Off the top of my head, here's what I would say:
- I'm awful at making custards.
- I'm terrible at taking pictures of cakes.
Let's talk about the first, shall we? I'm absolutely awful at making custards with cornstarch in them. Almost every custard recipe that uses cornstarch requires you to cook the liquid over medium-low heat until the custard thickens; cook it to the perfect point, and the custard will set perfectly as it cools. I don't know what it is, and I seemed to have missed the memo of what the custard is supposed to look like as it thickens. I don't know how many times I've had to throw out custards because I've undercooked the initial base and I just couldn't get the damn thing to thicken and set! I suppose a lot of it has to do with patience and how I don't have too much of it. Because yep, it takes a surprisingly long amount of time to cook and thicken a custard properly.
But at the end of the day, the payoff to custard isn't that great anyway. I've mentioned this before, but I've definitely been guilty of avoiding making baked goods that aren't photogenic. And yep, custard is one of them. How are you supposed to make a blobby thick liquid look appetizing through a photograph? Now imagine spreading that blobby liquid on a cake. I already have enough trouble taking appetizing pictures of my 9-inch cakes. As much as I love my camera and its nifty fifty, sometimes, just sometimes, a fixed focal length is a pain in the butt, especially when you're limited by your workspace (that is, a tiny corner of my 1-bedroom apartment).
But then I remembered something I wrote in a previous post: it's not about the way it looks. It's about the way it tastes.
And this cake tasted AWESOME. So the cake is a buttermilk cake that is flavored with almond paste, and the lemon in its name comes from the custard that tops it. While the almond cake would be too sweet on its own, it's balanced out by the lemon custard (which would be too tart on its own).
Truth be told I'd had my eye on this cake for sometime now because it seemed to combine all of my favorite things to eat: cake and custard, lemon and almond. But ironically enough, at the same time, I'd also been avoiding it for those same reasons! That is, I hate taking pictures of cakes, I hate making custards, and the recipe uses a lot of expensive almond paste. I figured that 2 pros < 3 cons, and so this recipe ultimately ended up on the back burner.
But when my boyfriend saw me scrutinizing the recipe for about the 50th time in one week, he came home with a surprise."There," he said, slamming a can of expensive almond paste down in front of me. "Now you've got no excuse. Make the cake." I protested that I sucked at making custards and taking pictures of cakes. He rolled his eyes. "Just make the cake."
And so I did:
The only setback I suffered was the custard. Being an impatient person, I didn't cook the custard's base long enough and it didn't set as it cooled. Don't make the same mistake I did — take your time cooking the custard until it gets thick enough to REALLY coat the back of a spoon and refuse to slide off easily.
The recipe comes from Vintage Cakes, the cookbook of the baker behind Baker & Spice, a beloved local bakery in the suburb of Portland. I highly encourage folks to check out the cookbook — the whole idea behind it is that Julie Richardson (the co-owner and head baker at Baker & Spice) found a box of vintage cake recipes in her bakery's attic; after testing out some of the recipes and finding them to be a little too sweet and reliant on 50s' style baking methodologies and ingredients, she then set about updating and adapting them for modern tastes. This particular recipe, for instance, was found in a 1967 issue of a publication called Baking Industry. Although Julie never found the reason behind the name, she loved the idea behind an almond and lemon custard cake and included it in her cookbook.
And I'm glad she did, otherwise, I wouldn't be sharing it with you all today. ;-)
- grated zest of 2 medium lemons
- 3/4 cup whole milk, at room temperature
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar, divided into two 1/4 portions
- 4 egg yolks, at room temperature
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1/2 cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cold and cut into small cubes
- 1 1/4 cups cake flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 3/4 cup (6 oz.) almond paste, at room temperature
- 10 tablespoons (5 oz.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2/3 cup granulated sugar
- 3 tablespoons canola oil
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 3 large eggs, at room temperature
- 2/3 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
- Combine grated lemon zest, 3/4 cup whole milk, and 1/4 cup of the sugar in a medium saucepan and heat over medium-low heat until just hot.
- While the lemon zest/milk/sugar mixture is heating, whisk together 4 egg yolks, the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon salt until well combined, then whisk in 2 tablespoons cornstarch, then 1/2 cup lemon juice.
- Slowly whisk a third of the hot milk mixture (from the first step) into the yolk mixture (from the second step). Pour the mixture back into the saucepan with the rest of the hot milk mixture and cook over medium-low heat, whisking steadily until the custard begins to thicken and bubble for 1 minute. You'll need to stop whisking to check if it's bubbling. Be warned — it'll take a good 5 or 10 minutes for the custard to thicken, so be patient and don't make the mistake that I did!
- Once the custard has thickened, strain the custard through a fine mesh sieve into a clean bowl and whisk in 1/2 cup cubed cold butter until it has melted.
- Once the butter has been fully incorporated into the custard, place a piece of plastic wrap directly upon the surface of the custard and place in the refrigerator to cool for about 2 hours — it'll thicken more and set once it cools. Note that you have to wait for the custard to set in order to top the cake.
- Center an oven rack and preheat the oven to 350 (F); prepare a 9-inch cake pan by greasing with butter and lining the bottom with a parchment paper circle. Set aside.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together 1 1/4 cups cake flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder, and 1/2 teaspoon sea salt. Set aside.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine 3/4 cup almond paste, 10 tablespoons unsalted butter, 2/3 cup granulated sugar, 3 tablespoons canola oil, and 2 teaspoons vanilla extract on low speed until blended; gradually increase the speed to high and cream until very light and fluffy, about 5 to 7 minutes.
- Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl and turn the mixer to its lowest speed; blend in 3 eggs one at a time, adding the next egg as soon as the previous egg has disappeared into the batter.
- Once the eggs have been fully incorporated, keep the mixture on low speed and add the flour mixture (from the second step) in three parts, alternating with adding 2/3 cup buttermilk mixture in two parts. Make sure you begin and end with the flour, and make sure you only mix until each ingredient has just been incorporated into the batter.
- Pour the batter into the pan and rap it firmly on a surface to get rid of any air bubbles in the batter. Use a rubber spatula to spread the batter evenly across the pan. Bake for 42 to 45 minutes in the preheated oven, or, until the cake is a deep golden color and a wooden skewer poked in the middle of the cake comes out just barely clean.
- Cool the cake in its pan on a wire rack for 30 minutes, before turning out to cool completely.
Putting It All Together:
- Make sure your cake is completely cooled before topping it with the custard! Otherwise the cake will melt the custard and make it hard to work with.
- Using an offset spatula, spread a thin layer of the lemon custard along the sides of the cake to "seal" the cake and give it a light shine.
- Use a rubber spatula to gently scoop the rest of the lemon custard on top of the cake, spreading it out barely out over the edge of the cake — don't worry if it spills down the sides, just use an offset spatula to "clean" the edges and spread it along the sides of the cake as part of the seal.
- Allow the assembled cake to set in the refrigerator for 30 minutes; bring to room temperature before serving.