Lemon Poppy Seed Cake

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My niece MH is a skilled baker. Despite her youth, she has become the go-to member of the family when a dessert is needed for a gathering.

She recently sent me a photo of a cake she made, and I was dazzled. Upon request, she kindly shared her recipe and technique. The lemon curd filling is tricky — MH had a snafu on her first attempt, which resulted in what she described as “scrambled eggs,” but she intrepidly tried again, and the results were splendid.

Lemon Curd Cake. Photo by Keri White

She used candied lemons and berries to festoon the top and additional poppy seeds to adorn the sides, resulting in an eye-popping, show-stopping dessert. But if you opt out of the adornments, the cake will still be tremendous!

The candied lemons — the directions follow — produce a delightful by-product: lemon-infused simple syrup. Save it and use it to sweeten lemonade, iced tea, cocktails or mocktails.

Here’s what she did …
For the cake:
½ cup vegetable oil
½ cup butter, at room temperature
2 tablespoons lemon zest
1½ cups sugar
4 eggs
1⅓ cups buttermilk
2 teaspoons lemon extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2⅔ cups flour
2½ teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons poppy seeds

For the frosting:
½ cup butter, softened
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
3½ cups powdered sugar
1 to 2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon lemon extract
Pinch salt

For the candied lemons:
1 lemon, sliced thinly
1 cup sugar
1 cup water

Garnishes: mint leaves, fresh berries and poppy seeds
Heat your oven to 325 degrees F. Grease and flour 2 round cake pans (8 or 9 inch). Set them aside.

Mix the lemon zest and sugar and rub it with your fingers to release the lemon flavor into the sugar. Set it aside.

Mix the flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl; set aside. Whip the butter and oil together until uniform. Slowly add the sugar and beat it on high until the mixture is fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, then the vanilla and lemon extracts. Beat it for another 3 minutes — you want to make it airy and fluffy.

Add some of the flour mixture, then some of the buttermilk and alternately keep adding these, slowly and gradually until the batter is just blended. Do not overmix it at this stage. Fold in the poppy seeds and divide the batter evenly between the pans.

Bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean, the cake is a light golden brown and it springs back in the center when gently pressed. Cool completely. While the cake bakes, make the frosting, lemon curd and candied lemons.

For the frosting: Whip the butter with the cream cheese. Add the sugar gradually along with the milk and extracts. Add more milk if needed to achieve a creamy texture.
For the candied lemons: Heat the water and sugar in a saucepan until combined and melted. Add the sliced lemons and simmer them for a few minutes. Remove the lemons from the syrup and place them on parchment to dry.

Lemon Curd
4 egg yolks
⅔ cup sugar
1 tablespoon lemon zest
⅓ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
Pinch salt
6 tablespoons butter at room temperature, cut into 6 pieces.

In a double boiler, bring the water in the bottom to a boil, then lower it to simmer. Place the egg, sugar, zest, juice and salt in the top of a double boiler and whisk until blended. Continue whisking to prevent the egg from curdling. The mixture should become thick in about 10 minutes.

Remove it from the heat and whisk in the butter piece by piece. Cover it with plastic wrap and cool to room temperature.

Assemble the cake: Cover the bottom cake layer with the lemon curd. Place the top layer on the lemon curd layer and cover the top and sides with the cream cheese frosting. Decorate as desired with the candied lemon, berries, mint leaves and poppy seeds.

Keri White is a Philadelphia-based freelance food writer.

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