“Because the goodness of the ingredients—the fine chocolate, the freshest lemons
—seemed like a cover over something larger and darker…”
Let me start by saying that I’ve never really liked cake. While other girls dream of three-tiered wedding cakes with fondant flowers, I imagine sitting by a campfire, roasting s’mores and trying not to drip chocolate on my white dress. I’m not sure what it is about cake that I have a hard time getting into. I love muffins and they’re basically just cupcakes for people like me whose skills with a pastry bag are rudimentary at best. Come to think of it, I’ve never been a huge fan of frosting either. I find that frosting, like make-up, can be easily over-done and more often than not, you end up with a big sticky mess.
Then I read Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake –a story about a girl named Rose who can taste emotions in food—and the secret cake-enthusiast inside me stirred. Maybe, my change of heart had something to do with lines like “warm citrus baked batter lightness enfolded by cool deep dark swirled sugar.” If Bender had described a bowl of congealed potato salad this beautifully, I probably would have eaten it. She’s THAT good.
I listened to Bender’s audiobook on a road trip from Ohio to Virginia to visit my then boyfriend (now fiancé), and I’ve never wanted cake so badly in all my life. I kept wishing that on one of the road signs I’d read “WORLD’S BEST LEMON CAKE, NEXT EXIT,” but the closest thing I got were signs for someone’s grandpa who sold cheese out of his barn. No offense to Grandpa. I’m sure his cheese is delicious, but I wanted cake, and I wanted it immediately.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to satisfy my cake craving until two years later when I found a recipe for Lemon Thyme Cake. It sounded like something Bender would love to write about with thyme syrup-soaked sponges and an airy whipped meringue buttercream. So, I bought a bag of lemons, picked some fresh thyme from my garden, and got to work.
While I was mixing my batter, I wondered what Rose would feel if she ate my cake. Before she even takes a bite, she’d probably catch a whiff of the anxiety I felt while reading the lengthy ingredient list. Once she bites into the sponge, however, she’d be hit with a complicated series of emotions: excitement from when I tasted the warm, moist, citrusy crumbs that tumbled out of the pan; frustration when those same tasty crumbs found their way into my icing; and when Rose finishes the last bite, I imagine she’d feel just as exhausted as I did after three hours of baking.
Finally, she’d feel satisfaction, because the end result was DELICIOUS.
Despite the success of this recipe, I still wouldn’t consider myself a cake person. Maybe just a lemon cake person.
- 3 cups cake flour
- 2 ½ tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp baking soda
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 tbsp fresh thyme
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 1 tbsp lemon zest
- 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
- 3 eggs
- 2 egg whites
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- ¼ cup lemon juice
- 1 cup milk
- Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease/flour two 8 in cake pans
- In a bowl, combine flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and thyme
- In another bowl, rub together sugar and lemon zest
- In an electric mixer with paddle attachment, mix butter on medium speed until smooth. Add lemon-sugar and turn speed up to medium high until mixture is light and fluffy.
- Turn mixer down to low and add vanilla and eggs (one at a time)
- With mixer still on low, add half the flour mixture, then milk and lemon juice, then second half of the flour mixture
- Divide batter between pans and bake for 25-28 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let cakes cool for at least 10 minutes before removing from pans.
- Frost with your favorite buttercream icing. Between layers, you can also add lemon curd or drizzle your sponges with a little thyme simple syrup
- Decorate with fresh lemon slices and thyme sprigs