Once upon a time, Maida Heatter published a recipe for lemon buttermilk cake in her first dessert book, “Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts,” (Knopf, 1974). She described the cake as being “light, moist, lemony, and lovely,” and it became the favorite of many home bakers and party-givers.
Then, to her horror, she began receiving calls and letters saying there was something wrong with the recipe. The cake sank and was like a wet pudding. Maida couldn’t believe it. She had made the cake many times. She taught it in classes. Her daughter made it often. There was only one thing to do: make it again. And guess what? The recipe did not work for her, either!
In desperation, she deleted the recipe from subsequent editions of her book. She says she wanted to ask the publisher to recall all of the books. She wanted to say, “General Motors does it, why can’t we?” Then she remembered hearing Nobel Prize laureate for literature, Isaac Singer, saying that his biggest problem in writing were caused by demons. These creatures often came to his home and created all sorts of disasters.
Then, Maida says, she knew what happened to the lemon buttermilk cake recipe: demons! Maida went on to say that “Anyone who has spent much time baking knows that demons are never far away.” How true.
So Maida reworked the recipe, and it reappeared in “Maida Heatter’s New Book of Great Desserts,” (Knopf, 1982). This version works, and she now calls it “Lemon Buttermilk Cake #2.” The cake is, indeed, light, moist, and lemony. It has the zest of three lemons and some lemon juice in the cake. After baking, the hot cake is brushed all over with a sugary lemon glaze that penetrates deeply into the cake and gives it a puckeriness that is irresistible. This is a wonderful cake to have on hand for just about any occasion. It keeps well for several days, covered, at room temperature.
You’ll need a plain 9 x 3 ½-inch tube pan or one with a design, a pan with a 10-cup capacity. A standard Bundt pan is too large, but one of the newer ones, with a swirl or other pattern, for example, is perfect.
So what are you waiting for? Go bake!
Maida Heatter’s lemon buttermilk cake #2
The best way to zest lemons and other citrus is with a microplane zester or rasper. The thin colored flakes of rind are free of bitter pith, and you get just the pure flavor and aroma of lemon.
Makes 12 to 16 servings
Cooking spray, for coating cake pan
Fine, dry, unseasoned bread crumbs, for dusting the pan
Finely grated zest of 3 large lemons (juice will be used in the glaze)
3 tablespoons strained fresh lemon juice
3 cups sifted all-purpose flour (12 ½ ounces; 354 grams)
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon table salt
½ pound unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups granulated sugar (14 ounces; 400 grams)
3 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup strained fresh lemon juice
⅓ cup granulated sugar
1. Adjust a rack one-third up from the bottom of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. You will need a tube pan with a 10-cup capacity, usually about 9-inches in diameter. The pan may be plain or with a design. If your pan is plain, lightly coat it with cooking spray, line the bottom with parchment or wax paper cut to fit, spray the paper and dust all over with the crumbs. If your pan has a design, lightly coat it with a film of cooking spray and dust all over with the crumbs. With either pan, tap out excess crumbs over a piece of paper. Set the pan aside.
2. Combine the 3 tablespoons lemon juice and the lemon zest in a small cup and set aside.
3. To measure the flour, sift more than you need onto a sheet of wax paper or parchment. Spoon the flour lightly into a 1-cup dry measure to overflowing, and sweep off the excess with a metal spatula or ruler. Put the flour into a medium bowl. Repeat twice more. (Gentle nudge: Do you see how much easier it would be just to weigh the flour?) Add the baking soda and salt and whisk thoroughly to combine well. Set aside.
4. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter until soft and malleable. The ideal temperature of the butter is 65 degrees. Here’s what I do. I cut cold butter (2 sticks) into tablespoon-size pieces, add them to the mixing bowl, and let them stand at room temperature for 10 to 15 minutes until slightly softened. Then I beat the butter until it’s smooth and creamy. Scrape the bowl and beater. While beating on medium speed, gradually add the sugar, taking about 30 seconds or so. Stop the machine and scrape the bowl and beater again. Beat on medium-high speed 3 minutes, until well mixed and lighter in color. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each. Scrape the bowl and beater. On low speed, add the dry ingredients in three additions and the buttermilk in two, beginning and ending with the dry. Scrape the bowl with a rubber spatula, and beat only until smooth after each addition.
5. Remove the bowl from the mixer and stir in the lemon zest and juice. The batter will be thick.
6. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake for 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean and dry. An instant-read thermometer will register about 200 degrees. The cake will have a deep golden brown color and it will have begun to pull away from the sides of the pan.
7. As soon as the cake goes into the oven, mix the glaze in a small bowl. As the cake bakes, stir occasionally to dissolve the sugar.
8. When the cake tests done, remove it from the oven and let it stand in its pan for 5 minutes. Then cover the cake with a wire cooling rack and carefully, with pot holders, invert the pan and rack, and set them onto a large piece of foil. Lift the pan off the cake and remove any paper lining if you used one.
9. With a pastry brush, brush the glaze onto the top, sides and center tube of the hot cake. Keep brushing the cake until all the glaze has been absorbed.
10. Let the cake stand until completely cool. Transfer the cake to a cake plate and cut into thin slices with a serrated knife.