This Reinvented Lemon Cake Is the Most Lemony Lemon Cake Ever
Creating a lemon cake that tastes like fresh lemon without relying on a sticky lemon syrup drizzle to deliver the flavor has been a baking goal of mine for years, resulting in a few fairly edible failures and a few heaps of trash that would only appeal to a pack of raccoons.
But I've finally unlocked the mystery — and it turns out to be an incredibly simple recipe you can whip up in your food processor. I'll share my recipe with you, along with helpful prep tips along the way.
Mary Berry baked a Whole Orange Cake on a holiday edition of "The Great British Bake-Off" (known in the U.S. as "The Great British Baking Show"). She boiled an orange until it was soft and made a one-bowl batter with shortening and eggs, adding warm spices and an orange-mascarpone frosting. It's a good cake, and it introduced me to a long tradition of using whole oranges in elegant cakes in Spain — this recipe for Orange Cake with Semolina and Almonds is one example from this delicious family. For my recipe, I adapted the technique using sweet, thin-skinned seasonal lemons.
A Tale of Two Lemons
Look for either Meyer lemons or Lemonade Lemons to make this cake. I don't recommend the standard lemon, which is known to fruit nerds as Eureka, but is commonly seen under the undescriptive store label "lemon." To my taste, their thicker rinds add unwanted bitterness to the cake, and that acidic pop of flavor that is so welcome in lemon bars fades considerably.
If you luck into a bag of these lemons with thin skins and can't find sweet lemons, the cake will still work, but I'd double the limoncello in the recipe to sweeten and round off the flavor.
Meyer lemons and Lemonade Lemons are similar varieties of lemon-mandarin hybrid; they're low in acid, which brings their complex lemon flavors forward. Meyer has a slightly floral edge — and a longer pedigree — that the Lemonade varietal lacks, but their parentage, thin skins, and low-acid flavors give them much in common.
Used whole, they both accomplish all I ever dreamed of in an ideal lemon cake: intense flavor that's full of both zest and juice, without compromising the moist, fluffy texture of good cake. Choose either; I've used (and enjoyed) both in this cake. Typically, their seasons run from early December to the end of May.
Whole Lemon Layer Cake
Get the recipe for Whole Lemon Layer Cake,
Prep Tips: For this recipe, you're going to boil the lemons instead of just zesting and juicing them. Boiling the fruit removes bitterness and softens the pith and pulp. The lemons will bob at the top of the waterline in your pot, but they'll rotate around on their own; there's no need to stir.
Cool them completely before proceeding (you can even boil them a day ahead of time) — otherwise, you might burn your fingers or create textural issues with the cake. You don't need to worry about slicing into neat, precise quarters, but do make sure you've found and removed every seed. Ultimately, you'll grind up the now-seedless lemon chunks so the mixture isn't completely smooth, with flecks of different size and color.
Next, the dry ingredients and the butter get added to the food processor At this point it will look like the early stages of pie crust before you've added the water. Think soft, butter-yellow crumbs, with visible pieces of bright yellow zest.
Finally, the eggs get added, along with the limoncello. While the liqueur is optional, it slightly intensifies the color and flavor of the finished cake. My palate prefers limoncello rather than lemon oil or lemon extract, both of which taste more like furniture polish than I prefer; at best, they add a vaguely artificial flavor to the fresh lemon. If you don't have any limoncello, or don't like to cook with alcohol, you won't miss it. Either way, the final step brings the batter together very quickly, so be sure to not overmix.
After baking, the edges of the layers will be golden brown when they're done, and the tops will spring right back when you touch them — the toothpick test is purely optional.
And, make absolutely sure the layers are completely cooled before you fill with lemon curd or Meyer lemon curd, as it will turn into syrup and slide right off your cake if you rush things. My neighborhood grocery store makes their own lemon curd (I found it in their refrigerated dessert case) and it's a big step up from every jarred brand I've tried — check your local markets if you don't want to make your own lemon curd.
When it comes to frosting, I am a fan of the modern, minimalist style, so I frosted only the top with cream cheese frosting. If you prefer more frosting, go for it!