I woke up this weekend to a cloudy sky and a little bit of a headache. Nothing major, but one of those ones that’s just irritating enough to make you feel like taking it easy would be a good move versus, say, deep-cleaning your closets. And I love cloudy days for doing things at a good, steady, unhurried pace. There’s so much pressure on sunny days, don’t you think? Sunny days make me feel like a loser for staying inside. Sunny days make me feel like I should cast aside any thought of watching reality TV and instead leap into a full mountain-frolic like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music’s opening credits. Sun demands you not waste its time. Clouds? Way more easygoing.
Cloudy days are my favorite days for baking. Especially when I don’t really need to bake. Cloudy mornings, especially. I like it because you can get up planning to make your normal breakfast, and instead end up with some homemade pastries, all before 9 am. Typically, a cloudy weekend morning would mean either a banana breakfast ring or some muffins, but I wanted something a little more, well, springy. These lemon cakes have been on my radar for a while, and it was about time I made them.
So I put on some cloud-appropriate music and went to work. I shouldn’t even say “work” because these cakes are effortless; literally nothing to them. I assembled them in less than 10 minutes, and a lot of that was mixer time. I also did something I never do, but wanted to try, and that was to use store-bought lemon curd. Now, people, I have a thing for lemon curd. I’ll eat it out of the jar. The bowl. The anything, it doesn’t matter. But I have never, ever once, until now, had store-bought lemon curd; i have a great recipe and I just make it myself. But this recipe called for store-bought, and I thought now would be a good time to test it out.
I was pleasantly surprised. Store-bought lemon curd has a stickier texture than homemade, and is slightly thicker. It’s more candy-like than my lemon curd, which is creamier, more like a lemon pie filling. The store-bought has a tartness to it and a jelly-ish way about it that makes it ideal for these cakes; I haven’t tried it yet with my own lemon curd, but I imagine it would be messier and maybe wouldn’t hold as well to the tops of the cakes. Would I use store-bought curd for recipes where the lemon curd was the big star? No…i really still believe you should make your own. But as a melty topping, store-bought curd works very well, and cuts your prep time by quite a bit.
You should know this started out as one of those ramekin recipes. You know the ones…like little souffle dishes. I’ll give you directions for that way too, but I wanted to make this a fast recipe, and I wanted my cakes a little smaller than the ramekins called for, so I thought: why not a muffin tin? You get more little cakes, and no handling individual cups. Not all ramekin recipes will work in muffin tins, I’m sure, but these worked perfectly. And they made almost double the cakes you’d get using ramekins.
Do you see that? that’s an individually-sized, sticky lemon cake. These have a fabulous texture to them; not at all like a classic cake. I don’t know if you can tell by looking at it (I’m biased; I feel like I can tell, but I’ve eaten 4 of these in the past few days), but the cake itself has a chewy firmness to it. It’s like if a lemon Starburst and a lemon cupcake had a baby. There’s something about it that is extremely candy-like in nature, and the texture really complements the tart lemon flavor.
And then there’s the curd topping. I renamed them “lemon drops” because of how you unearth them from their muffin pan. When they come out of the oven, you let them sit for a few minutes, then poke around their edges to loosen the cake sides from the tin. Then, i took a flat sheet pan covered with wax paper, laid it over the still-warm cakes, and hung on for dear life.
And i flipped them over, using the counter to help the cakes emerge by knocking my muffin tin/sheet pan sandwich against it. After a few good whacks and some peeking, they landed right on their little sheet pan like it was no big deal. Except for one…he was stuck. I got impatient. And I knew I’d have to try one anyway. So…whoops.
Now how could you resist those little lemon candy cakes, especially on a cloudy morning? or afternoon? or evening? They look like a little sun sitting right there on your plate. And they’re so effortlessly impressive, people will think you spent the better part of your day dolloping the curd just so over them. But you didn’t. You made these half-asleep on some cloudy weekend morning. Which is by far the best way to make cake.
Adapted from a recipe for little lemon puddings on Nigella Lawson’s website. Nigella is one of my all-time favorites, ever. I know I’ve been boring you with my Momofuku Milk Bar love, but Nigella? She’s all the way at the top for me.
- 12 tablespoons lemon curd (1 tablespoon per cake)
- 1/2 cup soft unsalted butter, plus more for greasing
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1 cup plain flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 eggs
- juice of 2 lemons, and finely grated zest from 1 of those lemons
Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Grease the muffin tins with butter (do not use cooking spray, it will not work as well, and you need these to pop out easily). Dollop about 1 tablespoon of lemon curd into the bottom of each one to cover.
In the food processor, mix all the remaining ingredients except the lemon juice. When all has combined into a thick batter, add the lemon juice and blitz quickly to mix. Add the batter to the ramekins, blobbing it on top of the curd, until the mixture comes 2/3 of the way up the sides. Smooth the tops, then place on a thick oven tray and bake for 18-20 minutes.
Remove from the oven and set the entire muffin pan onto a wire rack to let cool slightly, about 5 minutes. Take a thin knife and go around each cake, gently loosening it from the tin. Try to not disturb the cakes too much.
And now, the fun bit; un-molding your cakes. Get a flat sheet pan and cover with a sheet of wax paper or parchment paper. Take the flat pan and the paper, and lay it over the cakes in the tin. Gripping the tin and the sheet pan together with both hands, quickly flip everything over so your muffin pan is now on the top and the sheet pan is on the bottom. Gently but firmly smack the sheet pan/muffin tin combo, still holding together tightly, against the counter to help unearth your cakes.
Slowly lift the muffin tin, checking to see if your cakes have fallen out. If they have, fantastic! If most of them have, that’s great too; loosen the hangers-on with your thin knife and they should pop right out. If they’re mostly still in the muffin tin, lower the tin against the sheet pan again and hit the counter a few more times (with the sheet pan, not your face). Check cakes again; they should be mostly out, except for that one which “accidentally” flips over and needs to be disposed of right away. If there is lemon curd hanging out in the bottoms of the cups, spoon it over the top of the cakes.
Serve immediately while still warm with ice cream, or just by themselves. Any leftover cakes will be just as delicious at room temperature, where you should keep them in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
Notes: If you use ramekins, do everything the same up until filling the cups with the lemon cake batter. Set the ramekins on your sturdy sheet pan and carefully place in the oven. When baked, remove the ramekins from the sheet pan and place them onto a wire rack to cool. To unmold the cakes, loosen just like you would with the muffin tins, but as they are individual servings, you can unmold them right onto your serving plate (instead of having to do the whole sheet pan/flippy bit).