Now that we've "sprung forward" with the time change last week, I'm switching gears temporarily to lemon, which always struck me as a spring and summertime dessert flavor even though I seem to get much of my fresh lemons from friends' lemon trees in the winter. My mom bought me a lemon tree that I planted in my backyard a couple of months ago. Anyone who knows me knows I have the world's worst green thumb. Plants see me coming and shudder in horror at the havoc they sense I can wreak. I over water. I under water. I neglect. I hover. And I am inept at gardening. At my last house, I had my entire backyard paved over so I wouldn't have to deal with it and I spurned suggestions of having potted plants on the patio. No sense endangering flora or fauna at my hands.
At my current house though, I decided to take a stab at growing a lemon tree. I'm thinking ahead to future lemon bars, lemon cakes, lemon cookies and such. And maybe I can break the curse of being a plant killer. It was touch and go initially with my lemon tree when I first planted it. My mom supplied me with all the accoutrements: tree, potting soil, shovel, little spade and instructions. I followed them to what I thought was the letter - planted it in a corner of the yard that got the most sun and was higher than the rest of the backyard so the water would flow down and not bog it when it rained, mix in the potting soil so it could have some nutrients, dig a little moat around it so when I do water it, the water would seep down to the roots, etc. I mostly got it right. When my mom came by later to inspect my handiwork, she didn't think I had dug the hole deep enough or used enough potting soil. Sigh.
So that's my incredibly long lead-in to this recipe for lemon loaf. The lemons from this didn't come from my tree since my tree isn't even really blossoming yet but they did come from a church friend's lemon tree. And hopefully I'll be able to use my own lemons someday for this recipe and others like it.
I only made a half recipe since I only needed one loaf, not two. I poured the batter into mini loaves since they're cuter, easier to give away, slice and eat and because my mini loaf pans are newer and bake better than my older, regular-size loaf pans. If you read the directions closely, you'll see it calls for a lot of beating and mixing as the flour is added to the batter. Normally I'm not a believer in mixing the batter a lot once the flour is added since you don't want to develop the gluten and make the cake tough but in this case, since it uses cake flour instead of all-purpose flour, the additional mixing aids the cake in getting aerated and there's less worry about having a tough texture or crumb. Cake flour is softer than all-purpose flour with less gluten to develop. Still, I didn't follow the instructions exactly to let it beat for so long. Old habits die hard, cake flour or not.
If you like lemon, don't be afraid to get generous with the lemon zest that gets added to the batter. Although a lot of the lemon flavor will come from the glaze/lemon syrup you brush on after the cakes are baked, the zest also adds flavor from within the cake itself. When you zest, just be careful you're only getting the outer, yellow part of the lemon and not the white pith underneath. A microplane zester is fantastic for zesting.
On the glaze, glazing can be a bit tricky. This is actually more of a thick soaking syrup than what you'd picture a typical glaze to be. It's meant to flavor the cake so you don't want to pour it all at once. Do an initial brush of glaze all over each cake, let it sit for a few minutes to absorb, then brush again. How much you use depends on your flavor preference for a strong or a light lemon flavor. I don't like it too strong so I hardly ever end up using all of the glaze. But don't use too light either or you won't end up with a very lemony cake. Overall, I like this cake. I tried a taste test when it was just the slightest bit lukewarm. It wasn't too lemony for me and the cake texture was soft and fluffy, lighter than a pound cake but not airy like a sponge cake. In essence, it was the perfect cakey texture. The rest of the taste test piece was actually pretty good at room temperature as well. You can taste the lemon and savor the texture even more then.
1 ¾ sticks (¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons) unsalted butter
2 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
Grated zest of 1 lemon (about 2 tablespoons)
3 cups cake flour, sifted after measuring
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
Juice of 1 lemon (about 2 tablespoons)
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons whole milk
Juice of 3 to 4 lemons (about ½ cup), strained several times to remove all pulp
½ cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons coarse or large-grain granulated sugar, for topping
1. Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350⁰F. Spray two 8 ½” x 4 ½” loaf pans with nonstick spray.
2. Combine the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl of a stand mixer and mix at medium speed with the paddle attachment for 8 to 10 minutes or until mixture is light and fluffy. Using a fork, gently beat the eggs in a small bowl. Add the eggs to the butter mixture and mix them at medium speed for 1 minute. Add the lemon zest.
3. Measure out the cake flour and sift into a separate bowl. Add the baking powder and salt and stir the ingredients just to blend them. Add one-third of the flour mixture to the butter mixture and mix them at low speed for about 1 minute or until the flour is completely incorporated. Add the lemon juice and 1 cup plus 1 ½ tablespoons of milk. Mix them at low speed until they are completely incorporated. Stop the mixer and scrape the side of the bowl and the beaters with a rubber spatula after each addition.
4. Increase the mixer speed to medium and mix the batter for 30 seconds. Add one-third of the flour mixture and mix it in at low speed for 1 minute. Add the remaining milk and mix it in until it is incorporated. Increase the mixer speed to medium and mix the batter for 30 seconds. Add the remaining one-third of the flour mixture and mix it in at low speed for 1 minute or until it is completely incorporated. Increase the speed to medium and mix the batter for 1 minute.
5. Scrape the batter into the loaf pans, dividing it evenly and smoothing the surfaces with a spatula. Bake the cakes for 35 minutes; then rotate the pans 180 degrees to ensure even baking. Bake them for 30 minutes longer or until a toothpick inserted into the center of each cake comes out clean.
6. While the cakes are baking, make the glaze: cook the lemon juice and sugar in a small saucepan set over high heat until the mixture comes to a boil. Immediately remove it from the heat and keep it warm.