It's grey and dull in Cardiff today, both literally and metaphorically. That end-of-festivities feeling is hitting hard, with the looming anticipation of returning to work in a couple of days. The new year brings promise, but at the moment it hasn't fully seeped through. One of the promises I've made myself this year, though, is to break out of some of the bad habits I've fallen into over the last few years. That includes neglecting some of the things that truly bring me enjoyment. One of those is my love of baking, which went on a much needed, but lengthy, hiatus after we closed Sweet - our coffee shop - in 2018.
After we opened in 2015, we soon discovered that there were a number of key favourites in our cakes and bakes that people asked for time and time again. This Lemon Mess Layer was one of our regulars, along with a simple Victoria Sponge, Coffee and Pecan Layer, Chocolate Chip Cookies, Brownies, and Salted Caramel Shorties. As the mood took me, I supplemented these with other great bakes - to reflect the seasons or simply to shake things up a bit. But customers always relied on us having these essentials, which they'd look forward to and often plan their visits around. This, then, is the first in a series of posts based on what became our classic cakes and bakes.
If you browse back through this blog, you'll find that lemon cakes feature quite heavily in my favourites. I love the sharp tang lemon gives to a bake - it offsets the sweetness of sugar and gives a more balanced flavour. I also find that while chocolate cakes are lovely, they can be a bit cloying on my taste buds. Often, it's lemon that will be my cake of choice.
When I was looking for something that provided an easy bake to grace the counter at Sweet, I hit upon this combination - a classic simple sponge infused with a bit of lemon zest, a filling of lemon curd and freshly whipped cream with a bit of crunch from crumbled meringue. It uses some store cupboard ingredients so it's simple and quick, but the combination of flavours and textures make it a bit special.
Lemon Mess Layer
Makes one 7" cake which serves 8
175g room temperature butter (I use Lurpak slightly salted)
175g golden caster sugar
175g self-raising flour
1/2 tspn baking powder
3 eggs - averaging around 63g each
1 tbspn milk
zest of 1 lemon
for the filling:
150 ml double cream
1 tspn icing sugar (optional)
lemon curd (see note below)
2 meringue nests (see note below)
First, do some prep. Preheat your oven to 160 fan / 180 conventional. Using a little extra butter, grease the base and sides of two 7" loose bottomed sandwich pans. Baseline them with baking parchment.
Get your ingredients ready:
Sift the flour and baking powder together into a bowl.
Crack the eggs into a jug and lightly beat them together.
Add the milk to the eggs and mix.
Zest your lemon and set aside.
Put the butter and sugar into a bowl of a stand mixer.
Now, using your paddle attachment on the stand mixer, turn on and set the speed to medium. Beat the butter and sugar together until it they are thoroughly incorporated and become light and fluffy - this can take anywhere between 3 - 5 minutes.
Once this is done, turn off and scrape around the bowl a bit, just to make sure the mixer caught everything. If not, then mix again for a few seconds.
Once you are happy with it, turn the mixer onto a lower setting and gradually, a little at a time, add the beaten egg and milk mixture. You want to go slowly here so the mix doesn't curdle - it it looks like it's going a bit like scrambled egg, just add a tablespoon or so of the flour which should help to bring it back together.
Once you have added all the egg, you can start to add the flour and baking powder mix. Add about a third of the flour at a time, and mix for a few seconds before adding the next batch. Once you have finished, and everything looks like it is incorporated, stop - you don't want to overmix and knock all the air out as it can make your sponge a bit dense.
Then, slowly fold the lemon zest through the mix.
Divide the mix between your two cake pans. I normally weigh each as I'm doing this, so that means I'm looking for about 345 grams of mix in each one.
Level the top of the mix, and then place the pans in the centre of your pre-heated oven.
Bake until golden and well risen - the tops should spring back slightly if you press them gently with a finger. In my oven, this normally takes about 25 minutes, but I set an alarm for 23 minutes and then check every couple of minutes until I'm happy.
Remove the pans from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool. They will shrink away form the sides of the tins a little - this is normal and will help you to turn them out of the tins.
Once they are cool enough to handle (15 mins or so) use a small palette knife to run around the edges to make sure there are no sticking points. Turn the cakes out of the pans and onto the wire rack. Allow to cool fully.
You're now ready to fill and assemble your cake.
First, whip your cream together with a bit of icing sugar (if using - about 1/2 a teaspoon) to the just past the soft peak stage. I use a little bit of icing sugar as I find it tends to take the edge off any harshness in the flavour of the cream.
Use this to top one of the sponge layers. You can do this however you want - using a palette knife or piping bag. Whatever you do, try and make a lip towards the edge of the cream, so that a well is formed towards the centre to hold the lemon curd.
I use a bag to pipe eight dots around the edge of the sponge which I then smooth into the centre - I think it gives a nice effect when the lemon curd is added as this can then be coaxed to drip down the sides between the outer edges of the dots.
Once you are happy with the cream layer, place a generous amount of lemon curd onto the top of the cream and spread out.
Next, take your meringue nests and place in a bowl, plastic food bag or similar. Crush the nests to form pieces (you want a good mix of bite size pieces, smaller ones and meringue 'dust', so I find it easiest to do this using a bag - which catches all the pieces - and crushing it with my hands). Make sure you reserve some of the finer, dusty bits to top the cake.
Take the larger meringue pieces and sprinkle over the lemon curd to make a meringue layer.
Top this with the second sponge. Sprinkle some caster sugar over the top, along with a little of the meringue dust.
As this cake contains fresh cream, you will need to keep it refrigerated in a suitable airtight container (to stop it drying out in the cool air of the fridge). It should last for up to three days.
A note on lemon curd
Obviously, you could make your own lemon curd. If you want to go down that route, it's fairly straightforward and there are a number of recipes available on the internet. Frankly, it's too much faff for me. I therefore am happy to use shop bought, but what I look for is a decent lemon curd that packs real flavour. The ones I tend to use are the 'luxury' supermarket options which tout themselves as being made using Sicilian lemons - Asda's 'Extra Special' and Tesco's 'Finest' are good choices. I find I use about half a jar on this cake, which leaves plenty either for another cake or - to give myself a treat - to spread on hot, buttered toast.
A note on meringue nests
Again, this is something you could make yourself and if you're that way inclined, then go for it. What I would say, though, is that I find this cake benefits from the more crunchy, dried out meringue nests most supermarkets stock. This is because the lemon curd will add moisture and may soften them very quickly. You need a decent amount of crunch to them.