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A Day for Lemon Cake

San Francisco today was so blue, the sky clean and clear even at 7-something this morning when I crossed the bridge on the commuter bus to come in to work. The bridge stood tall and straight and shining out over the bay, and to the right the ocean was still except for little foaming waves here and there. Later on my walk home I looked up past the buildings to see that sky brilliant and July: sunny and sea-blown all the day-long.

It was a picture-perfect day but I unfortunately was a bit too tired to fully appreciate it beyond that early morning sleepy acknowledgment of the Marin Headlands burnished and preening against the Pacific. I could hardly keep my eyes open as we whisked down into the financial district but luckily there was coffee — americano per favore, as per the usual — and a few leftovers from mom to make up my breakfast. Every so often I’d lift my head up from the piles of work that descended as soon as I turned on the computer to catch that bright sky, comforted through the fatigue that at least it was summer, unexpected and true.

What does this have to do with cake? Admittedly not very much although in the back of my mind all afternoon was the thought that today was the kind of day just meant for sitting in the backyard with a good, thick slice of cake and a cup of tea watching the swallows dart in and out of the birdhouse (in my parents’ backyard the birdhouse is perched atop a post that used to hold the basketball net; the basketball having lain quiet for awhile now it’s been put to good use). I love the way it looks as though it’s floating in a sea of trees, sailing away through fog or clouds or even sun:

[In the backyard, Sebastopol, 2008.]

But I’ve been wanting to share this particular cake recipe for awhile and today seems a good a day as any — better than most, perhaps, because it’s bright with lemon and perfumed with vanilla. It’s a summery

sort of cake, really, and one which would stand up as well, say, to a lavender twilight when the fog for once doesn’t roll in over the hills too early as it would to a chilly, murky Wednesday morning in August.

I made this cake a few months ago for my dad just because I felt like it. I tend to bake him treats that are — shall we say — on the lighter side

Probably the main reason I started baking seriously was when my dad went on a low-fat/low-cholesterol diet about 15 years ago or so. My poor mother! No longer could she rely on her then-staples of pot roast, meatloaf, and London broil; red meat was suddenly out and he eschewed cheese as well. A few years after that I went vegetarian and meal-times were complicated still further (though luckily I was off to college soon into my vegetarian tenure and thus was left to my own devices). So anyway our meals changed (I think she’d agree now it was for the better; we eat lots more fresh vegetables and healthful meals these days) but my dad’s sweet tooth did not — and I didn’t want him to have to go without.

It’s easy enough to adapt recipes to be lower in fat: swapping in non-fat milk for whole or two egg whites for a whole egg to cut down on cholesterol or even using applesauce or vegetable oil in place of butter makes a world of difference in nutritional makeup but surprisingly doesn’t hurt the taste too much. I took tried-and-true standbys from the battered old ‘Fannie Farmer’ cookbook and experimented with varying results. Mostly things turned out pretty well and as I got more comfortable (and confident) my cooking got better, too. The real revelation was that I actually enjoyed baking — it never, ever felt like a chore. I’d sift flour and baking powder in that narrow little kitchen and it felt right, somehow familiar, almost like something was missing and I didn’t even know it until I started off.

My dad’s a cheerful eater and generally will happily consume nearly everything I set in front of him. This cake, however, has been mentioned more than once since I made it so I know he really liked it (as he liked the quick plum-peach-blueberry vegan cobbler I threw together yesterday afternoon; I figured he’d eat half of the portion in the mini loaf pan in which it was baked but as I devoted my efforts to my lemon-cornmeal shortcake with berries and whipped cream I didn’t pay attention until suddenly I heard the spoon scrape up the last bits onto his plate). It’s light, airy, and run through with sweet lemon. You could use blueberry (and blueberries) jam or strawberry (and strawberries) but as we’re on the cusp of blackberry season I think they make the nicest foil and accompaniment of all.

Also, it’s such an awfully pretty

cake, much like San Francisco was today. I will never, ever fail to thrill to the sight of the Pacific Ocean gleaming and glinting away in the early morning, the air fresh and cool and full of the day’s promise, no matter how long I live here. I do so swear. Although I was inside for too much of it it was a gift of a day, sweet and sparkling — a lot, in fact, like this cake.

Lemon Layer Cake with Blackberries and Jam, adapted from marthastewart.com

1 1/2 cups cake flour (not self-rising), sifted
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 cup skim milk

1/3 cup canola oil
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon, plus 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
4 large egg whites, room temperature

1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar

1 1/2 cups blackberry jam
1 pint blackberries

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 8-by-1 1/2-inch round cake pans. Line bottoms with parchment paper. Grease and flour parchment.

Sift together flour, baking powder and salt into a medium bowl; set aside. Whisk together 1/4 cup sugar, the milk, oil, vanilla, lemon zest, and lemon juice in a large bowl; set aside.

Put egg whites into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on medium speed until foamy. Raise speed to medium-high. Gradually add remaining 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, beating until stiff peaks form.

Add half of the flour mixture to the milk mixture; whisk until smooth. Fold in remaining flour mixture in 3 batches, alternating with the egg white mixture. Divide batter among prepared pans. Bake, rotating pans halfway through, until a cake tester inserted into centers comes out clean, about 18 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Turn out cakes onto rack. Remove parchment; reinvert. Let cool completely.

Cut each cake in half horizontally. Set untrimmed bottom layer on a serving plate; spread with 1/2 cup jam. Repeat with trimmed halves for second and third layers. Top with untrimmed top layer. Dust with confectioners’ sugar and arrange the blackberries around the cake.

One Comment

  1. Cake! Who doesn’t love cake?! Of any flavor! And this recipe will be a wee bit heathier than the lemon cheesecake squares recipe I printed from Epicurious.com this morning…as I was wishing my office had a window to enjoy these perfect California summer mornings, too. This will be perfect with the local wild blackberries that are almost, just barely, not-quite-perfect-yet ripe up here (as tested during my evening bike ride). Thank you!

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