Saturday, 18 June 2011

East 62nd Street Lemon Cake

When I sent this recipe to my friend Craig Claiborne, he printed it in the New York Times. It became amazingly popular. I heard of many well-known people who started serving it. I heard that Nancy Reagan and Bill Blass love it.
 Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts, pp126–7

250g unsalted butter
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
450g plain flour, sifted
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
finely grated zest of 2 lemons
1/3 cup lemon juice
2/3 cup sugar

Preheat oven to 180C. Grease a bundt tin.*

Cream the butter. Add the sugar and beat for 3 minutes. Beat in the eggs individually, scraping down the bowl as necessary with a spatula. On lowest speed alternately add the dry ingredients in three additions and the milk in two additions, beating only until smooth after each addition. Stir in lemon rind. Turn the batter into prepared pan.

Bake for about an hour and 15 minutes until a skewer comes out dry. Let cake stand in pan for about 3 minutes, then cover with a rack and invert. Remove pan, leaving the cake upside down. Place over a large piece of foil or waxed paper while preparing glaze.

Stir the lemon juice and sugar together and brush all over the hot cake.

Let cake cool completely. Transfer it to a cake plate, and let it rest several hours before cutting. I sifted over some icing sugar as well, because it looked so damn boring.
* There’s quite a lot of batter – it could be good in a small loaf tin and a few muffins made with the remainder, which was the plan until my loaf tin was discovered to have rust in its corners from the tears of neglect it had shed. My silicon bundt tin isn’t my favourite piece of artillery, for some reason, but I turned to it with that feeling of guilt I get when I don’t use things much. 

I had a slight issue with the way one side of the cake rose dramatically while the other remained flat. One side was cooked after the specified time; the other really wasn’t. Maybe it was too high in the oven. Maybe it should have been rotated halfway. Maybe there was a hidden seam of baking powder not mixed in. Maybe me and my oven are heading for a confrontation.

Okay, I’ll stop prevaricating. The famous cake favoured by many a society hostess?

This was a perfectly nice inoffensive cake. It couldn’t have been easier to throw together, and it was a pleasant accompaniment to my morning cup of Earl Grey. But after the claims to fame it had, it just didn’t seem terribly special or interesting.

Were I an Upper East Side hostess, I probably wouldn’t be ordering the help to make this so I could serve it up at a significant morning tea in my luxurious Mad Men-esque apartment. I wouldn’t be foregrounding it in the New York Times. I wouldn’t be choosing this if my husband were the president and I could eat whatever cake I felt like.

Maybe dense cakes of pronounced lemonness were a novelty in WASPy circles in the seventies, although I find it difficult to believe that people had fewer cakes to attempt and revel in back then.

I do remember that the various kitchens of relatives and family friends contained at most three cookbooks, one of them invariably the massive Women’s Weekly tome and the rest also leaning towards comprehensiveness and utility; beyond them there’d be the card file of handwritten recipes for ‘Daisy’s fruitcake’ and ‘Gran’s potted meat’ with a few ill-fitting clippings of rock cake recipes from Women’s Day slotted in.

I do get that there was a time when housewives had not much else to do with their time but cook, and that it was more drudgery than tantamount to a leisure activity affording relaxation and a vague sense of wholesome virtue and reclaimed domesticity-for-fun. (Okay, I’m going out on a slight limb with that – obviously most people are hardly in a position to just eat out every night, a solution dismissively put to me by a stupid, patronising git of an estate agent when I demurred that in an otherwise doable Parkville apartment there was no room for anything beyond a bar fridge that would have taken up most of the bench space as it was. Digressing. Sorry. But my point is – or was – that baking has become more an optional pleasure than a regular duty, and given rise to ever-more complex cakes and exotic ingredients.)

I know there wasn’t always TV glamourising baking at the nicely worn tables of Julia Child and Two Fat Ladies and Nigella and Masterchef – but surely Fanny Cradock and the Galloping Gourmet made some sort of cake back then. (Can’t imagine Keith Floyd as much of a cake man; not so conducive to sloshing Bordeaux around.) And then there were Europeans settling in with all their dense lemony cakes and poppyseed cakes and countless other fascinating cakes.

So it remains a mystery to me why this plain lemon cake was such a big deal. Any ideas?

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