Blueberry lemon cake with lemon cream cheese frosting

It’s amazing what a little lemon zest can do for one’s spirits.  There’s a reason why another definition of “zest” is “quality that increases enjoyment“; citrus does just that. 

The coconut cake has receded into the distant past, along with the snow.  Instead, my mind has shifted to another of my favorite cakes, this blueberry lemon cake with lemon cream cheese frosting.  For me, this cake is synonymous with spring. 

The grass hasn’t quite greened up yet out the window, but lemon flavor reminds us that the sun is here, getting stronger by the day, and spring is kicking winter to the curb.

I love making cakes with three layers – they look more dramatic, plus there’s increased opportunity to enjoy the frosting.

The problem for me making these cakes is that there is so much cake.  A recipe like this makes 10-12 servings, and for this cake in particular with its cream cheese frosting, very rich servings. 

Unless you’re baking a cake for an event, I find it hard to use up a full-size cake like this, and often the last section gets thrown away.  I mean, there’s only so much cake you can eat, right? Even if it tastes wonderful, you get sick of it after a while. 

(Alternately, you can give the remaining cake away.  If you live within a six-block radius of me, chances are that the Baking Fairy will visit you at some point.)

***

But what if there was a way for you to have your cake and be able to eat all of it too?

A while back, I discovered that you can take most regular 9-inch layer cake recipes and halve the ingredients to make a 6-inch cake.  A 6-inch cake yields about 6-8 servings, which can be just the right amount for a family of four, with a little left over to relive the cake glory the next day.

The cake doesn’t look quite as elegant in the smaller size, but who’s complaining?  You have a fabulous cake in front of you to eat.

Six-inch cake pans are less common than nine-inch pans; you can find them at kitchen supply stores (I bought mine at Cooks of Crocus Hill in St. Paul) or purchase them online.  If you bake much I think they’re useful to have on hand, for cakes for kids’ birthdays or small dinner parties.

Using cake flour results in a delicate, tender crumb.  You can find cake flour in a box under the brand name “Softasilk” in supermarkets, or it is sold in the bulk area at natural foods stores.  

This cake does not call for lemon juice, only lemon zest.  It’s amazing to me that such a small amount of zest can infuse an entire cake with lemon flavor.  Make sure to wash the lemons prior to zesting them, to remove any wax or other harmful stuff. My favorite zesting tool is my Microplane fine grater pictured below; it makes zesting a breeze. 

The original instructions indicate that you can make this cake up to a day ahead of time and refrigerate, then let stand for 30 minutes at room temperature before serving.  We have very little spare space in our fridge to do this, though, so sometimes I bake the cake layers the day before I plan to serve it, and make the frosting the same day it’s served.

With all of the butter and cream cheese in the frosting, it’s probably best to refrigerate any remaining cake if you have it on hand for more than a day.

***

Blueberry Lemon Cake with Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting

(Adapted from Bon Appetit, makes one 6-inch, 3-layer cake)

[NOTE: If you'd like to make the full-size version of this cake with 9-inch cake pans, either refer to the original recipe or double the ingredients listed below.]

CAKE
Ingredients:
1 cup plus 3 T. cake flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup whole milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. grated lemon peel (zest)
1 1/2 cups fresh blueberries (about two half-pint packages)

Instructions:
Preheat the oven ton 350 degrees.  Butter three 6-inch cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper, then butter the parchment and dust the pans with flour.

Sift together the cake flour, baking powder and salt.

Combine the milk, vanilla and lemon zest and set aside. Rinse the blueberries and pat dry.  Grab 1 1/2 tsp. of the flour mixture and toss the blueberries with it until the berries are all coated.

Beat the butter on medium to high speed with a mixer until fluffy.  Gradually add the sugar and beat well.  Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. 

Turn the mixer speed to low, and alternately add the flour mixture and milk mixture in three equal portions each, until the ingredients are incorporated.  Do not overmix or use a high speed as that can cause the cake batter to toughen.

Gently fold the blueberries into the batter, then divide among the three cake pans. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until a wooden toothpick in center comes out clean. 

Remove from oven, and allow the layers to cool for 10 minutes in the pan, then carefully remove them from the pan to cool completely on a wire rack. Peel the parchment paper from the bottoms of the layers.

Make frosting (recipe below).

FROSTING
Ingredients:
1 8-oz. package cream cheese, room temperature
6 T. (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon peel (zest)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Instructions:
Beat the cream cheese and butter together until light and fluffy.  Gradually add the powdered sugar, beating well.  Add the lemon zest and vanilla extract and mix to incorporate. 

If the frosting seems too runny or floppy to spread, refrigerate it for about 30 minutes to firm it up.

To frost the cake, place one layer on a platter and spread about 1/3 cup of frosting on the top.  Add another layer, and spread another 1/3 of frosting on the top.  Then, add the third layer, and frost the top and the sides of the cake.  Garnish with thin, twisted lemon slices and fresh blueberries if desired.

Ahhh, spring…it’s finally here.

It’s the frosting, stupid!

Baking a cake from scratch can be pretty easy for the most part. But it’s the frosting that will get you every time.

Some frosting recipes need to be prepared just so, otherwise they can fall flat on their faces, or flat on the cake as it were. Witness the Chocolate Frosting that I made for the recent birthday parties.

By this past weekend, I was completely sick of cake. But the issue of the Fluffy Chocolate Frosting That Wasn’t kept nagging my brain and wouldn’t leave. I thought I had pinpointed what was going wrong with the recipe and wanted to test my hypothesis.

And you can’t make frosting without having something to put it on, right? So I made one last mini-cake on Friday since it was my daughter’s official birthday that day.

In a search for more cake recipes for 6-inch diameter cake pans online, one person suggested that you can just halve a regular cake recipe, and that’s enough for a 6 inch 2 layer cake. Could it be that easy? No complex math involved?

I set out to see if this was the case – whether 1 full cake recipe could be made into two mini-cakes. First, I measured how much batter there is in a full-size cake recipe; it turned out there was about 1 1/2 quarts in the recipe I prepared.

Then I took roughly half of the batter and divided it between two cake pans, which illustrated that you only need to fill the cake pans about 1/4 full for a 2 inch cake pan (this translates to about a 1/2 inch deep of cake batter).


I baked the first cake, let it cool for about 10 minutes, then baked the second cake. (I guess it’s okay for the batter to sit around for a little while. It baked up fine.)

The cake layers turned out a little unevenly sized,

but I countered that by slicing the top off the bigger layer and using that layer for the cake bottom; slicing off the domed part left a nice flat surface on which to put the second layer.

Now, on to the frosting challenge. First, I sifted the powdered sugar.

This removes any lumps that have formed in the stored sugar and provides an even texture. The cookbook talked about the importance of this step and I can cofirm this; in the past when I’ve been too impatient with frosting recipes, I’ve just thrown in the sugar and the final frosting has turned out lumpy.

Then, the recipe called for “waking up” the cocoa powder by pouring boiling water over it. Supposedly, this releases a richer flavor from the cocoa. You stir the cocoa together with the water so that it forms a soft mass. Then you blend room-temperature butter into the moistened cocoa.

The potential problems with this method are two-fold. First, it’s very easy to put too much water in, which can result in general runniness.

And the boiling water leaves the cocoa pretty hot for a while afterward. So if you put the butter in right away, it’s just going to melt. And no amount of mixing afterward can make melted butter turn fluffy.

I think that I ran into both of these problems the first couple of times I made this frosting recipe and that’s what turned it into a glaze rather than a fluffy consistency.

When I made it again on Friday, I was very careful about how much water I poured over the chocolate (WAKE UP COCOA!!!), and then I let it rest for a few minutes (shhh, little cocoa, go back to sleep) before I continued with the recipe.


These small changes were enough to turn the frosting corner. The finished frosting looked completely different than the other times – a thicker texture and lighter color.

FINALLY I had conquered this frosting. It only took me four attempts making the recipe to get it right.- Sigh-

Check out the photos of the finished cakes to see the difference a few tweaks can make. The frosting doesn’t even look like the same recipe, but it is:

First attempt:

Last attempt:


Fluffy Chocolate Frosting
Adapted from the Chocolate Cake Mix Doctor

This recipe makes 1 1/2 cups, enough to frost a 2-layer 6 inch diameter mini-cake.

Ingredients:
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3 T. boiling water
4 T. (1/2 stick) butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract

Pour the boiling water over the cocoa powder and stir it together to combine. Let the mixture sit for a couple of minutes to cool down, then add the butter and mix on low speed until it is combined (this takes less than a minute).

Then, add the powdered sugar and vanilla and mix on low speed for another minute so that the powdered sugar is incorporated into the mixture. Turn the speed up to medium and beat the frosting for a couple more minutes until the mixture lightens in color and turns fluffy. The longer you beat it, the lighter it will get.

***

Well, we had our cake and ate it too,
and that was enough for us to do.

The second cake went into the freezer,

so that I could be a future people pleaser,

And I was keeping it cool, keeping it cool…

Now that I know the tricks
to get my mini-cake fix

I’ll get my kicks
taking licks

At other cake recipes, other cake recipes.

My mixer goes to 11

I am sooooooo done with cake.

I mentioned earlier that both of my kids’ birthdays fall during October; well, they’re only 9 days apart, right at the end of the month.

This last part of the month is like my version of Super Bowl week, only times two. There’s official birthday number one, then a family birthday party (where we also celebrate my niece’s October birthday), then a kids birthday party, then the official birthday number two. Then Halloween. It’s all enough to drive a person batty, or into a sugar-induced coma, or both.

The seismic birthday activity peaked this past weekend, with two parties scheduled, one with family on Saturday and one with kids on Sunday.

For these two birthday extravaganzas, over the course of the weekend, I baked a total of 5 two-layer mini-cakes and 2 dozen cupcakes. Yes, why not dive right in from non-cooking to full-throttle cooking? It’s the way of Amy.

Why did I choose to bake the cakes myself rather than buy them? It’s a question my husband tactfully posed to me and one that I also tend to ask myself midway through the process each year (as in, what the hell was I thinking?).

But then, the next year, the mental slate is wiped clean and I rationalize it to myself saying, well, I like to bake. They’re easy to make. They’re cheaper than buying cakes from the store. And, since the kids birthdays are so close together, they inevitably share parties. The least I can do is to give them each their own cake, right? Riiiight.

To preserve my stamina and sanity, I had to prepare these in stages.

  • On Friday, I made the three cakes for Saturday’s family party – two devils food cakes and one yellow cake.
  • On Saturday, I frosted the three cakes, and baked the cupcakes for Sunday’s kid party.
  • On Sunday, I frosted the cupcakes, baked two more cakes and frosted them too.

In the process, I went through four cake mixes, over a bottle of vanilla, a bag and a half of powdered sugar and over two cups of cocoa powder. That’s a personal record.

The first set of cakes went pretty well, with a few stumbles along the way. I bought a new oven thermometer to gauge the calibration of our new range and, even though the oven dial was set to 350 degrees, the thermometer read 450. I filled the pans too full, so the layers were freakishly tall.

(I cut back the bottom layer to make it flat and more stable for the second layer, but didn’t think to shorten the top layer too. Isn’t frosting great camouflage?)

And the Fluffy Chocolate Frosting that I made didn’t live up to its name. I’ve made this recipe several times now and it tends to be floppy rather than fluffy. It’s not the most elegant looking frosting, but I continue to make it because of its fudgy taste.

Whatever. In the end, the cakes turned out pretty cute, the guests lavished praise on them (who wouldn’t, free cake!), and all was well in Petersonland.

But I knew I could do better.

I took the boxed mix shortcut just because I had so many cakes to make at once; I really do prefer scratch cakes. There’s a big texture difference between cake mix cakes and cakes made from scratch; using cake flour produces a finer, more tender crumb. Also, I think cakes made with butter simply taste better than the vegetable oil-based cakes.

So I decided to make the cakes from scratch for Sunday’s party.

Frosting is one of those things that always should be made from scratch too. The kids were going to decorate cupcakes at the kids birthday party, so I planned to make a cooked seven-minute style white frosting. Plus I wanted to take another go at the chocolate frosting and see if I could get it to fluff up more this time.

My hand mixer only had three settings, but I knew I needed more power. Time to break out the big guns and use the stand mixer.

A lot of bakers, their mixers only go to 10. But where can you go from there? NOWHERE. My mixer goes to 11.

Recipes to follow in tomorrow’s post…

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