How Not to Make a Lemon Cake

In my circle of friends, I’m known as “The One Who Bakes Awesomely Delicious Things.” No, seriously, this is how they introduce me to new people. It’s nice to know that they enjoy the baked goods I love to make, but it also puts the pressure on. The problem is that the better I get at this stuff, the more likely I am to experiment instead of following recipes exactly. And the more I experiment, taking a little from Recipe A and a little from Recipe B with some of my own notes thrown in, the more likely things are to go awry. Don’t get me wrong! Sometimes, it turns out amazing, like my strawberry rhubarb pie. And sometimes you end up with the disappointing lemon cake I made over the weekend.

Now, before I go on, I’ll give you a little sneak peek behind the scenes here at Persephone. Every week, the delightful Ophelia Payne sends out a blank calendar with all of the slots for the entire week, with the regular columns filled in and categories in the blank spaces that we writers sign up for. Cocky and assured about the plans I was making for a friend’s birthday cake, I signed up with the note: “Awesomely Delicious Lemon Cake (oh yeah).” Silly, silly, BaseballChica03. I was just taunting the fates at that point! My experiment in lemon cake fell a bit flat – literally – and instead you get this post called, “How Not to Make a Lemon Cake.”

a round lemon cake with icing and sprinkles and a massive crack running down the center
The Mister calls this my "earthquake awareness" cake because of the giant crack down the middle.

The pieces of the cake were all there. The filling was delicious, if a little bland, and the icing was actually the best part of it. I think the major failing of this endeavor was my attempt to separate the eggs and fold in the whites at the end. The base batter was too sticky and firm, and it wouldn’t fold in right. It took too much mixing to bring it all together, when the batter should have only been stirred just enough to mix the wet in with the dry. The cake ended up being tough and didn’t rise the way it should have, which made the layers a little too dense and thin, which resulted in the top layer cracking in half when I tried to put it on top. And the icing, though delicious, is too thin and doesn’t hide the same manner of mistakes as a proper frosting.

So below, I offer up what I SHOULD have done and some caveats about what I DID do with this what-coulda-been lemon birthday cake.

Cake –
1 cup butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
4 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
zest from 1 large-ish lemon
2 teaspoons baking power
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

Filling –
1 cup heavy whipping cream
up to 1/4 cup powdered sugar, depending on desired sweetness
8 oz mascarpone cheese
zest from 1 large-ish lemon

Icing –
1 1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice, give or take
decent sized amount of fresh ginger root, depending on desired zestiness

Preheat the oven to 350°F, with the rack in the center of the oven. Grease the sides of a springform pan (one of these, if you’re not familiar) and line the bottom with parchment paper.

Cream the butter and sugar until nice and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. (I separated them, beating in the yolks and trying to fold in the whites later on. I’d recommend just adding them all in at once to save the batter from getting too tough later on from excessive mixing of the dry ingredients.) Beat in the vanilla extract and lemon zest.

Sift together the dry cake ingredients, add them to the creamed egg mixture a bit at a time, alternating with the lemon juice. Do NOT mix it any more than you have to. Just do it enough so that everything’s a bit wet. I think that too much toughness contributed to the failure to rise properly.

Pour the batter into the springform pan, and bake at 350 on the center rack for about 40 minutes. Don’t overbake it! This is critical. When it’s done (a knife or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean), take it out of the oven and cool on a rack. Be sure to pop the pan open so it doesn’t stick to the sides.

The filling is pretty easy. Beat the heavy whipping cream, adding the sugar part of the way through. Once it’s stiffened a bit, add in the mascarpone cheese. Fold in the lemon zest.

When the cake is cool, cut it in layers evenly down the center. (Again, because it didn’t rise, my layers were too thin, and the top layer cracked.) Lay the bottom layer on your plate, and spread the creamy cheesey mixture evenly across the cake layer, leaving some room to “breathe” a bit around the edges. GENTLY lay the top layer on top. Don’t press down too hard!

For the icing, use a chopper or food processor to chop up the ginger. Put the powdered sugar in a bowl. When the ginger is in small bits, place it into a piece of cheesecloth or a coffee filter and squeeze it over top of the powdered sugar until you’ve gotten out all the juice you can get. Then, add enough lemon juice so the icing is thin enough to drip over the edges, but not so thin that it’s runny. (Basically, this is a slightly thick royal icing, minus the egg.) I made mine a little too thin, as you can kind of see where it’s pooled a bit on the sides. You want more of a drippy effect down the side. Once the icing is ready, cover the top of the cake and drizzle it around the sides. If you’d like you can add sprinkles to the top immediately, while the icing is still wet.

And that’s it! You should store it in the fridge or somewhere else cold if you can because of the cheese filling. Although it probably won’t kill you, the filling gets a little soft when it’s been sitting out.

Despite my reservations, the cake was a hit; the birthday girl fortunately is a big fan of dense cakes. (She texted me the next morning to say she’d had a big piece for breakfast, ha.) But I was still disappointed in myself because I KNEW it could have been so much better. I did learn, though, that if your icing or frosting is good enough, people will forgive all manner of other baking sins. I got more compliments on the lemon-ginger icing, and I’m thinking of incorporating it into cupcakes some time!

By BaseballChica03

Political hack. Word nerd. Stays crispy in milk. Oxford Comma user. Blogger since 2001.

6 replies on “How Not to Make a Lemon Cake”

Ah yes, I too have the problem described above. I am not much of a baker, but I am known in my group of pals as a cook of awesomely yummy things. I had a problem this easter actually. The day after easter, (where I served a fantastic roast chicken rubbed with smoked paprika and oregano) I attempted to make soup using the carcass and a slightly altered recipe from epicurious for some friends. It wasn’t bad, it was just bland. :-( It’s sad when stuff like that happens, not necessarily because of my cooking rep, but because these recipes (made up or not) often become failed experiments that I don’t revisit.
With that said, the lemon cake LOOKS amazing, as in possibly like a giant french macaroon. … and I am not at all opposed to that.

because these recipes (made up or not) often become failed experiments that I don’t revisit

Yes! I once made up this great cheddar asparagus soup, but the second time I tried it, I failed miserably for some reason. The Mister keeps asking me to try it again, but even though I know objectively that it CAN turn out good, I always find a reason not to do it.

When I saw the title, I really thought you had tried this recipe that made the internet rounds a couple of weeks ago, and had failed as spectacularly as I had:

Pretty, huh? Yeah, when I made it, it went wrong in every possible way, from taking 1,000 hours to tie the little lemon halves together with string, to having the cake batter splooge out the lemon-seam during the baking, to the final reveal where the formerly-lemon-like object was all mushy and the cakes inside tasted like crap because they’d absorbed bitterness from the lemon rind. I wish I could chuck the internet into the garbage for suggesting such a monstrosity.

The recipe in your post, though, sounds delicious! It’s true, a wonderful frosting could be spread in a thick layer on top of a piece of foam torn off a shoe that was hanging from an electrical line, and I’d consider such a delicacy a success. Lemon + ginger + mascarpone = perfection.

Yes! I need a wider audience. Sometimes I feel like my friends just phone it in and tell me things are delicious (like this cake!) because they’re usually so effusive, they don’t want to hurt my feelings. I need new taste buds of an Eating Awesomely Delicious Things connoisseur.

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