For a kid-friendly potluck reception, I signed up to bring cake. How I came to this choice was not a straight path. The occasion was a potluck reception after a piano recital where my kids were performing. In thinking about what I could bring for the reception, I put myself in the kids’ shoes. All the kids would be dressed up in their finest. They would have practiced hours upon hours to prepare for the recital (driving their parents nuts in the process). They would have been nervous on stage, either happy or sad with the outcome, and seeking a special-looking treat to celebrate with afterwards. Celebration for a job well done when everyone is all dressed up spells CAKE. So cake it had to be. But what flavor? While I would normally connect kids (and myself) to chocolate cake, the warmer weather pointed to a lighter, lemon cake. What size? I voted against the traditional round cake or sheet cake because, let’s face it, at a self-serve reception with a bunch of desserts and limited space on the table, how is everyone going to cut a piece of cake without experiencing embarrassing troubles and causing a mess? In comes the rectangular cake. It’s easy to cut, easy to eat, and looks as elegant as can be.
For this rectangular cake, I took another risk: I made a “naked” cake. Meaning that I left the sides bare and without frosting. That was definitely a risky move for me, considering my cutting and frosting skills. But to be practical about it, we all want to know what is inside a cake before taking the first slice. With a naked cake presentation, everyone can see what they are in for.
Following is the recipe, but meet me again afterwards for step-by-step instructions with photos.
The cake layers are made using a basic butter (British) sponge cake using self-raising flour. It’s as easy as it can get! The cake recipe is usually for 2 8″ round cake pans. But since I wanted a rectangular layer cake, I used one 9″ x 13″ cake pan. Grease/butter and flour the pan. Also, at this point, preheat the oven to 325°F (160°C). Using an electric mixer, beat 1 3/4 sticks of unsalted butter (14 T butter) to make sure it is creamy and without lumps.
Then add in sugar (scant 1 cup), 4 eggs, 2 tablespoons canola oil or other vegetable oil, the zest of two lemons, and about 1 cup of the flour.
Mix on low speed until just incorporated. Stop the mixer, scrape the bowl, and then mix in the remaining 1/2 cup flour on low speed. Only mix for up to 30 seconds or until the flour is just incorporated. Don’t overmix.
Spread evenly into the prepared pan. I usually tap the pan a couple of times on the counter for any air bubbles to rise to the top.
Bake in the preheated oven until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. The cake will be slightly browned. Let cool for 10 minutes in the pan, and then remove from the pan and let the cake cool on a wire rack until room temperature. At this point, I like to refrigerate the cake for a couple of hours before frosting. This step makes the cake easier to cut and frost. Some say putting the cake in the freezer is best, but I haven’t tried that yet!
Make the buttercream frosting by creaming the butter just like for the cake. Then mix in the powdered sugar, about one cup at a time (total is 2 1/2 cups). Let mixer run about one minute between each addition of powdered sugar. Beat in 1/8 teaspoon salt, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Stop the mixer and scrape the sides of the bowl. Then beat in 1 tablespoon of warm water, but could be less depending on how stiff the frosting is and how stiff you would like it to be. Beat for an additional 2-3 minutes on medium speed to finish. I then like to put the bowl with frosting in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes before frosting the cake to get it a little stiffer and easier to handle. But stir the frosting a few times after you take it out of the refrigerator to ensure an even consistency.
I made a graham cracker garnish as well, but this step is optional. Simply crush one sheet of graham crackers into crumbs: put it in a Ziploc bag and roll a rolling pin over it until it turns into crumbs. Then in a small non-stick pan set over medium heat, melt one tablespoon of butter. Stir into it 1 1/2 teaspoons of sugar and the graham crumbs to moisten the crumbs with the butter and heat for about 2 minutes stirring constantly. Cool to room temperature.
When you are ready to assemble the cake, warm the apricot jam in a small glass bowl, either in the microwave for about 30 seconds or in a pot on the stove over low heat (but don’t let it boil). Stir to loosen up the jam. Set aside. Trim the edges of the cake all around. Cut the top if there was a dome so that the top is flat. Cut the cake into two layers.
Cut the cake again in half, but lengthwise so that there are now 2 sets of 2 long rectangular layers. Then spread 1/3 cup of warmed jam over one of the bottom cake layers.
Top with a top cake layer.
Spread 3/4 cup of frosting over top using an off-set spatula.
Ensure the frosting is spread all the way to the edge so it forms a nice, thick layer.
Place the 2nd bottom cake layer on top of the frosted layer. Spread with jam and top with the remaining cake layer.
Spread the top with 3/4 cup of frosting.
Again, ensure that the frosting reaches the edge of the cake and use a spatula to smooth the edge all around.
Using Wilton #12 round tip, pipe 3-4 rows of dots across the middle of the cake lengthwise.
Lightly sprinkle the graham cracker crumbs over the dots for a nice finishing touch. It’s best to refrigerate the cake for at least 2 hours. Let the cake stand at room temperature for about 20 minutes before serving.
And there you have it! A simple lemon cake with some slight twists and turns that make an interesting and delicious treat on the dessert table.