The looming summertime has given me the perfect excuse to indulge my love of lemons. Oh! Lemons! The pungent aroma of lemon juice on my fingers from a fresh squeeze! The bright yellow, spoked discs dripping with juice! The tang! The sweetness!
I was thrilled when my mom was pondering what sort of cake she wanted for her birthday and mentioned lemon. She made a fantastic lemon and lemon cream jellyroll cake awhile back from a cake mix and thought she might like something similar. I put on my Dr. Frankenstein hat and began piecing recipes together to oblige.
My first dilemma was how to make a cake from scratch that tasted like a cake mix cake. I always get a kick out of foodies who disdain the taste of cake mix. Being an avid baker, I have news for those folks: many of us are constantly trying to attain a cake-mix-like level of moistness and buttery flavor. There are definitely downsides to cake mix (preservatives and the fact that you don’t get all the fun of baking from scratch, of course!) but in terms of taste . . . yeah, they’re pretty good at that.
So how to make a delicious, preservative-free yella cake that was just as moist and scrummy as a cake mix? While considering this conundrum, I happened to see this recipe for a homemade cake mix and decided to give it a try. It smelled buttery and magnificent while mixing it up, just as it was supposed to, and baked into a lovely lemon cake with a bit of additional flavoring.
Now about that lemon cream. I decided I wanted to do a lemon mousse instead, and had my heart set on a big ol’ fancy mousse layer cake. I was going to buy a cake ring and build the cake with two cake layers sandwiching a thick layer of mousse. Only problem? Well, that first part . . . the part about the cake ring. You let me know if you find one, but after visiting three stores, I’ve come to the conclusion that there aren’t any cake rings in Charlotte. Lame.
And again, with candles!
Well, kind of lame, but kind of awesome, because it gave me an excuse to buy this Wilton Heart Tasty-Fill Pan I’ve had my eye on for months (Note to calm your fears: I always mention if I’ve been asked to review a product or have received something for free to review, but that’s not the case here. Wilton, y’all are welcome to send me free pans and all, but I bought this pan with my own hard-earned money and decided to share it without being asked). I am so excited about this pan! All the filling possibilities! I’m already pondering: banana cake with caramel cream filling, chocolate cake with caramel cream filling, yellow cake with chocolate mousse filling . . . but I digress! Back to the Lemon Triumph Cake at hand.
I did love the Wilton pan, but I think it’ll take a bit of practice to get used to. As you can see in some of the pictures, the heart wasn’t aligned correctly on one side of the pan. This has to do with me forgetting to trim the sides of the cake so that the top and bottom were even. I feel like it might be a bit difficult to get it lined up straight, though, and it’s hard to know until you cut into it . . . at which point (after 8 hours of baking, in the case of this cake) you don’t really want to know if something’s wrong. I’ll let you know next time I use it (which will hopefully be soon!) if it’s easier to align, having had a bit of practice.
Crooked heart this time around!
If you don’t have the Tasty-Fill Heart Pan, don’t worry! You can make this as a regular mousse cake using a cake ring per my original plan. Just layer a 9-inch cake on the bottom and a thick layer of mousse on top of that. Chill until the mousse is firm and place another 9-inch layer of cake on top. Chill again before frosting, taking care around the mousse layer not to mix the frosting and mousse. Alternatively, if your city also has no cake rings, serve this as a regular two-layer lemon cake with the mousse on the side.
Better <3 on this side of the cake.
Nevertheless, crooked hearts notwithstanding, this cake was worth the effort. The yellow cake drenched in lemon syrup was moist and buttery, just like I hoped. This method of making Swiss buttercream produces hands-down the fluffiest, smoothest, silkiest, tastiest frosting I’ve ever had the pleasure of licking off my spatula. And the lemon mousse was, well, a triumph! Lemon curd folded into mousse that sets up like a bright, creamy-tangy cloud in the middle of the cake. Close your eyes and imagine a satisfying summer day — birdsong, sprinklers, green grass, sunshine, lemonade, lounge chair, long naps and good books — with a little sophistication mixed in. That’s what this cake tastes like. If that doesn’t make you want a slice, I don’t know what will!
Lemon Triumph Cake
Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking, compiled from Fine Cooking (lemon curd), Giada DiLaurentis (lemon syrup, adapted), Gina DePalma (Swiss buttercream, adapted), Bon Appétit (lemon mousse), My Kitchen Cafe (homemade cake mix)
Yields: one 9-inch, two layer cake
Yellow “Cake Mix” Cake Ingredients:
2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups cake flour
1/2 cup nonfat dry milk powder
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons butter (2 sticks), cut into 1/2-inch pieces and chilled
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoons lightly packed finely grated lemon zest
1-2 teaspoons lemon extract
strands of lemon peel for garnish
Lemon Curd Ingredients:
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
1 cups sugar
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
2/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
Lemon Mousse Ingredients:
1 recipe lemon curd (above)
2.5 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
3 large egg whites
3/8 cup sugar
3/4 cups chilled heavy whipping cream
Lemon Syrup Ingredients:
1/2 cup sugar
1/8 cup water
1/8 cup lemon juice
Lemon Swiss Buttercream Ingredients:
1 cup sugar
4 large egg whites , at room temperature
24 tablespoons (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon lemon extract
Note on scheduling: I might schedule this cake baking in the following way. Make lemon curd and refrigerate two days in advance. Bake cake and coat with lemon syrup one day in advance, wrapping carefully and freezing. On day of serving, make mousse, trim and fill cake (much easier with frozen layers!), make frosting, and assemble.
To make lemon curd: In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar with an electric mixer, about 2 min. Slowly add the eggs and yolks. Beat for 1 min. Mix in the lemon juice. The mixture will look curdled, but it will smooth out as it cooks.
In a medium, heavy-based saucepan, cook the mixture over low heat until it looks smooth. (The curdled appearance disappears as the butter in the mixture melts.) Increase the heat to medium and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens, about 15 min. It should leave a path on the back of a spoon and will read 170°F on a thermometer. Don’t let the mixture boil.
Remove the curd from the heat; stir in the lemon zest. Transfer the curd to a bowl. Press plastic wrap on the surface of the lemon curd to keep a skin from forming and chill the curd in the refrigerator. The curd will thicken further as it cools. Covered tightly, it will keep in the refrigerator for a week and in the freezer for 2 months.
To make cake: Process sugar, flours, milk powder, baking powder, and salt in a food processor for 15 seconds to combine. Add butter and vanilla and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal (you want this much finer than, say, a pie crust). Freeze the dry mixture in a zipper-lock bag for up to 2 months or use immediately.
To make the cake, adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans (the Tasty-Fill pans, if you’re using those).
With an electric mixer, beat the prepared cake mix, 1 1/4 cups warm water and 2 large room-temperature eggs until the mixture is smooth, about 2 minutes. Scrape the batter into the prepared cake pans and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 25-27 minutes for two 9-inch layer cakes. Cool the cakes in pans for 10 minutes, then turn them out onto a wire rack. Poke holes in them and spoon lemon syrup over generously. Cool for about 30 more minutes before placing cake layers in freezer for at least 30 minutes. This helps a ton with trimming, filling, and decorating!
To make lemon syrup: In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, water, and lemon juice over medium heat. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the sugar has dissolved, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, Remove the pan from the heat and allow the syrup to cool, about 20 minutes.
To make the mousse: Pour 2.5 tablespoons water into small saucepan. Sprinkle gelatin evenly over. Let stand until gelatin softens, about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, place 7/8 cups lemon curd in large bowl. Stir 3/8 cup curd in another small saucepan over medium-low heat until very warm.
Stir gelatin mixture over medium-low heat until dissolved and liquid is clear (do not boil). Whisk warm gelatin mixture into 3/8 cup warm curd. Gradually whisk gelatin-curd mixture into curd in large bowl. Using electric mixer, beat egg whites in medium bowl until soft peaks form. Gradually add sugar, beating until whites are thick and glossy. Fold whites into curd mixture in 3 additions. Using same beaters, beat cream in another medium bowl until peaks form. Fold into egg white-curd mixture in 3 additions.
To make lemon Swiss buttercream icing: Combine sugar and 1/2 cup water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Boil without stirring until syrup reaches 240° on a digital thermometer, about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a stand mixer with whisk attachment, beat egg whites on medium-high speed until soft peaks form. With mixer on medium speed, gradually pour in hot syrup in a thin stream; avoid pouring syrup on whisk. Increase speed to medium-high and beat until stiff peaks form and mixture is cool, about 8 minutes. Reduce speed to medium and add butter 1 tablespoon at a time, beating after each addition. (If at any time buttercream appears curdled, beat on high until smooth, then reduce speed to medium and continue beating in butter.) Once all butter is added, beat on high speed until buttercream is smooth and fluffy, about 1 minute. Beat in vanilla and lemon extract.
To assemble the cake: Level the layers using a long serrated knife. If using a Tasty-Fill Heart Pan, align heart and then trim sides of cake to make them even. Fill both sides of the heart with mousse, leveling it off using a spatula (see instructions in the note below for making this a regular mousse cake).* Place the top layer on the bottom layer, aligning the heart. Cover cake with a thin coat of icing as a crumb coat and chill until the icing is set, 20 minutes or so. Frost cake and decorate with slices of lemon peel. Store, covered, in refrigerator. Set out about 10 minutes before serving to soften the icing.
*NOTE: Make this as a regular mousse cake by using a cake ring. Layer a 9-inch cake on the bottom and a thick layer of mousse on top of that. Chill until the mousse is firm and place another 9-inch layer of cake on top. Chill again before frosting, taking care around the mousse layer not to mix the frosting and mousse. Alternatively, serve this as a regular two-layer lemon cake with the mousse on the side.