Years ago, I developed a brown sugar-scented play on the classic American 2-egg /1 bowl cake known as Lightning Cake (because it only takes 15 minutes to throw together). Buttery, tender, and fragrant, its deliciousness and fine texture belies its ease. On a pretty plate and dusted with powdered sugar, it looks like the lovely plain cakes you’d find in France: a fine dessert until itself.
Even better, the cake can be split and filled or frosted with various creamy icings and fillings to make a simple sensational layer cake like the one I made last weekend for a friend’s seventieth birthday:it was filled with crème fraiche and a quick uncooked lemon jam and topped with crème fraiche and sweetened coconut.
I wasn’t sure until the last minute IF or WHAT I would fill the center with. Creamy caramel like dulce de leche or cajeta would have been spectacular and lemon curd is lovely with coconut. I hadn’t the time to make either and couldn’t find them locally. (Commercial lemon curd can be easily doctored by adding fresh lemon juice). Although I knew the cake is fabulous layered with crème fraiche and coconut like a classic Coconut Layer Cake, I decided to whip up a version of a lemon jam I learned from Mario Batali years ago. Little more than a sliced lemon pureed in a food processor with some sugar and oil, Mario added herbs to make it work with savory foods like grilled fish and veal. Made sweeter, it has a pleasing bitterness from the peel that offsets rich cream, perfect in many desserts. (Stay-tuned for a special post on that incredibly versatile jam.)
My improvised layer cake was a big hit (Who gets homemade cake anymore?) It may have been even better the next day…
The recipe for the Brown Sugar Lightening cake follows my basic lazy-dog approach to layer cake:
Coconut Layer Cake Method
Prepare Brown Sugar Lightening cake (recipe below). One cake will make two ½-inch layers. For a tall, four-layer cake, double the recipe and filling.
When the cake is cool, invert onto a platter or cookie sheet. Use a long, thin knife (a salmon slicer works well) to split the cake horizontally in half.
Carefully lift off the top layer. I do this by inserting a thin metal tart tin bottom into the cut and under the top layer…
…to move it easily without breaking it…
Since I wasn’t sure how far in advance I could ice the cake without it becoming soggy, the tart bottom allowed me to have the cake split and ready to fill. I simply wrapped the stacked layers well in plastic wrap. The cake can reasonably be filled and iced about an hour ahead if filled with whipped cream, or before you eat start dinner if pure creme fraiche or a non-cream filling.
Figure about 1 cup filling/icing per 9-inch layer. Spread the bottom layer with any of the following:
—about 1 cup of whipped cream into which you’ve folded a little sour cream OR
—straight crème fraiche stirred until spreadable AND/OR
—a thin layer of lemon curd or jam, or dulce to leche
—a scatter of sweetened shredded coconut or chopped toasted nuts…
Replace the top. You can simply sift confectioner’s sugar over the cake OR ice the top (here I used thick creme fraiche)…
…and sprinkle liberally with sweetned coconut…
Recipe: Essential Brown Sugar Lightening Cake
The cake itself can be flavored in endless ways: bourbon, rum, almond extract (it’s strong, use sparingly), rosewater, orange flower water and so on. Grated fruit zests – lemon, orange, tangerine, Meyer lemon – can be used alone or in tandem with other flavorings to make citrus-scented cakes. Lace the cake with sweet spices – nutmeg, mace, allspice, cinnamon, clove, coriander, fennel seed, cardamom, even black pepper – or herbs; any of the thymes and rosemary used sparingly, can add a lovely counterpoint of flavor. Old-fashioned pound cakes were often baked with leaf of rose geranium in the bottom of the pan before the batter was poured in to gently scent the cake.
Makes one 9-inch cake, 8 servings
8 tablespoons unsalted butter (one 4-ounce stick), melted
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 plus 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup buttermilk OR 1/4 cup whole milk mixed with 1/4 cup plain yogurt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract OR 1 teaspoon vanilla and 1 teaspoon bourbon
Prepare the pan. Preheat the oven to 350’. Brush the inside of a 9-inch straight-sided cake pan with a little of the melted butter. Spoon a teaspoon or two flour into the pan and tilt it until it is completely coated. Invert and tap to release excess flour.
Sift together dry ingredients. Place a sifter or a strainer over a bowl and sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Stir again with a fork and set aside.
Beat the eggs with the sugar. Crack the eggs into a medium bowl and whisk until blended and frothy. Whisk in the sugar and beat until well blended, 1 minute.
Mix in dry and wet ingredients. Whisk in the flour using as few strokes as possible until mostly incorporated. Then, whisk in the milk, melted butter and flavorings. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.
Bake and cool the cake. Bake the cake 35 to 40 minutes until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool the cake on a rack 5 minutes, then invert onto the rack. Cool completely and invert onto a platter. Sift some confectioner’s sugar over the top.