Monday, April 06, 2009

Spanish Lemon Cake

In Athens, Georgia, there was a cake baker by the name of Cecilia Villarreal. She made a cake known as a Spanish Lemon Cake. It was the perfect cake for a hot, humid, Georgia summer evening. We pretty much based our restaurant decisions on whether or not they bought cakes from Ms. Villarreal because if there was no chance for Spanish Lemon Cake, there was no point in eating.

By the time we left The ATH, fewer and fewer restaurants were stocking her wares and the few who were did not regularly stock the Spanish Lemon Cake. Whether this was due to the overharvesting of Spaniards, we shall never know. But when my friend who gave me the eggs gave me a dozen lemons from neighborhood trees, I took it as a sign from the citrus gods: I was meant to make my first attempt at recreating Spanish Lemon Cake.

The cake is no trickier than the average cake, but I had never made a boiled frosting before. When I made the filling for the Whoopie Pies a couple of weeks ago I realized at a certain step it could either become a boiled frosting or Whoopie Pie filling. This realization in combination with the arrival of a dozen lemons on my doorstep is what precipitated this little experiment.

My recipe is a four-parter taking lemon curd from the April 2001 issue of Gourmet as found on Epicurious, the cake batter from the awesome recipe I found from Bake and Shake via Not Martha, my own lemony variation on simple syrup, and the boiled frosting recipe is a hybrid of The New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne (1961), an article "County Cooking by an Urban Chef" by Craig Claiborne, in the August 1, 1979, edition of the New York Times about Edna Lewis, and the filling for Whoopie Pie.

I made the lemony simple syrup by substituting a third of the water with lemon juice. After the sugar dissolved, I ran it through a strainer to get any of the lemon bits out. You can do this like a week in advance if you store it in the fridge.

I made the lemon curd immediately after and in the same pot as I made the lemony simple syrup. Again, you can do this like a week in advance if you store it in the fridge.

I made the cake two days in advance. In addition to the vanilla infused milk, vanilla infused sugar, and vanilla bean seeds, I added a pinch of lemon zest. For some reason the cake did not come out of the pan without a fight, so it was a little too unstable to bisect in order to form four layers. After the cake was cool, I froze it, like the pros do, and also because I thought the fallen apart bits might stay together better.

On the day of I took the cakes out of the freezer and slathered them in lemony simple syrup. Then I popped them back into the freezer while I made the boiled frosting. While the boiled frosting was finishing up in the mixer, I popped the cakes out of the freezer, spread a layer of lemon curd on the bottom layer and popped the top layer on top (check out the picture above for a look at that curd layer . . . in the study of narratives, we call this foreshadowing).

I made the boiled frosting on the day of and I ran into one snag. See if you can guess what it was just by reading my Frankensteinian recipe.

Boiled Frosting
2 c. sugar
2/3 c. water
2 tsp. lemon juice
4 egg whites, room temperature, stiffly beaten
1 tsp. vanilla
1. For best results, follow directions carefully, paying attention to required temperatures. Fill bottom half of a double boiler (or a medium saucepan) with an inch or two of water, and bring to a boil over high heat. In top half of double boiler (or a metal bowl), combine sugar, water and lemon juice. Place over simmering water and whisk just until sugar is dissolved and temperature reaches 236 degrees on candy thermometer.

2. Using a whisk attachment on a heavy-duty mixer, whisk egg whites while pouring sugar mixture slowly into egg whites, beating constantly. Add vanilla and continue beating on high until they double in volume and become thick and shiny. Continue to whisk until cool.

So you might recognize the first paragraph of instructions from the Whoopie Pie filling. The two differences are (1) whoopie pie filling combines sugar and egg whites, not sugar, water, and lemon juice and (2) whoopie pie filling maxes out at 180 degrees. Now, I'll confess, NONE of the boiled frosting recipes instructed me to use a double boiler but I am a chicken when it comes to burning stuff, so I thought the double boiler method was safer. But I could not get that beast above 180 degrees. Is this like a fundamental law of water boiling that I forgot from physics or chemistry or home ec? Or is the problem that I use a humongous stainless steel bowl as the top of my double boiler so my candy thermometer is never really sufficiently submerged to make an accurate reading and my "splash some on the pokey bit" method of temperature taking is only feasible up to 180 degrees? So I proceeded after this was at 180 degrees for fifteen minutes (which is apparently the maximum duration of my patience). Now, in the end, I think it turned out just fine.

Well, the boiled frosting turned out just fine. The cake itself suffered from a fundamental structural defect. As you recall, the cakes didn't come out of the pans intact so I couldn't slice them in half again to form four layers. You didn't think this would be significant, did you? But then when it was time to assemble the cake instead of using a third of the lemon curd between the two layers (because originally there would have been a third of the curd between each of four layers), I used all of it. This created a cake model of the geology of California. The top layer was balanced precariously on an unstably thick layer of lemon curd (see second picture above . . . remember what I said about foreshadowing?). So when the cake was sliced, it caused an imbalance which resulted in the top layer sliding off the bottom layer and onto the counter at our friends' house who had invited us over to dinner. But their squeals of delight at the taste of the cake and all its parts seemed to suggest they might eat the remainder off the counter with a spoon.

Now, part of me thinks reducing the quantity of curd will solve the problem. Part of me thinks I should use a more yolk-based curd recipe like the curd part of the Lemon Curd Layer Cake recipe from the March 1999 issue of Bon Appetit as found on Epicurious. Any suggestions regarding curd or the maximum temperature possible using a double boiler would be greatly appreciated.

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Rebecca said...

I expect to eat nothing but cake and cookies when we visit! Awesome creation.

Rebecca said...

Also, for moist cakes, lining the pan with parchment can help. Butter the pan as normal and then place a circle of parchment in the bottom.

Sarah said...

I will definitely make another attempt at Spanish Lemon Cake in time for your arrival using your parchment trick. And Whoopie Pies. And NYTCCC. Do you think we could find some black market insulin?

Rebecca said...

Yah! So excited for our visit. And not just because of the yummy treats.

Anonymous said...

Just ftr her last name was Villaveces. I'm attempting to make a CV Spanish Lemon for my DH's birthday this weekend. We've moved from Athens a year ago.

Anonymous said...

Just ftr her last name was Villaveces. I'm attempting to make a CV Spanish Lemon for my DH's birthday this weekend. We've moved from Athens a year ago.

Sally Smith said...

I love the Athens' baker as well. This was our wedding cake and we will be celebrating our 9th anniversary February 18. I might just give it a shot or make the two hour drive to Athens to pick up one!