Over the weekend, I told a friend that I was running out of ideas of things to bake. That’s not exactly accurate. I have a lot of ideas, I just can’t seem to put them into action. My perfectionism gets in the way. It seems I have a sort of “baker’s block”.
I think the antidote to that (not being able to produce something, either from fear of failure and uncertainty, or wanting something to be perfect and/or unique) is to just make something that others have made already, including yourself. And to just accept that you are not going to make something that is your personal thing, with your unique spin on it.
But at least you will make something good.
Enter Maida Heatter. She has several baking books out. She is an authority on baking. She’s been baking for decades. She doesn’t do the internet. She is 98. (Here is an interview a few years back with the LA times. Adorable.) If you ever have baker’s block, get some of her books and make one of her recipes. You’ll be glad you did.
Several months ago I purchased a used copy of Maida Heatter’s New Book of Great Desserts, finding a receipt from a grocery store in Austin, Texas, tucked somewhere in the middle of the book. On the back of the receipt (dated 1983!), someone had scribbled three recipes that I’m assuming they either wanted to try, or maybe they were just making a note of what recipes they liked best. This was one of the three. Having seen photos from other food bloggers of this “damn” cake, I decided that this was the cake to make. I already made the Budapest Coffee Cake, and the Robert Redford Cake. Both are fantastic.
Maida Heatter declares this the best damn lemon cake. It is called “The Best Damn Lemon Cake” in her book.
She is not exaggerating. It is sturdy without being dry. Lemony without being overkill. Moist without being sticky, which is unbelievable considering how much of the glaze has to be absorbed into the cake. But all that thick, syrupy, liquid glaze magically disappears when you give it time to do so. There is much to like about this cake.
The key to making the best damn lemon cake is to follow the directions as close as you can to the original. I did not try to toy with making it my own or to try adding something to make it stand out. Because it already stands out, and why mess with a good thing?
The Best Damn Lemon Cake (by Maida Heatter, from her book, Maida Heatter’s New Book of Great Desserts)
1/4 # butter, plus more for greasing the pan
fine bread crumbs for pan
1 1/2 cups sifted All-Purpose Flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup milk
1 ounce lemon extract
1/2 cup blanched almonds (toasted and very finely ground)
zest from two large lemons
1/3 cup sugar + 2 Tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
Preheat oven 350 degrees F. Butter a 6-cup loaf pan (typically 8.5 by 4.5 inch. A pan with the same volume but different dimensions will still work, it just may have a different bake time.) An aluminum pan is best. Do not double the recipe for a larger loaf (I’m usually guilty of doing just that!). Avoid using a glass pan. (My only sin with not following the recipe exactly. I used a glass pan, because that’s all I had. Oh well. It still turned out good.)
Dust the pan with plain, fine bread crumbs. Set aside.
Sift together flour, salt, baking powder. Set aside.
Melt the butter on medium, in a small saucepan, and remove as soon as butter is all melted. Add butter to a medium bowl and add the sugar, mixing well with a hand held mixer. Add the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the sides as usual. Add the zest and blend well. Add the lemon extract, mixing well also.
Starting with the flour mixture, add one third of the flour mix to the butter mixture (i.e., the butter, eggs, sugar, extract, and lemon zest), mixing on low, then half the milk to the butter mixture, repeat, mixing only on low. End with the last third of the flour mixture. Add the ground almonds and fold into the mixture.
Pour the batter into the container and smooth the top with a spoon or spatula. Bake for an hour, more or less or until toothpick test in the center comes out clean.
2 to 3 minutes before taking out of the oven, make the glaze by adding the lemon juice and sugar to a small saucepan and heating only until the sugar is dissolved. Do not boil glaze.
When cake comes out of the oven, let cool for a few minutes, in pan. Brush glaze over cake in pan, letting it soak in slowly. Try not to do this all at once, but spend about 5 minutes only glazing a little at a time, until all the liquid has been brushed over the entire area of the cake, soaking in sides and bottom. I gently pushed the cake from the sides with a butter knife, allowing the glaze to go to the bottom and sides of cake.
Let cool until warm in the pan before removing the pan, then let it cool completely before taking it out of pan and wrapping in wax paper and refrigerating overnight before cutting. Maida also says that you can wrap it in wax paper and put in the freezer for a couple of hours before cutting. (Which is what I did, because there was no way in hell I was going to wait a day to cut into this!)
Also according to Maida, this cake keeps well, and actually tastes better the longer it sits. It lasts several days. (As If something like this would ever last in our household! Ha!)