When I tell people that I make my own birthday cake they have this surprised look on their face, but for me it makes perfect sense. I love to cook and making a cake is a treat. It's my party and I'll cry if I want to...or make my own cake!
This year, I decided I wanted to combine the flavors of lemon, honey and ginger. This is a classic combination that works well in hot tea and cocktails (see my Indochine Bee's Knees from earlier in the week). After considering several options, I decided the best course would be to put the lemon in the cake, the honey in the frosting and the ginger in the ice cream.
Finding a good cake recipe proved to be tricky. America's Test Kitchen's Lemon Layer Cake is layers of white cake sandwiched with lemon curd. I wanted the lemon flavor in the cake itself. Such cakes, however tend to be bundt cakes or loaf cakes, like Ina Garten's Lemon Cake. Still not quite right. I'd have to improvise.
In the past, I've had a lot of luck with America's Test Kitchen's recipe for Yellow Layer Cake. I decided to adapt this recipe by swapping out the milk for lemon juice and buttermilk. Buttermilk is an obvious choice: it's tangy flavor would compliment the lemon. Some recipes that call for buttermilk suggest substituting milk and lemon juice if you don't have buttermilk. I upped the moisture ratio a bit, adding 3/4 cup of buttermilk and lemon juice. Although one must be careful when changing ratios in baking, my thinking was that the extra 1/4 cup of liquid might mean baking the cake a little longer and wouldn't make a huge difference, which turned out to be the case.
For the frosting, I decided a cream cheese frosting would be the way to go, since a powder sugar frosting might be too sweet. But instead of regular cream cheese, I chose mascarpone, which has a richer texture and more neutral flavor. Doing so provided a better showcase for the honey flavor, which regular cream cheese might have muted.
I had a little timing problem with frosting the cake. I made the frosting too soon and when it was ready, the cake wasn't cool yet (and, FYI, it's not a good idea to frost a warm cake, as it will activate the butter and you'll have a runny mess). Since the frosting is basically cream cheese, I put it in the fridge. But then once the cake was cool, the frosting was hard. Arg. So I had to let it sit out anyway and I think the cool and reheating caused some separation with the honey, giving it a lumpy texture. It still tasted wonderful, but I would recommend setting the frosting ingredients out while the cake is in the oven (so they come to room temperature) and then making the frosting once the cake is cool.
Finally, there was the ice cream. I've had such success making ice creams from Jeni Britton Bauer's Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home that I knew I wanted to use her technique, even though she doesn't have a recipe that exactly matched what I wanted to make. Her technique is very adaptable though: the basic formula starts with cream, milk, sugar and corn syrup which is first cooked then combined with cornstarch and cooked again, then finally whisked together with cream cheese and salt before chilling and processing. Flavors that need to be steeped are added in the first step, other flavors that aren't cooked can be added with the cream cheese and any added solids (like chocolate chips or cookie crumbs) would go in during the processing. Seems easy enough.
To infuse the cream mixture with ginger flavor, I added a heaping 1/4 cup of roughly minced fresh ginger root. A last minute brainstorm led me to substitute brown sugar for regular sugar. Since brown sugar contains molasses, I thought this might nudge the ice cream toward a molasses ginger cookie without putting in so much molasses that the ice cream would overpower the lemon cake. Once the cream/ginger mixture was boiled for a few minutes, I let it steep for about 10 minutes before straining out the ginger solids. Some ginger ice cream recipes I consulted (including Jeni's Celery Ice Cream with Candied Ginger Rum-Plumped Golden Raisins) add chopped crystalized ginger when processing the ice cream. I tasted the ice cream mixture before freezing it and decided it was sufficiently gingery, so I did not do this.
The resulting cake and ice cream delivered the flavors I wanted in nice balance.
Lemon Layer Cake
Adapted from Yellow Layer Cake recipe by America's Test Kitchen
4 large eggs, room temperature
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup buttermilk
1 3/4 cup cake flour
1 1/2 cup sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. salt
16 tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into pieces, soft but still cool
1. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat oven to 350 F. Grease two cake pans with butter, cover pan bottoms with buttered parchment rounds. Flour pans and tap our excess flour (tip: to reduce flour waste, I tap the excess flour from the first pan into the second).
2. Whisk eggs, lemon juice and buttermilk in a medium bowl. Measure out 1 cup of this mixture. Combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in stand mixer bowl and beat on lowest speed for about 30 seconds to blend. With mixer running, add butter a few pieces at at time. Mix until mixture clumps together and looks like sand and pebbles (will be about the time you finish adding butter). Add the reserved 1 cup of egg mixture and mix for about 5 seconds to incorporate, then increase speed to medium-high and beat until light and fluffy, about a minute. Add remaining egg mixture in a slow stream with the machine running, about 30 seconds (careful, it splatters easily). Stop mixer and scrape the sides of the bowl with a spatula. Beat on medium-high for another 15 seconds to thoroughly combine. Mixture will appear a bit curdled.
3. Divide batter into prepared cake pans and smooth batter with spatula. Bake until cakes are light brown and a toothpick comes out clean when inserted in the center, about 25 minutes. Cook on racks for about 10 minutes, then loosen cakes with a knife (tip: use a plastic one to avoid scratching nonstick cake pans), invert onto racks, remove parchment and allow to cool completely before frosting.
4. To assemble cake: place first cake layer on cake plate flat side down. Smooth about 1/2 cup frosting on top of cake (tip: I like to use an offset spatula for frosting cakes; it doubles as a nice serving instrument). Place second cake on top of frosted layer with flat side up. Smooth about 3/4 cup of frosting on top and use the rest to frost the side. Cake should be kept in refrigerator.
Adapted from Darjeeling Dreams' Honeyed Frosting recipe
5 tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature
8 oz. mascarpone, at room temperature
2/3 cup powdered sugar
3 tbsp. honey (I used wildflower honey)
1. Beat together butter, mascarpone and powdered sugar on low for a few seconds to combine and then beat on medium-high until mixture is thick and fluffy. Add honey and continue beating another minute to incorporate. Use frosting immediately on cooled cake layers.
Ginger-Brown Sugar Ice Cream
Adapted from the technique of Jeni Britton Bauer in Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home
2 cups whole milk
1 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. cornstarch
3 tbsp. cream cheese, softened
1/8 tsp. salt
2-3 inches of fresh ginger root
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
2/3 cup light brown sugar
2 tbsp. light corn syrup
1. Whisk 2 tbsp. of the milk with the cornstarch in a small bowl (I use a 1-cup liquid measuring cup). Set aside. Whisk the cream cheese and salt in a medium bowl until smooth.
2. Whisk cream cheese salt in a large bowl (I use an 8-cup liquid measuring cup).
3. Peel and chop the fresh ginger until there's a heaping 1/4 cup. Add to a 4-quart saucepan with the cream, brown sugar, corn syrup and remaining milk. Bring to a rolling bowl over medium-high heat. Boil mixture for 4 minutes, watching carefully and stirring frequently to avoid boiling over. Remove from heat and let steep for 10 minutes.
4. Slowly whisk in the cornstarch slurry and return mixture to medium-high heat to boil for an additional minute to thicken. Remove from heat, strain to remove ginger pieces, and gradually whisk hot mixture into cream cheese until smooth. Pour mixture into a large gallon-size zip lock bag and submerge sealed bag in an ice water bath. Once cooled, you can store this mixture in the fridge for awhile or proceed with processing the ice cream in step 5.
5. Pour mixture into an ice cream maker and process until thickened and frozen, about 25 minutes. Transfer to a storage container and freeze fully in the freezer.