We got married last summer, bang in the middle of the messiest period of our life together. It was in Italy, the party in my backyard, with all our closest friends and family coming from several corners of the world. Although far from perfect, looking back at it we managed to handle almost everything very well. I will always remember everybody’s joy and laughter on that day, which for me is the most important thing. After all, I never liked easy, smooth things!
As soon as we started planning it, an idea slowly but steadily began creeping into my mind: I should make our wedding cake. I didn’t know exactly how, but I wanted it to be something special and personal, and at the same time simple and not too sophisticated, completely in line with the rest of the wedding. Wedding cakes, as delicious and stunning as they are (and I have enjoyed a great lot of them in my life), tend to taste pretty much all the same: lots of cream and crème patissière and sometimes fresh fruits in Italy and Finland, fruit cakes with a thick icing in UK. The cake is one of the most traditional features in a wedding, but we are not traditional people, and I cannot recall one single traditional thing in our wedding, so the cake could not be an exception.
First of all I had to sort out the logistics: yes, we were going to have a small party, but still, a cake for 50 people is not like one for 6-8. A family friend, professional baker, came to the rescue by agreeing with me going to his workshop to make the cake (he also made the rest of the desserts, which were delicious!). The choice of the actual flavours was very easy. Lemon cake is my husband’s favourite, so lemon had to be. I then started hunting for recipes, to find the perfect mix of tangy refreshing lemon and sweet but light and creamy covers. I decided to exploit my scientific background and experimented with combinations of sponges and buttercreams and our friends, colleagues and family became my unaware “guinea pigs” (luckily one does not need written informed consent for this type of trials!).
I finally settled for a very simple and basic sponge, which has now become the blank canvas for many of my baking, an amazing Italian meringue buttercream from the renowned “Miette” pastry shop in San Francisco (her book is since then one of my two baking bibles, together with Michel Roux’s “Pastry”) and an indecent amount of lemon in many different forms: juice, essence, zest, curd. One former colleague of mine, who is not a great fun of lemon in sweets, is still very resentful with me for not warning him in advance. Hence, the following disclaimer: if you do not adore lemon or you are slightly afraid of powerful lemony/citrusy flavours, don’t go even close to this recipe, or reduce drastically the number of lemon used. If you think lemon is one of the best flavours in sweets and the more the better, this is the recipe for you, you are going to love it!
You can find the recipe after the pictures here below. My decoration is inspired from Zoe Clark’s “Cake decoration at home”. You can see that, compared to the original, my skills need refinement, but I decided to start from something not too daunting and I was fairly satisfied with the overall result.
The pictures are not from the actual wedding cake, but from some of my best attempts. The business with the wedding cake didn’t go exactly as planned (I told you the wedding was far from perfect!). Despite my recipe being used and me “supervising” the entire process, I had actually a very limited chance to get my hands on, especially in the decoration. So I really cannot call it something that I have done myself and showing you what I have actually made completely on my own is much more truthful and fulfilling the scope of this blog.
If you are curious to know how the end product looked like, just imagine the square-shaped one here below, but more or less the size of a football field. We were only 50 people, but it was an Italian wedding after all ;)!
This recipe calls for a regular 25cm tin, depending on how you decorate the cake you might not need all the icing but if you have any left you can store it frozen for a few weeks, when reusing it just leave it overnight in the fridge and then give it a quick whisk before using.
For the Sponge:
300gr of butter
300gr of caster sugar + a certain amount to taste for the lemon syrup
300gr of plain flour
300gr of eggs (Cracked and weighted without the shell. I find measuring egg according to weight is more precise and gives better results. A sponge like gives a certain room for flexibility, I would say plus/minus 30gr but, as a general rule, I think a little bit more it’s better than less).
2 tbsp of vanilla paste
1.5 tsp of baking soda + 1 tsp of cream of tartar or
2 tsp of baking powder
1 tsp of lemon essence
1 pinch of salt
For the Buttercream:
400gr of granulated or caster sugar
80ml of water (for precise measurement weight it on a digital scale: 80gr is 80ml)
5 large egg whites
1 tsp of cream of tartar
680gr of butter at room temperature
2 tbsp of vanilla paste
400gr of lemon curd
Make the sponge first. Heat your oven at 200C, temperature is so oven specific so yours might behave differently, whatever is the right temperature for your regular sponge-baking in your oven, just add 20C-25C and use that. Wash carefully, zest and squeeze the lemons. Filter the lemon juice and make a syrup by dissolving sugar in it. The amount of sugar depends on the final volume of your lemon juice and on how sweet you like it, the syrup has to be still liquid but with a slightly thick sticky consistence. Cream the butter with the sugar using a mixer on a high speed until a creamy, smooth, fluffy consistence. Add the lemon zest, the vanilla paste and the lemon essence. Mix all the remaining dry ingredients together, then reduce the speed of the mixer, add the eggs in two-three batches, alternating with the same number of batches of flour mixed with baking powder etc…The secret for a soft crumbly sponge is, once the flour is added, to mix the batter as little as possible, only the necessary to incorporate the ingredients. Line a cake tin, either with butter and flour or baking paper, pour the batter in the tin and put in the oven. As soon as the tin is in the over reduce the temperature to 180C or whatever is the right sponge-banking setting for your oven and bake for about 45’-55’ or until perfectly raised and golden brown. After 40′ you can open the oven and stick a small knife into the cake to check if it’s cooked. Take the cake out of the oven, let it cool down for a while in the tin, then prick the surface of the cake several times with a small sharp object to make holes and pour 4/5 of the lemon syrup all over the cake. When all the lemon syrup has been fully adsorbed, remove the cake from the tin and let it cool completely, ideally wrapped in cling film.
In the meantime prepare the buttercream. Combine sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook the mixture until it reaches 120C. Meanwhile combine the egg whites with the cream of tartar and whisk to a soft peak. As soon as the syrup reaches 120C, reduce the whisk speed to medium and start pouring, slowly but steadily the hot syrup into the eggs. Careful to not splash the hot syrup! Raise the speed to high and continue to whisk until the mixture has cooled down to almost at room temperature. It could take a little while, sometimes I help the process by placing ice-bags in contact with the outer walls of the mixing bowl. When the meringue is not more than lukewarm reduce the speed of the mixer and start adding the butter, one spoon at once and making sure the previous is properly mixed before adding the next one. If butter seems to not incorporate properly you can raise the speed of the mixer just make sure to not over-mix or it will split. Once incorporated all the butter add the vanilla paste and half of the lemon curd.
To build the cake cut the sponge in half horizontally and brush the inside surfaces of both halves with the remaining lemon syrup. Then spread the remaining half of the lemon curd on the bottom sponge and pipe a generous layer of buttercream on top of the lemon curd. Place the other half of the sponge on top and cover the cake with a thin layer of buttercream to remove extra crumble and smooth the surface. Place in the fridge for about half an hour until the buttercream has hardened and you can then proceed to decorate the cake anyway you like, the limit is only you imagination!
One last note. Store the cake in the fridge. However this buttercream has a very buttery and heavy texture if eaten cold straight out of the fridge, whereas it gives the best results at room temperature with a much lighter consistence. Therefore, make sure you take the cake out of the fridge at least 2-3 hours before eating it.