Let’s talk birthday cakes, shall we? When choosing a cake with which to celebrate, my natural inclination is chocolate. I happen to know that chocolate cake is incredibly easy to make. I also happen to know that this particular chocolate cake, which is actually a black mocha cake, is very pretty when showered with powdered sugar. Alongside a big scoop of vanilla ice cream, it’s hard to beat, especially on a warm spring evening in Texas, the kind that makes you feel happy to live in a place where “spring” really means “summer.”
(I really don’t want to discuss what summer means in Texas. I think you already know the answer to that one.)
I lean toward chocolate cake so hard that when I volunteered to bake a birthday cake for someone who claims not to be a big fan of chocolate, I knew I’d have to get creative. Whatever I baked had to be incredibly flavorful without being too sweet. It had to have a nice texture, neither too wet nor too dry, with a good crumb that goes well with a frosting. And the frosting! Yes, this cake would be frosted, but it had to be a frosting that tastes like something more than a straight shot of sugar. It had to have pizzazz and spunk. It had to add interest to the cake.
The birthday girl in question was my friend Amutha, she who makes delicious channa masala and drinks red wine with me on weeknights(!). Amutha’s palate leans toward the sour, so I thought a citrus cake would be nice, something buttery and rich with lemon flavor. I also knew she was a fan of cream cheese, so a cream cheese frosting sounded like a good match for a buttery lemon cake. To help me in my cake quest, I called in help from Moosewood. I love Moosewood’s books, and it was with great glee that I bought their Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts a few years ago. I had been flirting with it in the bookstore, picking it up, flipping through its pages, sniffing it when no one was looking. It took a few visits before I took it home with me, and to continue with the romantic metaphor, I’m sure it joined me in bed a few times. All my cookbooks end up in bed with me at one point or another.
After some page-flipping and deep thought, I hybridized two recipes to come up with a birthday cake that would suit my needs. The cake itself is the Lemon Loaf. It’s a butter cake spiked with lemon zest and in the original recipe, the cake is glazed with a lemony syrup. It sounds totally delicious, but I skipped the glaze, knowing that I wanted to frost the cake. The frosting is a basic cream cheese frosting borrowed from the recipe for a Buttermilk Spice Cake. The frosting recipe offers the option of adding half a teaspoon of almond, lemon, or orange extract. I jumped at the chance to add more lemony punch, giving the frosting tang from the cream cheese and the lemon extract.
After all that plotting, I’m happy to report that this cake delivered on all its promises. The cake was buttery but not too sweet, with a subtle lemon flavor. The crumb was a little drier than I expected, but I decided that I liked how the cake’s texture contrasted the incredible creaminess of the frosting. I don’t mean to say that the crumb was dry, but on the spectrum from dry to wet, it sits just a little off-center toward the dry end of things. Given that the original recipe calls for a syrupy glaze treatment, I think the cake’s texture makes a lot of sense.
The frosting was totally delicious and totally addictive. I am quite defenseless when faced with anything containing cream cheese and powdered sugar. The frosting is much sweeter than the cake, which again, I think makes for a good contrast. Thanks to the lemon extract, the frosting has a certain punchiness to it in addition to its creamy sweetness.
Although we all enjoyed the cake at Amutha’s party, I ended up taking a big hunk of it home with me—we had way more food than our bellies could handle in one night. I didn’t know what do to with all that leftover cake, so I threw up my hands and chucked the cake in the freezer, which is how I came to discover that even after haphazard cold storage, this cake is delightful. It does get a little drier, but to my mind, that frosting can cover up a multitude of sins. Though I can’t speak for its redemptive properties beyond the dessert fork, it is a very good basic recipe to have on hand, should you find yourself in need of a spunky, lovable frosting.
Lemon Butter Birthday Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts
Just a quick note for those of you who are close readers: I halved the original frosting recipe to make a batch more suitable for a 9-inch cake, so there’s only 1/4 tsp. lemon extract, as compared to the 1/2 tsp. extract that I mentioned above.
For the cake:
1/2 cup butter (1 stick), at room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
Finely grated lemon peel from one large lemon (~1 tbsp.)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup milk
For the frosting:
2 tbsp. butter, at room temperature
3 ounces of cream cheese or Neufchatel cheese, at room temperature
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. lemon extract
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9-inch round cake pan, then dust it with flour and knock out the excess.
2) In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter and sugar with an electric mixer until fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time and mix to combine with the butter-sugar fluff, then add the lemon peel.
3) In a separate bowl, mix together the dry ingredients: flour, baking powder, and salt. Alternate mixing the dry ingredients and the milk into the butter mixture, and beat just enough to combine.
4) Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake 40-50 minutes or until golden and a tester comes out clean. Based on my previous experience, I’d err on the side of a short baking time, but I’d trust the tester to guide me here.
5) Let the cake cool completely in its cake pan, then invert it and place on a pretty plate or a cake stand.
6) Make the frosting by creaming the butter and cream cheese together until fluffy. Add the vanilla and lemon extracts, then add the powdered sugar gradually until the frosting is a nice, smooth consistency for spreading. I think I used the entire 1 1/2 cups here, but Moosewood suggests using a little milk if the frosting is too stiff or more sugar if the frosting is too soft.
7) Frost the cooled cake, then present it to the lucky birthday person and get out the dessert plates and the dainty forks. Singing is optional.