Sunday, 5 June 2016

Lemon-Almond Butter Cake

Finally, it feels like we live in sunny California. Until now, it felt has been foggy, windy, chilly, even rainy (although the state has just entered its fifth year of drought), but not sunny. We live in a somewhat unfortunate part of the Bay Area, where a blanket of fog descends on us every evening. When I walk back home from work, invariably, I am propelled forward by an unwelcome gust, that sends my hair flying into my eyes. 

Over the last few weeks though, it has begun to feel like summer is finally here. The sun is out, and everyone is beginning to dispense with their obligatory San Francisco outerwear. The evening fog remains, but there's plenty of sunshine in the daytime hours to make up for it. 

One of the nice things about summertime in the Bay Area is the sight of lemon trees, heavy with fruit, on front lawns. We don't have the luxury of a front lawn. In fact, it is a luxury I have never had. Growing up in the concrete jungle that is Delhi, the only space available for gardening was our balcony. My mother tried coaxing a few different plant species to grace our living space. Now the thing about my mother is, she is a pragmatic woman. Not for her, roses or dahlias or geraniums. Her gardening efforts were directed mostly at curry leaf plants. Together with grated coconut and mustard seeds, curry leaves are indispensable in Kerala cooking. If it doesn't have curry leaves in it, it is probably not Malayali. 

But curry leaves can be somewhat difficult to procure in Delhi, where coriander leaves are the garnish of choice. Rarely do neighborhood markets or stores stock curry leaves. You need to visit a "Kerala store" to get your curry leaf fix. Getting hold of a small handful of curry leaves is not only cumbersome, but also expensive. And so it was that a series of fledgling curry leaf plants were, one after another, invited into our balcony, and fed with egg shell pieces and other types of homemade manure. My mother waited patiently for these plants to flourish. Short of talking to them in honeyed tones, she did everything else, watering them daily, and excitedly examining the few, miniature leaves that did sprout. Sadly, one by one, each of the ungrateful plants spurned her advances, and surrendered their lives in an orchestrated suicide mission, to the profit of the local Kerala store owner. Eventually, my mother abandoned her curry leaf cultivation dreams. 

My only personal experience with gardening has been confined to a pot of succulents that I thought might look quite nice in our living room, adding a little bit of refreshing green. It was sourced from a thrift store on one of our weekend getaways last summer. I chose a succulent because they are known to be relatively low maintenance. I was asked to water them no more than once a week. If there is anything I am good at, it is following instructions. I watered the succulents religiously on a weekly basis. Still, I've managed to kill every single wretched succulent in that pot (in what I suspect was a case of death by drowning) but one, which continues to survive against all odds. 

Although the evidence unequivocally suggests that a green thumb is not one of the things I have inherited from my mother, I dream of some day owning a backyard, lush with fruit trees. Lemon trees, beautiful with their sunny yellow fruit, will, I hope, be one of the inhabitants of this backyard. And should I be faced with a bounty of lemons, one of the recipes I might turn to is this recipe for a lemon-almond butter cake from The New York Times. It has a tangy, mouth puckering ring to it, because of all the lemon juice that goes into the lemon curd. I made some modifications to the original recipe, using a different recipe for the lemon curd that is generously spooned all over the almond based cake batter before the whole thing is despatched to the oven. This recipe can take a while to put together thanks to the multiple components. I wouldn't call this a special occasion dessert, but perhaps it can be elevated to that level with the use of sweetened whipped cream and fresh or sauced berries, as suggested by some reviewers. The lemon curd is delicious and I could have eaten it by itself, but for the exercise of considerable self-restraint. I was disappointed that its smooth, velvety texture was lost when baked atop the cake batter.  

I used mass produced, non-organic lemons in a bag from the supermarket next door for this recipe. The cake turned out fine, which is reassuring. Just in case the lemon tree of my dreams goes the way of my mother's curry leaf plant. 

Lemon-Almond Butter Cake (loosely adapted from this recipe)

9 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon flour
1 cup plus 1 to 2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 extra-large eggs
½ cup ground toasted almonds
2 tablespoons toasted sliced almonds

FOR THE LEMON CURD (based on this recipe)
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (I used just under 1/2 cup, say around 3/4ths of that measure, to limit the tanginess)
2 teaspoons finely grated fresh lemon zest
1/2 cup sugar
3 large eggs
3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into bits
1 extra egg yolk (optional)

To make the lemon curd: 
Whisk together juice, zest, sugar, and eggs in a saucepan. The use of the extra egg yolk was recommended by some reviewers to ensure a thick lemon curd, but is not required in the original recipe. I used a heavy stainless steel saucepan. I combined the mixture well using a hand held mixer, and only then put it on the stove. Stir in butter, bit by bit, and cook over moderately low heat, whisking frequently, until curd is thick enough to hold marks of whisk and first bubble appears on surface. The recipe says this should take around 6 minutes, but it took me closer to 12 minutes, perhaps because I stirred the mixture on low heat to avoid curdling and lumps. 

Strain the mixture to ensure it is as smooth as possible. Finally, transfer lemon curd to a bowl and chill, its surface covered with plastic wrap, to prevent a skin from forming, until cold, at least 1 hour. 

To make the cake: 
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 9-inch spring-form pan with 1 tablespoon butter, and dust with 1 tablespoon flour, shaking out excess.
With an electric mixer, cream the remaining butter and 1 cup sugar together until light and fluffy. Sift together the remaining flour, baking powder and salt, and stir in. In a separate bowl, whisk eggs until they start to foam. Do not overbeat or the cake will be tough. Add eggs and ground almonds to batter, and mix well.
Scrape batter into the prepared pan. Drop tablespoons of lemon curd around perimeter of batter, leaving a 1-inch border, and taking care to space drops evenly. Drop 3 to 4 tablespoons curd into center of batter. Sprinkle cake with toasted almonds and 1 to 2 tablespoons sugar, depending on taste.
Bake until cake is toasty brown on top and a toothpick inserted into cake (not curd) comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Let cool on rack 10 minutes, then remove sides of pan, and cool completely.

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