Since hosting a one year old’s birthday party for 40 people while three weeks postpartum wasn’t exciting enough, I decided to make a 4 layer lemon cake with lemon curd filling. My mom has the most useful cookbook, The Cake Doctor, which “doctors cake mix to create over 150 luscious desserts with honest-to-goodness from-scratch taste.” Basically, she takes a cake mix and adds just a little extra to it to make it taste better than a cake from a box but doesn’t require starting from scratch. Brilliant. I made two 10 inch “Susan’s Lemon Cake” cakes–yellow cake mix with instant lemon gelatin (not to be confused with lemon pudding by the same Jell-o brand 😉 ). The lemon curd I adapted from her “Butter Layer Cake with Sweet Lime Curd” recipe.
Baking terrifies me, as I’ve mentioned before (see: Rite of Passage: Pralines (prah-leens)). Cooking is about finesse and nuance. But baking?
Baking is patience
and stirring…a lot of stirring constantly.
And that’s what makes baking so scary–you’re ordered to stir constantly at every step, yet they don’t tell you what will happen if you stop stirring. If I have to scratch my nose, will the sugar burn? What if I get a cramp? Will the eggs scramble? Every imaginable scenario ends with a sticky scorched pot and starting over from square one without eyebrows. And sugar does weird shit. Given heat and time it will change from one weird stage to another. I’ve never made a curd before, so I read the recipe all the way through at least 5 times. Then I got my ingredients in the ready, re-read thrice more and dove in. The first step was to make sugar do something weird.
Sugar and cornstarch over medium heat, when stirred constantly with water, makes a sweet paste. This was supposed to happen in 3-4 minutes but of course it took about twice that long. Nearly 8 minutes over the heat and nothing was happening. Then all of a sudden the mixture began to boil and became something else entirely. Thicker and less glossy than a glaze, the sugar and cornstarch thickened to what would be the beginning of my curd. I removed from the heat and whipped about half of a cup of this mixture with lightly beaten egg yolks. Folding the eggs back into the sauce pan, my curd base was done. I was making a lemon curd so I flavored the sugar base lemon zest, lemon juice and butter. The same can be done with limes or oranges. A curd can be made ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator. I made mine the day before and just stirred it up a bit before assembling my cake.
Amid all my stirring, I got to wondering what the difference was between a curd and a custard. I was delighted to find making a curd didn’t involve actually curdling anything. I came up with a few complicated hypothesizes mostly involving ratios between sugar and eggs. But come to find out curds and custards are essentially the same thing except a curd has a stronger flavor and is eaten as a spread or filling rather than a desert on it’s own. Now you know!
Unfortunately, these are the best pictures I got of the cake. Fortunately it tasted amazing! I like lemon cakes because they are so light and sweet. The cake part didn’t have an overpowering lemon flavor, which worked well with the very tart yet creamy curd filling. There was only one piece left at the end of the party. I call that a success.