Lemons and Yogurt Cake

Lemon Cake with sugar nests lit by birthday candles

When I first set out to make this cake it was really an attempt to make a Gin and Tonic Cake for my brother-in-law’s fiftieth birthday. Seeing that he is quite the eligible bachelor, I thought that a funky recipe would be far more appropriate than a classic one. 

But you know by now that my search for the perfect cake is wrapped around the notion of reimagining Palestinian ingredients, because in Palestine you grow with this great sense of who you are, where you  were born, and how you are viewed by the rest of the world.  And with that deep sense of self, comes an even deeper sense of responsibility, the Palestinian woman’s/man’s burden if you will.  

An what starts as a hobby and an attempt to escape the daily stress of raising children, serving a community, doing laundry and cooking,  inevitably turns into a documentation project of Palestinian cuisine, trying to add an authentic voice  to the many voices and opinions on food and Palestine. 

So here we are,  what started as an attempt at the BBC  Good Food recipe took a turn half way through into a recipe of my own using two very important ingredients and products of Palestine: Lemons and Yogurt.

The lemons used here are homegrown, and their smell and taste take me back to the endless citrus orchards my aunt owned, and duly harvested every year in Ellar, a small village near Tulkarem.  But more significantly is the reminiscence of Yafa and its beautiful citrus orchards ever so present in Palestinian literature and discourse. 

Recently I was reading the memoir of Tamam Al Akhal.  She tells of her time as a child in Yafa, and the day they left  to become refugees in Lebanon, it was the smell of oranges that haunted her memories, and her work.  And the story of Ester (written by Raja Shehadeh), a Palestinian from Yafa who buried her jewellery between two lemons in her backyard, as she fled the city. When she left, Ester believed that this departure was only temporary and that she will soon return.

Many years later she pleads with her priest to go back and dig up the box. And he obliges her and sets on what could have easily turned into a deadly misadventure only  to find the lemon trees standing there as she described, slightly bigger in size, witness to a changed time accented with loss and yearning.  The home was inhabited by an Israeli family who took it over in 1948, and who were either blissfully oblivious to or completely unmoved by the fact that they live in a home that was lost by another family at gun point.  A family that found themselves living   an hour away from Yafa yet unable to return home.  

Yogurt is a staple in Palestine, served with olive oil and hot bread, or cooked into a thick soup with stuffed kusa (Makhshi), or with large pieces of cooked lamb and rice.  Yogurt tends to make its appearance on the daily Palestinian table, and is without a doubt a childhood favorite for many.  My discovery of yogurt in cakes dates back to about seven years ago, when I wast trying a chocolate cake recipe, and a friend suggested that I use yogurt to give it moisture.  Since then, many of my recipes will use yogurt very often in place of butter milk.  

Ingredients:

For the Cake

250 g butter (room temp) 

200 g sugar

250 g all purpose flour

4 eggs (room temp)

80 g Palestinian Yogurt 

1 juice of a lemon (if they are small use 1.5-2 lemons, depending on how much juice you get) 

2 1/4 tsp baking powder

a dash of salt (1/4 tsp)

a dash of baking powder (1/4 tsp) 

50 mL Gin (if you wish to make add alcohol, if not just add a bit of water to the yogurt to make a bit more soupy around 20 mL should do). 

For The Syrup

150 mL Seven up or Sprite

125 g Sugar

The juice of one lemon (if small use 1.5 to 2) 

You can add: 1 Tbsp of Orange Blossom water or 1Tbsp of Rose water (whichever one you prefer, I personally find orange blossom to balance out the lemon juice) 

For the Icing

200 g butter (room temp)

2 Tbsp warm milk

5 mL lemon juice

Zest of a lemon

400 g powdered sugar (if you want a thicker icing add around 500 g) 

For the Sugar Nests

2 cups sugar 

A sauce pan 

 

To Make The Cake and Syrup

  1. Grease to 9 inch pans and line the bottom with parchment paper, preheat oven to 150/160 C. 
  2. In a bowl of a stand mixer beat the butter for 1-2 min on medium speed, slowly add the 200 g of sugar and beat on medium speed for five minutes (I personally time this, because technique is everything, and the butter really needs to be smooth and aired out).  The butter-sugar mixture will lighten and double in size.  
  3. Lower the speed of your mixer and add the eggs, one egg at a time.  Make sure the egg is fully mixed in before adding the following one.  You may notice after the third egg the mixture is separating, do not worry, add your last egg and a little bit of your flour and make sure the mixture is well incorporated. 
  4. Add your flour, you may fold it in by hand, i like to add it one Tbsp at a time on a low to medium speed in the mixer. Once the flour is mixed in. Mix 80 g yogurt with the juice from the lemons, and thin it out with about 10-20 mL of cold water if needed. If the yogurt is a bit on the thin side, reduce or do not add the water at all. Once the yogurt is mixed in, you will get a silky smooth batter. 
  5. Spoon the batter equally into the pans and smooth it out.  
  6. Baking using the water bath method: take a large kitchen towel and fold into a tube. Place your pan into a larger pan and wrapt it with the towel. Add boiling water on the towel and around it (make sure the towel is soaked).  Place into the oven and bake for 35-38 min, or until a skewer comes out clean. This method will give you flat cakes with no doming. You can do away with the towel and simply place your pan in a water bath, but the towel method is cleaner and easier to handle. 
  7. In the mean time make your syrup. Add the sugar (125 g) and the Seven up or Sprite (150 mL) into a sauce pan, bring to a boil until all the sugar has dissolved, add the lemon juice and cook for another 6-7 min, it should start to thicken.  It needs to be runnier than katr . Remove from heat, cool and add your orange blossom water or rose water, stir and let stand until the cakes are ready. 
  8. When the cakes are ready, pull out of the oven, cool for five minutes, then prick the surface at several points and spoon your syrup on both cakes generously.  Let them stand to cool in the refrigerator for at least one hour. 

To Make the Butter Cream

In a stand mixer beat the butter for a minute or two then slowly add the powdered sugar using a spoon, making sure that the sugar is fully incorporated, add the zest of one lemon, 5 mL of lemon juice and 2 Tbsp of warmed milk. Add all components gradually making sure that the butter cream doesn’t begin to separate and become grainy. Don’t use cold milk it will cause your mixture to separate. 

To Make the Sugar Nests:

In a small sauce pan add the two cups sugar and heat on medium heat, stirring frequently so the bottom of the sugar does not burn. The sugar will start to melt rather quickly, continue to stir until the sugar is completely liquid and brown to dark brown in color. Remove from heat and cool for a few minutes (around five). Check with your fork, swirl your fork and then pull it out, it should drizzle in a continuous stream for this to work. If the sugar is too hot, it wont work, because it won’t be continuous.  Grease a ladle, pick your sugar syrup with a fork and drizzle on the back of the ladle in random swirls, lines or whatever you like. For this cake, I made twelve or more nests. 

Watch this video that my friend sent me and I found very useful to get a better idea. 

 

Assemble the Cake

Place your first layer on a turn table and cover with a generous amount of icing, spread with a spatula, then place the next layer and cover with the icing.  Using an icing spatular cover the sides generously, you may make little curves into the icing to give movement.  Carefully arrange the sugar nest on top of each other forming a random pile.  Allow the cake to cool for a bit in the fridge before serving. 

 

 

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