3 April 2015

Really Lemony Lemon Sponge Birthday Cake

This year was my mum's 80th birthday.  Now I know you're not supposed to broadcast a lady's age, but there comes a time when it is to be celebrated rather than hidden - and I reckon that 80 is that time.

My mum's birthday has been the source of some amusement and confusion over the years, because it arrives so quickly after Christmas - the 6th January - and she'd got fed up with having a Chrisbirthday.  One year we even tried delaying her birthday until May.  Of course, we all forgot and she didn't get a birthday at all that year.  Ooops.

In order to make a fuss of her, this year I decided to lay on an afternoon tea with every little tasty morsel in flavours that she would like and in sizes that would mean both her and my Dad could sample a little bit of everything.  As I know only to well, the older you get the smaller your capacity for tasty morsels becomes!

So we had a lovely tea, which consisted of Emmenthal & Bacon Quichelets, egg mayonnaise & cress sandwiches, Bavarian ham & wholegrain mustard sandwiches, a tiny salad in a leaf and almond & raspberry biscuits.  All of which were delicious and all of which led up to the piece de resistance - the lemon sponge birthday cake.

For one of my Dad's birthdays, I had made a big, butch, manly chocolate & beetroot cake which went down very well.  However, I needed something a lot more ladylike and refined.  I pondered on coffee cake, as I know she makes a wonderful coffee and walnut cake - but I doubted that mine would be able to compete and anyway, I felt it would be better to make something that wasn't "usual" for her.

Lemon top right being the interloper in the bunch!
Just that week, we'd bought some fantastic Sicilian lemons for use in drinks and I'd been able to sample how sweet and juicy they were.  This, naturally, brought the idea of the lemon sponge to the fore.  The Sicilian lemons would be perfect, as they were huge - so would provide a good quantity of lemon zest, they were as sweet as a dessert fruit and the intensity of the lemon aroma and zing was just incredible.  It just so happened that I also had a little bottle of Sicilian Lemon concentrate in the baking cupboard.  I felt sure that with a lemon curd filling, the cake would be perfect.

For the last 15 years or more, whenever I've been required to produce a sponge cake, I've used Delia Smith's All In One Sponge recipe.  I've made coconut versions, chocolate, lemon, coffee - just about every combination you could think of, so I didn't have to look very far for a tried and tested recipe.

However, this was an 80th birthday cake - so a dash of icing sugar on the top with a few sprinkles just wasn't going to cut it.  I needed to think up something a bit better as regards decoration.

So what do you think?  I reckon I thought up something a bit better than icing sugar and sprinkles.  *wink*

Now this was the very first time I had ever used fondant icing on anything - much less a very important birthday cake.

I made the cake the day before and kept it overnight in a freezer bag so as to ensure it didn't dry out at all.

The day before the tea party, I set to with fondant icing, apricot jam and lemon curd.  Well, the lemon curd bit was easy enough - a nice thick covering on top of one sponge and then delicately lay the second on top.  So far so good.

Next, was painting the surface and sides with watered down apricot jam - enough to help the fondant icing to stick nicely.

Then because the colour of the base icing was white, I spent a good ten minutes or so cleaning up every single little cake crumb (and sponge cakes are very good at shedding cake crumbs) from the working surface.

The leaves are finished, now for the flowers!
This next was the bit that I was the most nervous about, as I knew I had just one go at getting it right.  I had to roll the icing out (which it does very well, no arguing at all) to a shape that would easily cover the cake without any holes or gaps and make sure it didn't crack on the way from worktop to cake.  Deep breaths.  Well, it went perfectly.  As per the instructions, I draped the icing over the rolling pin and with a quick but steady "whoop!", whooped it over and flump - on top it went and couldn't have been better.  It sat perfectly (and without any militant crumbs to break the pristine whiteness), covered beautifully and I was able to trim it up so easily.  I don't really know what I was worried about.  *wink*

The next job was to smooth and stroke the white icing, so as to gain a slightly shiny surface rather than the matte one that is natural for the icing.  That took another ten minutes or so and a clean pastry brush certainly helped with removing the loose sugar grains.

All that was left was to cut out the leaves (easy done, with a set of differently sized icing cutters) and flowers (ditto), marble the icing with green food colouring and cut out more leaves, paint the plain coloured leaves (yes, every one was painted with food colour) in different shades and patterns and form some of the leaves (the ones to go on top) into distorted shapes so as to give the leaf trail some movement.

I used lemon juice to wet each leaf and flower before settling them into place on the cake.  Well, why turn down the opportunity to get a little more lemon flavour in there?  The icing is flavoured with vanilla naturally, so there was no clash in flavours.

The whole process of filling and decorating the cake took around three hours, all in all.  Every minute spent was worth it though.  If it wasn't for the fact that we'd all be shaped like bowling balls, I would make many more cakes that require extensive decoration!

I love how the cake looked when it was finished.  If I've ever been proud of something I've created, it was this.  Mum looked suitably impressed and happy with it when we produced it along with a truly appalling rendition of "Happy Birthday To You" and I hope its prettiness helped to smooth over the worst of the singing.

As for the recipe, I have set it out below as there are a couple of little baking variations to Delia's original recipe and if you want a REALLY lemony lemon sponge, you might want to follow along.

I haven't detailed the decoration in the recipe as you can serve the sponge very successfully with just a sprinkle of icing sugar on top.  You could even drizzle some lemon syrup over it once you've filled it - and some dairy cream would be delicious in the middle with the lemon curd if you're feeling summery too.  The world is your oyster with this sponge cake recipe, it really is that forgiving!  For dessert or with a cup of tea, it will do the lot.

Now, in an enormous departure for Rhubarb & Ginger - and as an indication of just how pleased I was with this cake - I took a 365 degree video of it.  Feel free to gasp in awe and exclaim in admiration, I'll hear you!

REALLY LEMONY LEMON SPONGE CAKE   (serves 6-12 depending on size of slice!)

Ingredients :

175g self raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
3 large eggs
175g caster sugar
175g softened unsalted butter
the zest of 1 large lemon
the juice of half a large lemon
1 tsp Sicilian lemon extract
4-5 tbsp lemon curd.

Method :

1.  Take a very large mixing bowl. Measure out the flour and baking powder and using a sieve, sift into the bowl.

2.  Now simply add all the other ingredients (apart from the lemon curd, which is for the filling) to the bowl and whisk everything together until you have a smooth, well-combined mixture.  Provided the butter is good and soft, this shouldn't take longer than a couple of minutes.

3.  You should have a soft mixture that is of dropping consistency.  If it seems a little too stiff, you can always add some more lemon juice or a tablespoonful of warm water to mobilise it a bit.

4.  Divide the mixture between two eight inch (20cm) tins that have a piece of greaseproof paper or cooking parchment covering the base of each and that have been lightly buttered.  Level out the surface but leave a very slight dip in the centre to prevent the cake from crowning too much as it rises.  Place on the centre shelf of a pre-heated oven at 170degC/325degF/Gas 3. It will take 30-35 minutes to cook – but don't open the oven door to check it until 25 minutes have elapsed.

5.  You will know when the cakes are done, by touching the centre of the cake lightly.  If your finger leaves no impression - and the cake springs back - it is cooked.

6.  Leave the cakes to cool slightly on a cooling rack, before removing them from their tins.  Leave them sat upon the paper layer, on the cooling rack, to cool completely.

7.  Once utterly cold, carefully remove the paper layer and decide which is to be the bottom layer and which the top.  Place the bottom layer onto your cake plate top surface down.  Coat the cake in the lemon curd - generously - and carefully lay the second cake on top.

8.  You are now free to decorate the cake in whichever way you feel appropriate!

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