This past January, I woke up one morning thinking “cake,” and bounced out of bed to make this little baby around 7:00. I don’t normally make cake that early, but if you feel up to it, I highly recommend a slice of warm lemon cake for breakfast. Especially on a cold January morning. If you’re not like me, and I’ve been told most people don’t get out of bed with boundless energy and the overwhelming desire to make cake, you could make this any old time. Sunday afternoon with some hot tea would be lovely. Or for dessert, try a thick slice with a dollop of crème fraiche or some berries.
I first read about brown butter in baked goods in Kate Choppin’s book Desserts from Chanterelle. I made her brown butter vanilla cake with orange buttercream for a birthday last year. Before, brown butter was reserved for fall veggies and the occasional ravioli. Brown butter + any kind of squash + salt + chopped sage = best fall dinner ever. But, ever since my revelation in the form of brown butter vanilla cake, I’ve decided that brown butter’s true home is baked inside a cake. Once you try it, you’ll be browning the butter for every cake you bake. It adds an unexpected nutty depth, and bottom line, it just tastes really good. And you know what else tastes really good? Lemon and any kind of slightly caramelized sugar. I like my sugar, sure. But I like it better when it hangs around with something a little tart or something a little salty. This is a nice little harmoniously balanced lemon cake – not too sweet, not too tart, just right. Goldilocks would approve.
For the Candied Lemons
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 cup water
- 1 lemon
Place the sugar into the center of a heavy bottomed sauce pan. Pour the water around the sugar (so the water is touching the edge of the pan, and the sugar is mounded in the center.) Place the pan over med-high heat and cook until the sugar is dissolved. Don’t stir. This just prevents sugar crystals from forming on the edge of the pan. Meanwhile, slice the lemon – you’ll need about 5-6 round pices. Try to slice the lemon as thin as possible while keeping whole pieces. Once the sugar is dissolved, put the lemon slices into the pan and reduce the heat to med-low. Cook for about 30 min, or until the lemon slices are translucent looking. Meanwhile, lightly oil a plate or set out a sil pat. Once the lemon slices are translucent looking, carefully remove them from the syrup and transfer to the sil pat or oiled plate.
For the Brown Butter Lemon Cake
- ½ cup butter
- half a vanilla bean
- ½ cup buttermilk (plain yogurt also works)
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- ½ cup finely ground blanched almonds (or use store bought
- almond meal/flour)
- 2 tsp baking powder
- The finely grated zest of one lemon
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the butter in a small heavy bottomed sauce pan or skillet. Split the half vanilla bean lengthwise and, using a small knife, carefully scrape the seeds out into the pan with the butter. Put the empty vanilla pod in the pan and place over med-high heat. Watch the butter carefully. When it starts to change color (browns) and is very fragrant, remove it from the heat and pour into a cool bowl. It’s important to transfer the browned butter to something cool, because even once it’s off the heat, it will continue to brown (and possibly burn) in the hot pan. Carefully remove the vanilla bean pod, and set the butter aside to cool. In a clean bowl, combine the buttermilk, the sugar, and the eggs. Mix in the butter once it’s cool. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, almonds, and baking powder. Mix the buttermilk mixture into the dry ingredients and stir until well-combined. Do not over mix. Pour the batter into a buttered and floured a loaf tin. Bake for 35 min, then carefully arrange the lemon slices on top of the cake. Bake for an additional 10-15 min until springy to the touch, golden around the edges, and a tooth pick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. I learned the hard way that if you put the candied lemon slices on before the cake has set a bit, they sink. Not so pretty. Cool the cake 15 minutes in its pan, and then carefully tip it out onto a cooling rack or cutting board and continue cooling.
For the Lemon Glaze
the juice of 2 lemons
1/2 cup granulated sugar
While the cake is cooling, combine the juice of 2 lemons and 1/2 a cup of granualted sugar in a small dish. Once the cake is cool-ish, generously pour the lemon glaze over the top of the cake, and use a pastry brush to brush it onto the sides and bottom.