Escaping with a fragrant, lemony ‘visiting’ cake

I’ve written here recently of the October Northern California wildfires, one of the strangest, saddest times I’ve experienced in a while. For those in the fires’ paths of destruction, it was a sheer nightmare. For those of us on the nearby periphery, it was a surreal time, holding in place under a veil of constant smoke that choked the air and dimmed the light. The skies didn’t look the same. Nothing did. Everyone stayed inside; there was no choice. No one really knew what to do, or for how long they would not know what to do, waiting for the possibility of all becoming worse, hoping it would be better, and the fires under control soon.

Days went by in a dark, smothering succession. The news unfolding was grim. I took to my oven because that is what I do in my somewhat helpless plodding. With the oven, at least, the heat would bring forth something welcome, if nothing else, in smell, I hoped. I baked a cake, one I’d kept seeing promoted by The New York Times for a Lemon-Spice Visiting Cake by baking maven Dorie Greenspan. It sounded (and looked) so homey, and comforting, the “visiting” part of the recipe name conjured the idea of motion, of travel, of being able to leave, get out and share.

The cake recipe also claimed a stolid sturdiness, which was appealing during this vulnerable time. I jumped at the chance to make it.

I’ll use any excuse to zest lemon (this cake has both zest and juice), which was the beginning of my needed aromatherapy (and a promise of flavor-therapy). Nothing freshens the home like a whiff of citrus!

One additional seal of approval on this recipe — it is made in a bowl with a whisk. I was happy to not have to break out my hand or stand mixer! Everything came together fairly easily and quickly for this cake, in which the “spice” included the tinny note of ginger and dusky undertone of the latest spice du jour, cardamom.

I followed the advice of using a buttered-and-floured glass loaf pan, an excuse to bring out my Fire King dish. These pans are beautiful, and come from a time when folks were resilient. And the added beauty of a glass pan for baking is you have a better view of the “doneness” of what it contains.

My house filled with the cake’s lemony spiciness while it baked. As the smoke cloaked the outside, my inside, at least, became a cake haven. I coined my own “hashtag” moniker for baking my way through the smoke — #cakewins. To me, it’s an expression of defiance, whether pronounced with cake or anything one feels represents resilience, hope and survival.

An interesting aspect to this recipe is its use of an orange marmalade (thinned with water, but I used lemon juice to continue the lemon flavor) glaze, which gives this humble cake a sparkle, as well as adding some sweetness to its golden surface.

The cake was so delicious, flavorful and tender. I shared slices with friends, and what was left became more flavorful on second and third days. It occurred to me that my mother’s October birthday was coming. Hmmmm.

So I made two more, and sent one off to Kansas. It arrived in beautiful shape for its “visit” and my mom loved it! I have since made the cake again, a couple of times. It will continue to be a reminder of good things, including gratitude.

So this journeying cake, from a housebound baker, brought ripples of hope and deliciousness in a needed time.

Lemon-Spice Visiting Cake
By Dorie Greenspan for The New York Times (www.nytimes.com)
Makes one loaf

Butter and flour for the pan
1-1/2 cups (192 grams) all-purpose flour
1-1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1-1/4 cups (250 grams) sugar
1 large (or 2 small) lemons
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup (120 ml.) heavy cream, at room temperature
1-1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
5-1/2 tablespoons (77 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/3 cup marmalade (for optional glaze)
1/2 teaspoon water (for optional glaze)

Center a rack in the oven, and preheat it to 350. Butter an 8 1/2-inch loaf pan (Pyrex works well), dust with flour and tap out the excess. (For this cake, bakers’ spray isn’t as good as butter and flour.) Place on a baking sheet.

Whisk the 1 1/2 cups flour, baking powder, cardamom, ginger and salt
together.

Put the sugar in a large bowl, and grate the zest of the lemon(s) over
the sugar. Squeeze the lemon(s) to produce 3 tablespoons juice, and
set this aside. Using your fingers, rub the sugar and zest together
until the mixture is moist and aromatic. One at a time, add the eggs,
whisking well after each. Whisk in the juice, followed by the heavy
cream. Still using the whisk, gently stir the dry ingredients into the
batter in two additions. Stir the vanilla into the melted butter, and then
gradually blend the butter into the batter. The batter will be thick and
have a beautiful sheen. Scrape it into the loaf pan.

Bake for 70 to 75 minutes (if the cake looks as if it’s getting too dark
too quickly, tent it loosely with foil) or until a tester inserted deep into
the center of the cake comes out clean. Transfer to a rack, let rest for
5 minutes and then carefully run a blunt knife between the sides of
the cake and the pan. Invert onto the rack, and turn over. Glaze now,
or cool to room temperature.

For the glaze: Bring the marmalade and water to a boil. Brush the
glaze over the top of the warm cake, and allow to it to set for 2 hours.
The glaze will remain slightly tacky.

When the cake is completely cool, wrap in plastic to store. If it’s
glazed, wrap loosely on top.

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