Friday, 10 April 2009

Abundant Beginnings

You might have noticed in my last post that tucked behind that stack of cookies is an obscene amount of citrus. Minneolas, tangelos, Meyer lemons, and oranges have been flooding into our kitchen from neighbors, friends, and well-placed aunties. A bottle of homemade Meyer lemon limoncello even made it to our table last night.

And, miraculously, none of it has gone to waste. All those orange, yellow, and inbetween globes have been juiced, baked, sweetened, and enjoyed for the past several weeks, and now I'm not sure what we are going to do without this influx.

Yesterday I made minneola scones. Last week I made several batches of lemon and mint syrup to stir into sparkling water in the afternoons. And today I made Meyer lemon pound cake.

I've tried several of these cakes. One from an old recipe hand-written in one of the innumerable folders we have lying around, one from Bon Appetit magazine, one from Chez Panisse Cooking...the best, by far, is still my stand-by I've been making from high school.

A lemon cake swirled with buttermilk and dripping with a tangy sweet glaze, it's subtle but spectacular. A humble loaf in that takes on a pleasing but mild browning in the oven, it doesn't look so exciting, just sitting there on a plate, but the flavor makes up for it.

From Fine Cooking, this was the first cake I made that was complicated. That is, the first cake I made where I didn't throw everything at once into the bowl and mix. What happened was, I read the article preceeding the recipe. Simple, silly, I know, but I had never done it before. I'd flip through the magazines, just reading the titles of the recipes. Like those people who just read newspaper headlines, I thought I was getting all the information I needed.

But when I read the article, I learned something. Emulsions, stroke numbers, egg temperature...all these simple little details that change the cake so much that I had been ignoring!

Since then, I can't count how many times I've made this pound cake. In fact, at one point, I even thought I was getting bored with it, so I started serving it alongside other flavors: a blueberry pound cake, or a sour cream pound cake. Invariably, the lemon would be scarfed up and slices of blueberry studded cake or swirled sour cream cake would sit sadly on the table, totally rejected.

And it's really not that hard. Once you wrap your mind around things like adding the flour in stages, or gently folding in the lemon zest instead of whipping it through, the cake comes together so easily, with only the most basic ingredients (that is, if you have all the Meyer lemons around that we do).

The cake is light and moist, laced with pungent zest, and punched up by that tangy glaze. It's delicious by itself, with whipped cream, or even lightly toasted the next morning with a light smear of butter.

Meyer Lemon Pound Cake
adapted from Fine Cooking
makes one loaf

To be clear about what I've changed from the original recipe: I use Meyer lemons, they used regular; I bake mine for a lot longer, since it always seems to come out totally raw with their recommended 45 minutes; I heat my glaze (instead of just whisking the ingredients together), which tempers the chalky flavor that I find powdered sugar to have.
Finally, it is very important that the butter and eggs be at room temperature. If your butter is cold, microwave it. If the eggs are cold, let them soak in a bowl of warm water until they are warm to the touch.

1 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1/2 cup buttermilk
zest of 1 or 2 lemons (I prefer 2)

for the glaze:
juice of 1 lemon
about 3/4 cup powdered sugar

1) Preheat the oven to 325 degrees, and grease a loaf pan. I like a glass pan or a light-colored metal pan (the darker the pan, the darker the crust).

2) In a small bowl, whisk flour, baking powder, and salt.

3) With an electric mixer, beat the butter in a large bowl until little tails form and it is light in color. Add the sugar, beat until fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until combined before adding the next. Don't forget to scrape the sides of the bowl as you do this.

4) Turn the mixer to low (if it isn't already) and add 1/3 of the flour. Just before it's fully incorporated, add 1/2 the buttermilk. Just before that is fully incorporated, add another 1/3 of the flour. Repeat with remaining buttermilk and flour. Just before the last batch of flour is incorporated, switch to a rubber spatula and gently fold in the lemon zest, stirring until everything is just barely combined.

5) Scrape batter into prepared loaf pan and bake until a toothpick poked into the center of the cake comes out clean. Mine usually takes 55 minutes to an hour, but I start checking it at 50 minutes.

6) Let cool in pan about ten minutes, then invert onto a cooling rack. While cake is cooling, combine powdered sugar and lemon juice in a small saucepan. Over medium low heat, cook until sugar is dissolved and glaze is heated through, but don't boil. With a toothpick, poke holes all over the top of the cake. Using a pastry brush (a spoon would work okay here too), brush glaze all over cake, stopping every once and a while to let the glaze absord. Use all the glaze.

7) When completely cool, slice and serve.

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