How a festive layer cake helped me remember a mother's long-ago lesson about setting aside my own ideals for the benefit of another generation.
On its own, the cake is worthy of attention, three layers and extra lemon-y. It strikes me as a southern-style cake, lemon on lemon, plain but somehow elegant, understated in appearance, pretty on the plate, entirely appealing.
But this is a flexible cake recipe, too. Make it in a 9x13 cake. Make one that's extra orange-y or cherry-y or more fruity flavors. In fact, modify the recipe only slightly for a Christmas Peppermint Cake!
“I want to make my mom a cake for Mother’s Day,” announced Katherine, age nine. To keep the project a surprise, Katherine’s aunt conspired to whisk her away for a few hours. My job was to help Katherine and Stefanie, her two-year old cousin, bake a cake.
“Piece of cake!” I thought and carefully selected simple recipes for homemade chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. I phoned my mother, a retired home ec teacher, expecting praise. But no!
“Lon,” she started off, speaking with out-of-character gentleness. “Even simple recipes are too much. I think you should use a cake mix and canned frosting.” I gulped, knowing that even if Mom were right (and aren’t our mothers nearly always right?), it would take time for my brain to accept a boxed cake.
Her reasoning was sound. She knew the girls’ cake would elicit ooohs and aaaahs on Mother’s Day. Afterward, she wanted them to be able to march into the kitchen and duplicate their first cake, no help from me, no consideration of chocolate ratios or knowing how to measure flour or the difference between baking powder and baking soda.
So a cake mix it was and canned frosting too, though me being me, we made homemade frosting too and the girls did a taste test. (They liked the canned frosting better. Harumph.)
Today? Katherine is a junior at Northwestern and will graduate with a double major in History and International Studies. Stef moves to high school next fall. Will they become cake bakers? We’ll see! Only time will tell!
This story came back to me after New Year’s when I fell head-over-heels in love with a lemon cake from a restaurant in the South which graciously shared its recipe with me but at its own request, shall remain anonymous.
I’ll tell you, when I learned that the recipe called for a cake mix and Jello, my heart nearly broke. But you know, some times these things have their place. This cake is so moist, so lemony and I love how it’s so easily adapted to other flavors. In a layer cake, it’s a show stopper – so plain (in a good way, like the classic tailored lines of so many of the dresses at the royal wedding last week) and so pretty. I like to think that some of the world’s best pastry chefs got their starts early, with the confidence that comes from a cake mix.
LEMON LAYER CAKE
Time to table: 4 hours
Serves 16 for a layer cake, 24 for a 9x13
- 1 box lemon cake mix
- 1 small box lemon Jello (sorry, sugar-free Jello doesn’t work)
- Water, eggs and oil as specified by the cake mix
- 4 tablespoons lemon extract
LEMON CREAM CHEESE FROSTING (use half for a 9x13)
- 16 ounces low-fat Neufchatel cream cheese, room temperature
- 2 sticks (1/2 pound) salted butter, room temperature
- 1 small box lemon Jello (sorry, sugar-free doesn’t work)
- 2 tablespoons lemon extract
- 2 pounds powdered sugar
TO GARNISH, OPTIONAL
- Thin lemon slices
- Strawberries, halved at an angle, keeping the stems intact
CAKE Preheat oven according to cake mix box. Spray three round cake pans or one 9x13 cake pan. In a large bowl, mix together cake mix and Jello, smashing any lumps with the back of a spoon. Add the water, eggs, oil and lemon extract and mix according to package instructions. Turn into pans or pan and bake according to package instructions. Let cool on racks for at least 30 minutes, until fully cool.
FROSTING With an electric mixer, cream the cream cheese and butter until smooth. Add the Jello and lemon extract, mix until fully incorporated. In four batches, add the powdered sugar, mixing in completely after each addition.
TO ICE Frost the cake, there’s plenty of icing for spreading, enough that I end up with about a quarter leftover. For details, see How to Frost a Layer Cake, with step-by-step photos and tips. Next time, I think I'll use this "flower petal" design on the sides, see Petal Cake Tutorial from The Hungry Housewife.
REFRIGERATE Refrigerate until an hour or so before serving, then bring out to come to room temperature. This cake can be made a day ahead, maybe even two although I’ve not done that.
GARNISH Just before serving, garnish with lemon slices and strawberry halves.
Per 16 slices of Lemon Layer Cake, assuming use of 75%/100% of frosting: 519/625 Calories; 19/23g Tot Fat; 10/13g Sat Fat; 78/91mg Cholesterol; 417/474mg Sodium; 78/94g Carb; 0g Fiber; 64/80g Sugar; 5/6g Protein; Weight Watchers Old Points 12/14, PointsPlus 14/17
Per 24 pieces of 9x13 cake which calls for half the frosting: 279 Calories; 10g Total Fat; 5g Sat Fat; 43mg Cholesterol; 243mg Sodium; 42g Carb; 0g Fiber; 33g Sugar; 3g Protein; Weight Watchers Old Points 6, PointsPlus 7
This recipe is so adaptable! (See the recipe above.) For a Christmas party, I made a peppermint cake. It was really pepperminty -- too pepperminty, truthfully. Here's what I did and what I'd do next time.
CAKE I used a white cake mix that called for just egg whites instead of whole eggs, cranberry jello and 4 tablespoons peppermint extract. The cake was very delicate and required patching, perhaps because of the use of egg whites, perhaps because of the addition of so much liquid; the color wasn't also that pretty. Next time, I would either make a very good white cake OR use a white or yellow cake mix that calls for whole eggs; cranberry jello; and use just a little peppermint, maybe 1 teaspoon.
FROSTING I loved the peppermint icing but again, it was just too strong so next time I would use 1 tablespoon peppermint extract. For part white/part pink frosting, I set aside about a third of the frosting to stay white, added cranberry jello to the remaining two-thirds. I also added some Wilton Icing Color (White-White) that makes things turn a very pretty bright white. In retrospect, I wish I'd added it only to the portion that was supposed to be white, I think the pink icing might have been brighter, maybe even the red I was hoping for.
CANDY CANES I intended to sprinkle peppermint sprinkles on top but read online that the colors would bleed. So instead I criss-crossed two candy canes, left wrapped to prevent bleeding.
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