cake for a bit and when you do your final layer of frosting it will be perfect without a crumb in sight.
ingredients for filling:
- 1 tsp. unflavored gelatin
- 1 c. lemon juice
- 1 & 1/2 c. sugar
- 1/8 tsp. salt
- 4 large eggs, at room temperature
- 6 large egg yolks, at room temperature
- 8 tbl. unsalted butter, cut into pieces and frozen
ingredients for cake:
- 1 c. whole milk, at room temperature
- 6 large egg whites, at room temperature
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- 2 tbl. finely grated lemon zest (about 1 lemon)
- 1 & 3/4 c. sugar
- 2 & 1/4 c. (9 oz.) cake flour
- 4 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. salt
- 12 tbl. unsalted butter, at room temperature
ingredients for frosting:
- 2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
- 3-5 c. confectioner’s sugar
- 2 tbl. lemon juice
- 2 tbl. whole milk
Start by making the filling: Sprinkle gelatin over 1 tbl. lemon juice in a small bowl and set aside. Combine sugar, salt and remaining lemon juice in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring, until sugar dissolves and mixture is hot. Do not let boil.
Whisk eggs and eggs yolks in a large bowl. Pouring sugar into the eggs slowly, while whisking constantly. Return mixture to saucepan and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly. Cook until mixture reaches 170° and the mixture has thickened.
Remove pan from heat and stir in the gelatin until it is dissolved. Stir in the frozen butter.
Place a fine mesh strainer over a bowl and strain lemon curd into the bowl. Place plastic wrap on the surface of the lemon curd and chill at least 4 hours, until firm enough to spread.
While lemon curd is chilling, make the cake: Preheat oven to 350°. Grease 2 9″ cake pans with butter. Line the bottoms with parchment paper. Grease the parchment paper with butter, then lightly flour pans with flour and set aside.
Whisk milk, egg whites and vanilla into a bowl. Cut butter into 12 pieces. Set both aside.
Pour sugar into a bowl. Add lemon zest. Using your fingers, rub the lemon zest into the sugar until sugar is fragrant (this helps spread the lemon flavor throughout your cake).
Mix flour, lemon sugar, baking powder, and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer on low speed until combined. Keep mixer on low and add butter, 1 piece at a time, until you’ve added all the pieces and they are reduced to the size of peas.
Add all but 1/4 c. of the milk mixture, turn mixer to medium-high, and beat until batter is light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Reduce speed to medium-low, add the rest of the milk mixture, and beat about 30 seconds to incorporate.
Divide batter evenly between the 2 cake pans (I use my kitchen scale here to make sure they are the same size). Bake side by side on the middle shelf for 23-25 minutes, until tops are light golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Place cakes in pans on wire racks to cool. Let cool in pans for 10 minutes, then remove from pans and let cool the rest of the way. When cakes are cool, slice each one in half horizontally to make 4 layers total.
Assemble the cake by putting the first bottom layer on a cake plate. Spread lemon curd in an even layer across cake. Place second cake layer on top, then repeat with lemon curd and cake until all 4 layers are assembled.
Make your buttercream frosting by putting butter into the bowl of an electric mixer and beating on medium-high until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add 2 c. sugar, then milk and lemon juice. Beat until combined, then slowly add sugar until buttercream has reached the right consistency and sweetness for you. You may not use all the sugar; buttercream is subjective.
Crumb coat your cake, then chill in the fridge for half an hour. Use the rest of the buttercream to frost the cake. Top with a slice of lemon for extra home-made cuteness.
If you like my “quirky” hand-drawn lemon curd label, you can download a PDF here. I may be passing this little jar off to my mom as an early Mother’s Day present.