Lemons over Positano
You may think it impossible to make Sorrento lemon cake without those spindle lemons from Sorrento, but you are mistaken. The lemons have a flavour and a smell we here in Malaysia are very used to. It’s a smell more than a taste and you can smell it as soon as you crush the leaves. It’s like a lighter version of our daun limau perut, the kaffir lime leaves, so with some cunning and a little patience you can fake it. The trick is to stay subtle, you just want to enhance the lemon flavour. As soon as you can taste the kaffir lime leaf clearly, you’ve overdone it. The motto is: “Don’t give the game away!”
I actually found this recipe in the FT Weekend Travel section, in an article by Rebecca Rose, who visited the lemon farm of the Aceto family. I have changed quite a few things and I’m not sure my interpretation of the icing is correct, but it works. Most importantly, it’s easy to make and it was very well received by our guests.
For the cake:
- 8 single kaffir lime leaves
- 250g caster sugar
- zest of 3 big lemons
- 4 eggs, separated
- 80ml olive oil
- 100g salted butter at room temperature
- 125ml full cream milk
- 200g plain flour (not cake flour!)
- 1 heaped tsp baking powder
- Unsalted butter to butter the pie tin
Start the night before, if you can. Wash and crush the kaffir lime leaves in your hand, then bury them in the sugar. Cover with cling film and leave at room temperature until the next morning.
Start on your cake: Pre-heat your oven to 175ºC. Butter your pie dish very well! I am using a lovely old copper dish I acquired in France. It’s 22.5cm across (about 9″) and 4.5cm high, so any 9 ” pan should do. Just make sure it is higher than your standard pie dish. The FT recipe calls for the pan to be buttered and floured, but I don’t like the powderiness of that, so I’d rather take my chances with the cake sticking or breaking.
Put the egg yolks into one bowl and the egg whites into another bowl. Hopefully the manufacturer of your stand mixer will have supplied you with two bowls. Grate the lemon zest into the egg yolks and using the blade attachment, whisk them until they are lightly fluffed up, about 2 minutes. Add the sugar and whisk for another 5 minutes, to cream up the eggs. Now pour in the olive oil and the butter, then the milk. Sift the flour. Check that the sugar has completely dissolved before adding the flour spoon by spoon to the batter.
Using the whisk attachment, whisk your egg whites to soft peaks. Using a rubber spatula, lift one third under the batter first, before adding one more third and finally the last third. Make sure you have mixed the batter thoroughly, so scrape the bottom of your bowl and scrape down the sides for a final mix.
For the icing:
- juice of 3 big lemons
- 200g icing sugar
- 1 kaffir lime leaf
Make this while your cake is in the oven and heat it up quickly, just after you have taken the cake out. It’s not really an icing, but more of a soaking liquid. Boil the icing sugar with the lemon juice and the kaffir lime leaf until it is light golden, about 5 minutes. Fish out the leaf and spoon the juice over the hot cake and let it be soaked up. You will have a lot of liquid, but don’t worry, the cake can soak it all up. Make sure you spoon some over the sides as well. It will keep your cake nice and moist and prevent it from drying up.
You can eat the cake just like that, but for dinner parties, I like to serve it with a generous bowl of freshly whipped Crème Chantilly.
For the Crème Chantilly (enough for 4 people):
- 200ml whipping cream
- 1-2 Tbsp caster sugar, depending on how sweet you want it.
- vanilla extract, or the beans of ¼ vanilla pod
Whisk the cream until it starts to thicken, then add the sugar and keep whisking until you have soft peaks. Add the vanilla just before you switch the machine off, if you are using extract. If you are scraping a bean, add it right at the beginning.
If you have leftover cake and you want to keep it for a few days, you will need to refrigerate it. A round cake on a round plate is quite cumbersome in the chiller, so I slice my cake up and transfer it to a plastic lock-lock box (that’s one of those with a clip-shut lid). I put the cake on the lid itself and then use the box as a cover. that way it is easy to remove the slices. You can even leave the cake whole and carefully slice it right on the lid.