I found this zany old Betty Crocker advertisement on Etsy one late night: It seems, in 1950, a Navy man and his lovely wife entered a cake-baking contest, and, get this: The Navy man won! The Navy, we’re told, served him well. And I thought…I haven’t baked a cake in a long time. I made it for dessert the next day. I am, maybe surprisingly for such a chatty guy, always out-of-sorts at planned celebrations, and, for better or worse, not one to chase fun. But I do love a spontaneous celebration, and this cake is perfect for them, requiring nothing special if you already have some lemons in the kitchen. It’s nothing fancy really – my doctoring of old church supper recipes – but for the lemony whip cream frosting. You can decorate it to your heart’s content, but I do, again maybe surprisingly, like this cake simple and white, with the lemony surprise inside. It’s even better made with lemon sugar (lemon zest and sugar to taste kept in a tightly sealed jar for 24 hours or more), so if you don’t have any in your pantry, plan ahead by a day. Spontaneity enough.
Lemon Celebration Cake
1 cup soft butter
1 ½ cups sugar
5 large eggs, yolks beaten and whites whipped to soft peaks
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
grated rind of 2 or 3 large lemons
zest of 1 large lemon, for Lemon Sugar
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon best vanilla extract
1 ¼ cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
lemon curd, optional
½ pint whipping cream, very cold
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
zest as desired
Zest a large lemon and put it in a clean jar with sugar. Screw on the lid, shake the sugar and zest for a minute, and leave for a day or more.
Grease, paper and flour 2 8” or 9” round cake pans.
Sift the flour and baking powder together into a large bowl. Cream the butter and sugar together in a small bowl with an electric mixer until it is fluffy. Add the lemon juice and zest, mix to combine. Separate the eggs and beat separately, adding a pinch of salt to the whites once they foam but before they mount. Mix the milk, extract and zest into the yolks. Now mix the milk and the eggs, and beat in the flour slowly with the electric mixer, from a high stream, until well combined. Divide between the pans, knock each pan once on the counter, and bake in the center of the oven for about 30 minutes, until a toothpick returns from the center of the cake crumbly and not dry. Flip each cake into your spread palm, and then put the cakes, paper side down, on racks to cool completely. Peel off the paper and trim to even. You can also divide each layer with a serrated knife, to make 4 layers.
(If you like, soak the cakes with limoncello once they have cooled, returning them to their pans.)
Whip the cream (best done in a cold bowl with cold beaters – put them in the freezer 30 minutes before you begin). Add the sugar before it starts to stiffen, then raise the speed, and ad the lemon juice and zest. Whip until really stiff.
Tear some wax paper into 4” strips, and put all around the base of the cake before you frost it with the whip cream. (If you like, thin some good lemon curd with a little water over a low flame, cool, and put between the layers before you frost the cake.)