Lemon Black Tea Cake
I have a confession to make.
I don't love lemon cake.
I mean, I love other things about lemons. I love lemons aesthetically! So much so, in fact, that I decided to make a lemon cake specifically as an excuse to paint a lemon topper for it. That may be a crazy thing to do, but I'm a cake decorator damn it! I don't always make sense.
I love lemons as sensory objects. I like to hold a lemon and feel its waxy, bumpy surface, I like to squeeze its rind and release a mist of fragrant oils. I love slicing a lemon in half and revealing the beautiful wheel of its cross section.
And I do like to consume lemon in most of its forms: lemon in my tea, in lemonade, in lemon-flavored candy, I like lemon squeezed on my salmon, meat, on sautéed broccoli, etc. etc. But lemon in a baked good or anything with a milky base, like a mousse or a pudding, can be tough for me. I think some of it might be psychological; I can remember being very freaked out by the idea of eating or drinking curdled food as a kid for some reason. I did a lot of "cooking" in the kitchen when I was little, mixing ingredients together and seeing what happened, and I think I may have created a milky lemonade at one point that gave me a tummy ache and, sadly, scarred me for life.
But this cake... This cake was pretty great. Leave it to Maida Heatter to create a lemon cake that even I could love! I did tweak it somewhat but maintained the basic integrity of the recipe, which is listed below.
While I am not always a lemon person, I am always always a tea person. Unlike coffee and beer, which I have only really started appreciating in the past four years or so thanks to my fiancé, tea and I have been a thing for a while. I’ve been baking with tea ever since my senior year of high school when I managed to talk my way into a senior art project (food art, of course) despite never having taken a single art class in my entire high school career. One project featured stacked rings of meringue that I flavored with aromatic jasmine tea; the light crisp of the meringues paired with the lilting flavor of the tea won me (and my project advisor) over.
I wanted to incorporate tea into this cake because lemony tea is the best. Similarly to those meringues I made many years ago, I introduced strongly-brewed tea into the syrup base for an Italian meringue to create the buttercream for this cake. I also found out a number of years back that you can force in even more flavorful liquid, be it coffee, flat beer, soda, or tea, if you rehydrate your egg whites from a powder using that liquid. This sounds like molecular gastronomy but it is not scary at all, I promise! You also wind up saving money on eggs because who has ever found a consistent way to use up 7+ egg yolks at a time??
In this case, I added concentrated black tea (brewed 6 cups of water to 8 tsp tea) to the Italian Meringue Buttercream both in the syrup base as well as to reconstitute the egg whites. It didn't come out quite as strong as I would've liked, so I'm going to keep playing with it before I list a recipe, but you should definitely experiment! I compensated for the lighter flavor in the buttercream with a cake soak of concentrated tea simple syrup, made by combining tea concentrate and sugar 1:1 volumetrically and boiling for about 5 minutes. The tea came through as a nice floral counterpoint to the zingy lemon, so at the end of the day, I am happy with it.
Lemon Buttermilk Cake
Adapted from Maida Heatter's Lemon Buttermilk Cake #2 in her classic recipe book Maida Heatter's Cakes
Zest of 4 lemons
3 Tablespoons lemon juice
760g (6 cups) sifted all-purpose flour
80g (2/3 cups) whole milk powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
455g (1 lb; 4 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
840g (4 cups) sugar
6 eggs at room temperature
480g (2 cups) buttermilk at room temperature
Preheat your oven to 350°. Prep four 6” pans by greasing, placing a baking paper round in the bottom, greasing again, and flouring.
Combine the lemon zest and juice in a small bowl and set aside.
In a large bowl, sift dry ingredients together and whisk thoroughly to combine.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar on high speed until light and fluffy, at least 2-3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Then, when the mixture is completely homogenous, switch the mixer speed to low and incorporate the dry ingredients alternating with the buttermilk in two additions. Scrape down the sides of the bowl really well once it all looks combined because the dry ingredients tend to gum up on the sides with this batter. Then beat on high again just for a few seconds to combine, adding in the zest and juice.
Bake for 50 mins and check the cakes, poking them gently right in the center to test for doneness. Make sure the top springs back rather than staying indented where your finger was. Also, if the cake makes a crackly noise when you poke it, that's a dead giveaway that it's still too moist in there. Make sure you let this cake bake all the way through because otherwise you’re going to have to cut un-baked goo off the top and you may lose some height on your finished cake. Remove from the oven and let stand until cool.
I encourage you to try this cake, even if you're like me and aren't in love with lemon cake. I think this would actually be really great with layers of lemon curd interspersed, just to give a little more of that zingy lemony oomph to cut through the dairy elements! Next time.... next time.
Cool! I hope everyone is eating plenty of cake (I know I am) and that you tune back in for a very special St. Patrick's Day design coming soon!