Cake baking is almost certainly my favourite sort of cooking. I am rarely happier than when the kitchen is filled with the aroma of a cake baking in the oven (...and splattered with the remnants of sticky batter, icing sugar and off-cuts of greaseproof paper - my husband despairs). Of all things, it is a cake that brings the most smiles when placed triumphantly on the table to share with friends or family.
The constant efforts to shed pounds mean that I do not indulge quite as often as I would like but it doesn't take too much for me to find an excuse to get baking; a gathering of 'Mummy friends', a village fundraiser, weekend guests, new neighbours or simply a bunch of over-ripe bananas languishing in the fruit bowl. Last week was a very busy one but I still managed to squeeze in a spot of cake-bakery in honour of my mother-in-law's birthday. A birthday without cake is unimaginable to me - it was with great excitement and anticipation that I looked forward to viewing my birthday cake for the first time each year as a child. The excitement may not be quite the same these days, but the sight of birthday cake always lifts my spirits!
My lovely mother-in-law is an excellent cook and particularly good at cakes so I have to confess that I felt slightly under pressure when it came to choosing an appropriate cake to bake. We also have quite different tastes and preferences when it comes to cake-baking. She is not a fan of 'goo', preferring her cakes unadorned with the sponge itself the star of the show. I, on the other hand, live for goo. Well, almost. There are other things in my life too, but 'goo' is fairly high on the list. I like my cakes sticky, oozy and slathered with dazzling icing, sandwiched with the jammiest of jams and topped with gorgeous decorations. I try to be 'less is more' but it doesn't really work. I am quite clearly a 'more is more' kind of a person. (Note to self: this could explain my rather wide girth).
This is not to say that I don't enjoy a plainer cake. I really do. I have a particular passion for an unadorned loaf cake. A simple fruit tea loaf, banana bread, lemon drizzle or (best of all) a fiery ginger cake are all very high on my list of favourite bakes. My mother-in-law and I share a love of loaf cakes and regularly discuss methods and swap recipes. But a loaf cake won't do for a birthday cake. No. To me, a birthday cake should be round (unless a novelty cake in which case any shape will do) and should have at least some sort of icing to make it feel 'special'. Here is where I start to become unstuck. All the round cakes in my repertoire are rather reliant on the sort of 'goo' that my mother-in-law dislikes. Carrot cake (I just can't bring myself to make it without the gorgeous cream cheese icing that I love to o much). Chocolate fudge cake (heavy on sticky, dark icing). Red velvet cake (artificial colouring AND lots of icing - a double no-no). The list goes on... I went over my cake books again and again and knew what had to be done. I had to face my nemesis. The Victoria Sponge.
What is wrong with The Victoria Sponge, I hear you ask? The simplest, plainest cake there is. A much-loved symbol of the British teatime tradition. A cake that I am woefully bad at making. I think perhaps that my reliance on 'goo' is really a cover up. A decadent icing can hide a multitude of sins. With a Vicky sponge there is nowhere to hide. My mother-in-law makes a beautiful Victoria Sponge. It is always perfectly and evenly risen with a lovely light and delicate texture. I know how to make 'The Perfect Victoria Sponge' (weigh the eggs and use the exact same weight of butter, sugar and flour is the method I like best) but somehow I have never quite achieved the results I am after. This is for various reasons but the main one is lack of practise. It is quite simply not a cake that I ever choose to make for myself. I just can't get excited by it. Which isn't to say that I don't enjoy a slice when someone else makes (a far better) one. I have come to the conclusion that in order to make a good Victoria Sponge, you have to love it in the first place.
Anyway, all this aside, I decided that I should make a simple sponge for my mother-in-law. I couldn't bring myself to make an un-iced birthday cake though. I decided that I would stick to the Victoria Sponge base but spruce it up with a burst of lemon. I tried so hard to keep the 'goo' at bay but the more I thought about lemons, the more I thought about other lemony additions. I was torn between filling my cake with lemon curd or with a lemon butter icing. I had already decided upon a glossy white glacé icing for the top. Before I knew it, I had spiralled out of control and baked three layers enabling me to have both fillings as well as the white topping. I toyed with various ideas for decorating (freeze-dried raspberries, candied strips of orange and lemon, a piped 'Happy Birthday' greeting) but in the end kept it reasonably simple with some pretty bought flower decorations.
To my lovely mother-in-law, I say 'sorry'. I tried (I really did) to keep the 'goo' at bay. I tried to bake a cake to please you and not to please me. But I confess, a little bit of me got in the way!
The verdict: for me, this was probably my perfect lemon cake. The only alteration I might consider would be drizzling a little lemon syrup over the warm cakes for yet more lemony flavour and moisture. But sometimes, you just need to learn when to stop!
I chose to bake my cake in three tins but you could easily make one large, deep cake and cut into layers. You will need to bake it for slightly longer, of course.
Lovely lemon layer cake
250g golden caster sugar
250g softened unsalted butter
5 large eggs
250g self-raising flour
1 rounded tsp baking powder
2 tbsp whole milk
finely grated zest 2 lemons
For the buttercream:
85g softened butter
175g icing sugar, sifted
zest and juice 1/2 lemon
4-6 tbsp good quality lemon curd
For the top of the cake:
250g icing sugar, sifted
juice of 1 lemon
1. Preheat oven to 170C. Butter and base line three 20cm loose-bottomed sandwich tins (or see note above).
2. Cream together the butter and sugar until light and very fluffy. I used a stand mixer for this, but you could use an electric whisk too. It is worth spending a good few minutes on this. Also, ensure your butter is nicely softened - mine was a little too hard.
3. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition and adding a tablespoon of flour with each one if the mixture starts to curdle.
4. Sift the flour and baking powder and fold into the cake mixture a little at a time. Mix in the lemon zest and stir gently until all combined. Add milk until you have a soft, dropping consistency.
5. Divide the mixture between the three tins (you can weigh each tin if you want to be really accurate - I didn't). Bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes until the cakes are golden and spring back when lightly pressed with your finger. Remove from oven and cool in the tins for five minutes before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely.
6. To make the buttercream, beat the butter until light and fluffy. Add the sifted icing sugar and beat like mad until very fluffy indeed (patience pays dividends here). Add lemon zest and juice and beat some more. Set aside.
7. To make the topping, mix sifted icing sugar with enough of the lemon juice to have a smooth, spreadable icing. You may well not need it all - my lemons were rather small - so add a little at a time.
8. To assemble: choose which cake has the flattest surface for the top of the cake and set aside. Spread a little buttercream onto a cake board or plate if wished, to secure the cake in place. Place one layer of sponge on the bottom and spread with a generous layer of buttercream. Place the second sponge on top of this and smother with lemon curd. Place the 'best' layer on top and smooth over the glossy white icing, allowing a little to drip over the sides. A warm palette knife is good for this job. Decorate as wished and serve!
What would your 'perfect' birthday cake be like? Mine would probably be a red velvet cake.