A Birthday, with Sadness // A Lemon Cake
Yesterday, I turned 24, rather unceremoniously. Usually, I make a big fuss of my birthday – I drag it out for as long as possible, believing as I do that you should never waste a good excuse to indulge in all your favorite foods and coerce all your favorite people into spending time with you. But this year, given all the chaos in our city right now, it felt different. I still celebrated – last Saturday I had a fun and happy party, Trevor and I have a nice dinner planned, and tomorrow I’ll be joining my parents for steak tips and strawberry shortcake. But, like everyone else in the city, if not the whole country, my attention was elsewhere. How could a birthday be important when people around you are having their hearts broken? It feels selfish and trivial to think too much about myself this week.
Still, I made this birthday cake. I had made the components ahead of time – my favorite vanilla cake recipe, made with coconut milk, lemon cream cheese and mascarpone frosting, and a lemon curd filling – but I assembled it late Monday afternoon, as a distraction from the news (or really, the lack of news) streaming in from the TV. I brought slices to work, to comfort myself after the unsettling experience of riding a train protected by stoic National Guardsmen and slipping through barricades to get into the office. I ate a slice this morning, my nerves shaken and tears threatening as I absorbed everything that happened overnight. And so it became a cake tinged with sadness. A cake turned to from need of distraction and comfort. All week, the phrase “the particular sadness of lemon cake” has been drifting through my head (from the title of this book). I didn’t set out to make a cake that would fit that description, it just happened.
Hopefully this will all be over soon, and we will be able to grieve for the victims without feeling a small but constant fear. There are many families that have been changed forever, for whom sadness will be a constant, but we will do our best to love and comfort them. We will let the spring soothe us and our smiles will become broader. People will eat birthday cake with no sadness whatsoever.
Triple Lemon Cake with Lemon-Mascarpone-Cream Cheese Frosting
For the cake:
- 1 1/2 sticks (3/4 c.) salted butter, softened
- 1 1/4 c. sugar
- 3 eggs, room temperature
- 2 1/4 c. AP flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 c. canned coconut milk (shake well before opening)
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/2 tsp lemon extract (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line two 8-inch cake pans with parchment paper, or grease well. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, beat the softened butter until creamy. Add the sugar and beat vigorously until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating thoroughly between each addition. Batter should be pale yellow and thick.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour and baking powder. Add half of the flour mixture to the batter, and stir until just incorporated. Add the coconut milk, and stir until just incorporated. Add the second half of the flour mixture, and stir, again, just until incorporated. Overbeating the batter will lead to a tough cake. Stir in the vanilla and lemon extracts, if using.
- Pour half of the batter into each of the two prepared pans. Bake in the preheated oven for 35-45 minutes, until the cakes are light golden brown on top and spring back when touched. A toothpick inserted into the center of the cakes should come out clean. Let cakes cool for 5 minutes in the pans on a cooling rack, then run a knife around the edges of the cake to loosen and invert onto a cooling rack. Let cool completely before assembling.
For the lemon curd:
- 1/2 c. lemon juice, preferably freshly squeezed
- 1/2 c. sugar
- 2 large egg yolks
- 2 large eggs
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 3 TBS unsalted butter, cut into cubes
- Place a mesh strainer over a medium heatproof bowl, and set aside.
- In a medium saucepan, whisk together lemon juice, sugar, egg yolks, eggs, and salt until thoroughly combined. Add the butter pieces and heat over low heat, whisking constantly. Once the butter has all melted, raise the heat to medium-low, and continue to cook, still whisking constantly, until the curd has thickened to a pudding-like consistency. Immediately remove from heat and pour through strainer into the bowl.
- Cover with plastic wrap, pressing plastic against the curd to keep a skin from forming, and refrigerate until fully chilled.
For the frosting:
- 8 oz. mascarpone cheese, room temperature
- 8 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
- 3-4 cups powdered sugar
- 1/2 tsp lemon extract
- 1 TBS fresh lemon juice
- Beat together the mascarpone and cream cheeses until there are no lumps. Add the powdered sugar 1 cup at a time, beating vigorously between additions, until the frosting is stiff (you may not use all 4 cups). Add the lemon extract and lemon juice and beat to incorporate. Taste for flavor, consistency, and sweetness, and adjust lemon juice and/or sugar amounts according to taste.
- Dab a bit of the frosting on a cake plate. Place your bottom, cooled layer of cake on top of the cake plate and press down to stick. Spoon a generous layer of lemon curd on top of the cake and spread with a spatula. The layer of lemon curd should be about 1/3 inch thick all around the cake – you may not use all of the lemon curd. Gently place the second cake layer on top of the lemon curd. Press down lightly, and wipe any lemon curd that oozes out off the side of the cake. Frost the cake, using a crumb coat if you want the cake to be extra neat.
- Refrigerate until ready to serve. Serve cold or at room temperature, with an extra dollop of lemon curd or fresh strawberries.