April has finally arrived and, along with it, our cravings for fresh-tasting, lighter-flavored fare. Here to help us get a little extra spring in our seasonal culinary repertoire is Tessa Huff of the cooking blog Style Sweet CA. Over the next few weeks, Tessa will be sharing citrus and herb-infused recipes, from sweets to cocktails. First up? This stunning Lemon Thyme Cake. Happy spring and happy baking!
Lemon Thyme Cake
For the cake:
3 cups cake flour
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme, loosely packed
2 cups granulated sugar
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
3 large eggs
2 large egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
1 cup whole milk
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 8-inch round cake pans and set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Stir in the thyme and set aside.
In a small bowl, rub together the sugar and lemon zest until the zest begins to release its oils and the mixture is quite fragrant.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the butter on medium speed until smooth. Add in the lemon sugar. Continue to mix on medium-high until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 3 to 4 minutes.
With the mixer on low, add in the vanilla, whole eggs, and egg whites – one at a time.
Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl.
Turn the mixer to low speed. In alternating batches (starting and ending with the dry ingredients), add in half of the flour mixture. Pour in the lemon juice and the milk and mix until combined. Add the remaining flour mixture. Mix on medium for no more than 20 to 30 seconds once the last bits of flour disappear.
Divide the batter between to two cake pans and bake for about 25 to 28 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let cool on a wire rack for 10 to 15 minutes before removing the cakes from their pans.
¾ cup fresh lemon juice
zest of two lemons
4 large egg yolks
1 large egg
1 cup granulated sugar
6 tablespoon unsalted butter, diced
In a medium, nonreactive saucepan, bring the lemon juice to a simmer. Lower the heat and reduce down to 2/3 cups **
Meanwhile, put the butter in a heat-safe container and set aside.
Whisk together ½ cup lemon juice, lemon zest, egg yolks, whole egg, and sugar in the top portion of a double-boiler or a mixing bowl over a small saucepan of simmering water. Heat and stir the mixture until it registers about 180 degrees on a candy thermometer.
Using a mesh sieve, strain the mixture over the bowl containing the butter. Stir until fully incorporated.
Place a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the lemon curd and refrigerate until cool and thickened.
**optional. Reducing the lemon juice makes the flavor more concentrated. This step may be omitted. If so, start with just ⅔ cup lemon juice.
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup water
small fist-full of fresh thyme – about 8 to 10 sprigs
Place the sugar and water in a small saucepan. Bring the mixture up to a boil, then reduce the heat. Add in the thyme and continue to simmer until the mixture thickens slightly, about 8 to 10 minutes. Let the thyme steep until cool. Strain and discard the thyme before use.
Lemon Cream Filling:
1 cup lemon curd
2 ½ cups Swiss meringue buttercream (recipe to follow)
Mix the buttercream until silky smooth. Gently fold in the lemon curd until combined.
Vanilla Bean Frosting:
½ vanilla bean, seeds scraped
remaining Swiss meringue buttercream
Gel food coloring (optional)
Mix the seeds of a vanilla bean into the remaining buttercream. Use gel food coloring to tint the frosting, if desired.
Swiss Meringue Buttercream
6 large egg whites
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
3 cups unsalted butter, softened
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Place the egg whites and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer. Whisk to combine.
Fill a medium saucepan with a few inches of water and bring to a simmer. Place the mixing bowl on top of the saucepan to create a double-boiler.
While whisking, heat the egg mixture until it reaches about 155 to 160 degrees on a candy thermometer.
Once hot, carefully move the mixing bowl back to the mixer. Using the whisk attachment, beat the egg mixture on high until stiff peaks form and the outside of the mixing bowl returns to room temperature (about 8 to 10 minutes).
Turn the mixer to low, and begin adding in the softened butter, a few tablespoons at a time. Once the butter has been added and begins to incorporate, swap the whisk for the paddle attachment. Add in the vanilla. Turn the mixer up to medium-high and mix until silky smooth.
If the mixture looks curdled, just keep mixing. The butter was most likely too cold and will need more time to incorporate. If the mixture looks soupy, refrigerate it for about 15 minutes then mix again. The butter was most likely too warm.
fresh thyme sprigs (optional)
Once the cakes have completely cooled, carefully cut each in half (horizontally) with a long, serrated knife to create four, even layers. Generously brush each layer with the thyme syrup.
Place the bottom layer of cake on a cake plate or serving dish. Fill a pastry bag fitted with a medium plain (round) tip with some of the vanilla bean frosting. Pipe a ring of frosting around the outer top edge of the cake. Fill the ring with about ¾ cup lemon cream. Dollop on a couple tablespoons of any remaining lemon curd and gently swirl.
Top with the next layer of cake and repeat. Frost the cake with the remaining vanilla bean frosting. Garnish with fresh thyme, if desired.
To create the ombre swirl effect, remove about ⅓ of the remaining vanilla bean frosting. Tint that portion the desired color of choice and set aside. Top the cake with a large scoop of plain vanilla bean frosting and smooth out, allowing for some of the frosting to get pushed over the sides. Take the tinted frosting and apply it to the bottom ⅓ of the cake with an off-set spatula.
Mix the tinted frosting with any remaining frosting to create a lighter shade (add more coloring, if necessary). Fill in the sides of the cake with the lighter frosting. Once the cake is covered in buttercream, smooth out the sides with an icing smoother, off-set spatula, or bench scraper.
For the swirled effect, place the cake on top of a cake turntable. Touch the tip of a metal spatula to the bottom of the cake. Rotate the turntable and move the spatula straight up the side of the cake. For the top, place the tip of the spatula near the outer edge. Rotate the turntable and move the spatula towards the center of the cake to create a swirl.
The cake layers may be made in advanced and stored in the refrigerator in a double-layer of plastic wrap for up to about 5 days.
The buttercream may be made in advanced and stored in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for up to about 10 days. Bring back to room temperature before re-mixing.
The lemon curd may be made in advanced and stored in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for up to about a month.
Need a short-cut? Use store-bought lemon curd.
Tessa Huff is a Vancouver-based recipe developer, photographer, and creator of Style Sweet CA—a cake and pastry blog for the home baker. Her first book, “Layered: Baking, Building, and Styling Spectacular Cakes” hits shelves on April 19th. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook.