Once upon a time, a woman and her husband were invited to a Christmas party. The woman knew she’d see friends there who had done nice things for her recently, so, on the day of the party, she made three lemon cakes to take to them as gifts. She grated zest from many lemons, and squeezed out their juices, and beat soft butter and room-temperature eggs together — just so — to make the most delicious lemon cakes in all the land. She glazed the cakes, hot from the oven, with lemon syrup, and – when cool – bathed them in an icing of confectioner’s sugar and more freshly squeezed lemon juice. Then she carefully placed them on top of doilies in boxes tied with pretty satin bows, and, tired but happy at the thought of how pleased her friends would be, got ready for the party.
At the appointed hour, the woman and her husband arrived at the home of the party. The windows sparkled with holiday lights, a wisp of smoke from a blaze in the hearth scented the outside air, and happy people crowded the festive rooms. The husband, being a most gallant sort, opened the car door for his wife and and carried one of cakes. The wife carried the other two cakes. The husband rang the doorbell, and, when a woman opened the door, the husband thrust the box containing the lemon cake into her hands and said, “Here! My wife made this for you!” The astonished woman and the astonished wife looked at each other, because the woman who answered the door – although a sweet and kind person – was not one of the intended recipients of the cakes, and she was puzzled to have been given such a gift out of the blue. The wife was puzzled as to how she would explain rewarding two friends, not three, for their kindness. The husband smiled, his work done for the day, and headed for the buffet table.
The next day, the wife bought more lemons and sighed, grating their zest and squeezing their juices…
♦ ♦ ♦
This really is the best lemon cake in all the land. Lemons permeate every aspect: a small mountain of zest flavors the cake, lemon syrup soaks the hot crust, and lemon icing hardens to a crisp glaze over the top and sides. Listen for the “snick” sound the icing makes when you cut a slice. It’s a portent of good things.
Lemon Cake (slightly adapted from Barefoot Contessa Parties!, by Ina Garten, © 2001 by Ina Garten, published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, New York.)
(Note: Ina Garten uses extra-large eggs in her recipes. Most other cookbook writers and recipes call for large eggs, which I always have on hand. The difference in volume is slight, but Ms. Garten’s results are dependably wonderful, and I ain’t fixin’ what ain’t broke. For her recipes, I buy a carton of extra-large eggs. Leftovers get used up at breakfast.)
(Note 2, amending the above: I made the recipe with large eggs on 8-28-14, with results that were perfectly fine.)
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
2 cups granulated sugar
4 extra-large eggs at room temperature (see notes above)
1/3 cup grated lemon zest (6 to 8 large lemons, or about 9 small ones, washed and roughly dried with a dishtowel to remove any wax coating)
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
3/4 cup buttermilk at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
3 1/2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease and flour two 8.5×4.25-inch loaf pans.
In the bowl of a standing electric mixer, combine the butter and 2 cups granulated sugar. Beat for about 5 minutes, until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, and the lemon zest, scraping the bowl periodically to ensure even mixing. (The zest, in particular, tends to pile up on the paddle attachment. Scrape it down, too.)
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Combine the buttermilk with 1/4 cup lemon juice and the vanilla. Add the dry ingredients to the mixing bowl in three stages, alternating with the buttermilk mixture. Combine until just well-mixed, scraping the bowl several times. Divide the batter evenly between the two loaf pans, spreading it smoothly on top with a spoon or offset knife. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the cakes are golden brown and test done.
When the cakes are done, remove from oven and let rest in pans on racks for 10 minutes. As they rest, make the syrup: In a small saucepan, combine 1/2 cup granulated sugar and 1/2 cup lemon juice over medium-low heat. Simmer and stir until sugar dissolves.
Place a rack over a baking sheet or platter, and turn the cakes out onto the rack. Spoon hot lemon syrup over the cakes, turning to bathe sides as well. Use all of the syrup. Let cakes cool completely.
Prepare glaze: Combine confectioners’ sugar and 3 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice until smooth. Pour evenly over the cooled cakes, letting the glaze dribble down the sides. Let cakes sit for a couple of hours for glaze to harden.