Birthday cakes for Libras

A couple of weeks ago, I made not one, but two cakes for the birthdays of my 2 favorite people: the Husband and my mom. In addition to sharing a birthday, they both adore lemon curd. I wanted to make something showy that could be mostly made ahead of time. A lemon meringue cake sounded gorgeous and delish. The recipe is from Tartine, one of my favorite cookbooks (which contains the secrets of a bakery I cannot wait to visit).

A week before the celebration(s) I did the hard part: lemon chiffon cake, moistened with lemon syrup, layered with lemon curd and caramel. Truly, a labor of love. At that point, both cakes were snugly wrapped and tucked into the freezer and all of the bowls and beaters were sent to our new dishwasher.

Getting ready for showtime was much easier and a lot more fun. The recipe calls for a thick, satiny meringue that gets swirled all around the cake. And then you torch it! It’s pretty sweet, so small slices are in order. Which means you can have a slice for breakfast the next day.

Lemon Meringue Cake

2¼ c. flour
2 t. baking powder
1½ c. sugar
¾ t. salt
½ c. safflower oil
6 large egg yolks, at room temp
½ c. water
¼ c. lemon juice
1½ t. grated lemon zest
10 large egg whites, at room temp
¼ t. cream of tartar

Preheat the oven to 325F. Line the bottom of a 10-inch springform pan with parchment paper cut to fit exactly; don’t grease the pan. I used two 6-inch pans so that I could make 2 cakes.

Sift together the flour and baking powder. Add 1¼ cups of the sugar and the salt and whisk to combine. In a separate bowl, whisk together the oil, egg yolks, water, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Add the yolk mixture to the flour; whisk until very smooth.

In another large mixing bowl, beat the egg whites until frothy, then add the cream of tartar and beat on medium-high speed until it holds soft peaks. Add the remaining ¼ cup of sugar slowly while beating on medium-high speed until the whites hold firm, shiny peaks. Fold a third of the egg whites into the yolk mixture to lighten, then fold in the rest of the whites until just combined.

Pour the batter into the pan, smoothing the top if necessary. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 45-55 minutes. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack. Once completely cool, run a thin knife around the sides of the pan to loosen the cake an then release and lift off the pan sides. Invert the cake and peel off the parchment. Wash and dry the pans.

â…” c. heavy cream
¼ vanilla bean
1¼ c. sugar
¼ c. water
1 t. sea salt
2 T. light corn syrup
¾ t. lemon juice
4 oz. unsalted butter

Pour the cream into a small, heavy saucepan. Split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and use the tip of a sharp knife to scrape the seeds from the pod halves into the milk. Place over medium-high heat and bring to just under a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to low to keep the cream warm.

In a medium, heavy saucepan, combine the sugar, water, salt, corn syrup. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Then cook, without stirring, until the mixture is amber colored, 5 to 8 minutes. Remove from the heat. Immediately (but slowly!) add the cream to the sugar syrup. The mixture will boil vigorously at first. Let the mixture simmer down, and then whisk until smooth. Add the lemon juice and transfer to a bowl. Let cool for about 10 minutes. Cut the butter into 1-inch chunks and add to the caramel one at a time, whisking constantly after each addition. Then whisk the caramel periodically as it continues to cool.

Lemon Cream
½ c. + 2 T. lemon juice
3 large eggs
1 egg yolk
¾ c. sugar
pinch salt
8 oz. unsalted butter

In a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water, combine the lemon juice, eggs, yolk, sugar, salt. Make sure the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water. Whisk constantly until very thick, or 80°C (180°F) on an instant-read thermometer. Remove from the heat and cool  until warm to touch (60°C or 140°F on a thermometer). Place the lemon cream in a blender or food processor and with the motor running, add the butter in small pieces. Allow to cool completely.

Lemon Syrup
â…“ c. water
â…“ c. sugar
â…“ c. lemon juice

In a nonreactive saucepan, combine the sugar and water and bring to a boil over medium heat. Transfer to a bowl, let cool, then chill for half an hour. Stir in the lemon juice.


Split the cake into 4 equal layers. Line your cake pan with plastic wrap. Place the bottom layer in the cake pan. Brush with ¼ of the lemon syrup, spread ⅓ of the caramel over the cake, then ⅓ of the lemon cream. Repeat with 2 more layers, using up the remaining caramel and lemon cream. Top with the fourth cake layer and moisten with the remaining lemon syrup. Wrap well with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least four hours or freeze. If you freeze, thaw the wrapped cake on the counter for an hour.

7 egg whites
1¾ c. sugar
pinch of salt

In a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water, combine the egg whites, sugar, and salt and whisk until the whites are hot to the touch, about 120F, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and beat on high speed until the mixture is very thick and holds stiff, glossy peaks.

Final assembly

Unwrap the cake and place on your fanciest serving plate (go ahead, bust out the cake pedestal).

Spread the meringue all over the cake, using an offset spatula to make swirls as crazy as you desire. Using a propane torch, toast the meringue, blackening the tips if you like.

Pumpkin panzanella

I adore the no-nonsense writing style of Florence Fabricant and her great ideas for wine and food pairings. Her recipes have become some of the best in my kitchen arsenal. The following was a delicious accompaniment to a mid-week dinner of curried shrimp and too much wine with friends. It’s based on a FloFab recipe I clipped a few years ago for an autumnal version of the classic Italian salad, panzanella.

Pumpkin Panzanella

Flesh from 1 pie pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled, scooped, cut into 1-inch chunks

1 head of cauliflower, cut into 1-inch chunks

1 small loaf of whole wheat crusty bread, cut into (you guessed it) 1-inch chunks

1 small sweet onion, diced

1 quince, peeled, cored, diced

1 apple or pear, peeled, cored, diced

3/4 c. olive oil

1/4 c. apple cider vinegar

1 t. cumin

12 sundried tomatoes, slivered

1 T. capers

2 T. chopped parsley and tarragon

Add the pumpkin and the cauliflower to a large pot of salted, boiling water. Boil for 2-3 minutes. Drain and add to a large bowl.

Saute the bread cubes in half of the olive oil in a large heavy skillet over medium heat until toasty brown. Set aside.

In a different pan, saute the onions, quince, and apple in the remaining olive oil until the onion is translucent. Add the cider vinegar and cumin, then pour over pumpkin and cauliflower. Mix to coat. Add sundried tomatoes, capers, bread, and toss together. Cover bowl and let sit on the counter for a few hours for the flavors to develop.

Just before serving, add parsley and tarragon and toss salad together. Add salt and pepper to taste.