lemon meringue cake

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“I’m gonna go torch my birthday cake. Do you want to watch?”

It was late and I was crabby, so I thought I would get more of a reaction. But apparently I’d already shown Dave a picture of the cake I was planning to make for my birthday, so he knew exactly what I was talking about.

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Yes, I made my own birthday cake. Bakers are often disappointed on their birthday when no one offers to make them a cake. I might feel this way if I had plenty of opportunities to bake cakes for other people, but most of my baking is limited to what Dave and I can eat within a few days. For cakes, that means making a few cupcakes at a time. Having an opportunity to say (emphatically) screw that and just make a damn layer cake is rare. My birthday is one, and I take advantage of it.

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Of course, you have to take that with a grain of salt, because someone does make me a birthday cake every year, although how close that happens to my birthday is a crapshoot. I usually see my family once during the summer, and if it’s within about a month of my actual birthday, we’ll celebrate then, and whoever’s house we’re at will make a cake. (Last year, it was my brother, and when he asked me what kind of cake I wanted, he was sure to specify “a basic cake, not a four-hour project.”) When I visited my family a few weeks ago, my mom satisfied my chocolate craving with a chocolate cake with raspberry filling. That left me free to try something more adventurous.

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Tartine’s lemon meringue cake is a lemon chiffon cake brushed with lemon syrup and layered with caramel and lemon cream, then topped with meringue and torched. (“Four-hour project” is optimistic.) After making lemon cream last year, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be making it again – it’s lemon-flavored butter. But it’s my birthday, and I say again, screw that. Mark made this cake recently and assured me I wouldn’t have any problems.

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And I didn’t have any big problems. The cake sank quite a bit after baking, so I probably underbaked it. Then I overcooked the caramel a little, so it hardened too much. And I underbeat the lemon cream because I was too lazy to wash my blender and I left the immersion blender I got for my birthday at my parents’ house. (Gah!) Nothing ruined the cake though, and anyway, do you see those perfectly browned peaks?! I’m such a rockstar. (It’s my birthday and I’ll brag if I want to.)

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Hot damn, that’s a delicious cake. Yes, the cake part is too dense – I’m a chronic underbaker. But the lemon cream remained stable, and the caramel softened up nicely.

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The caramel, at first blush, stands out as a decidingly non-lemon component of this lemon cake. But the flavor was somehow remarkably complimentary. And I’d forgotten how much I love the feeling of meringue bubbles popping in my mouth. In the end, the cake is neither overbearingly citrusy nor overbearing sweet. (Um, at least I thought so – Dave couldn’t eat his without tea.) It was a wonderful at-least-four-hour already-got-my-chocolate-fix birthday cake project.

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One year ago: Fried Egg and Sausage Ciabatta Breakfast Pizzas

Lemon Meringue Cake (from Tartine, by Elisabeth Pruett and Chad Robertson)

Makes a 10-inch round cake

I made ⅓ of this recipe and divided the batter between two 6-inch pans. I cut each layer in half to create 4 even layers. Mark has the recipe amounts for an 8-inch cake.

Chiffon Cake:
2¼ cups (11.25 ounces) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1½ cups (10.5 ounces) sugar
¾ teaspoon salt
½ cup vegetable oil
6 large egg yolks, at room temperature
½ cup water
¼ cup lemon juice
1½ teaspoon grated lemon zest
10 large egg whites, at room temperature
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar

Preheat the oven to 325F. Line the bottom of a 10-inch cake or springform pan with 3-inch sides with parchment paper cut to fit exactly; don’t grease the pan.

Sift together the flour and baking powder into a large mixing bowl. Add 1¼ cups (8.75 ounces) of the sugar and the salt and whisk to combine. In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, egg yolks, water, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Make a well in the flour, add the yolk mixture, and then whisk thoroughly and quickly for about 1 minutes until very smooth.

In another large mixing bowl, beat the egg whites until frothy, then add the cream of tartar and beat on medium-high speed until it holds soft peaks. Add the remaining ¼ cup (1.75 ounces) sugar slowly while beating on medium-high speed until the whites hold firm, shiny peaks. Add a third of the egg whites and fold into the yolk mixture to lighten, then fold in the rest of the whites until just combined.

Pour the batter into the pan, smoothing the top if necessary. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 45-55 minutes. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack. Once completely cool, run a thin knife around the sides of the pan to loosen the cake an then release and lift off the pan sides. Invert the cake and peel off the parchment.

⅔ cup heavy cream
¼ vanilla bean
1¼ cup (8.5 ounces) sugar
¼ cup water
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
¾ teaspoon lemon juice
4 tablespoons unsalted butter

Pour the cream into a small, heavy saucepan. Split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and use the tip of a sharp knife to scrape the seeds from the pod halves into the milk. Place over medium-high heat and bring to just under a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to low to keep the cream warm.

In a medium, heavy saucepan, combine the sugar, water, salt, and corn syrup. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Then cook, without stirring, until the mixture is amber colored, 5 to 8 minutes. Remove from the heat.

The mixture will continue to cook off the heat and become darker, so make sure to have your cream close by. Carefully and slowly add the cream to the sugar syrup. The mixture will boil vigorously at first. Let the mixture simmer down, and then whisk until smooth. Add the lemon juice. Let cool for about 10 minutes.

Cut the butter into 1-inch chunks and add to the caramel one at a time, whisking constantly after each addition. Then whisk the caramel periodically as it continues to cool.

Lemon Cream:
½ cup + 2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 large eggs
1 egg yolk
¾ cup (6 ounces) sugar
pinch salt
16 tablespoons (8 ounces) unsalted butter

In a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water, combine the lemon juice, eggs, yolk, sugar, and salt (make sure the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water). Whisk them together constantly until very thick, or 80°C (180°F) on an instant-read thermometer. Remove from the heat and let it cool down until warm to touch (60°C or 140°F on a thermometer). Place the lemon cream in a blender and with the motor running, add the butter in small pieces. Allow to cool completely. (You may refrigerate it, but allow to come to cool room temperature before using.)

Lemon Syrup:
⅓ cup water
⅓ cup (2.5 ouncs) sugar
⅓ cup lemon juice

In a nonreactive saucepan, combine the sugar and water and bring to a boil over medium heat. Transfer to a cool bowl, let cool for a bit, then chill for half an hour. Stir in the lemon juice.

Split the chiffon cake horizontally into four equal layers. Place one layer on your serving plate (which I lined with wax paper around to cake) and moisten evenly with ¼ of the lemon syrup. Spread ⅓ of the caramel over the cake, then ⅓ of the lemon cream. Repeat with 2 more layers, using up the remaining caramel and lemon cream. Top with the fourth cake layer and moisten with the remaining lemon syrup. Cover the cake completely with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least four hours or overnight.

Swiss Meringue:
7 egg whites
1¾ cup (12.25 ounces) sugar
pinch of salt

In a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water, combine the egg whites, sugar, and salt and whisk until the whites are hot to the touch, about 120F, about 5 minutes. Beat on high speed until the mixture is very thick and holds stiff, glossy peaks.

Unmold the cake and spread the meringue all over. Use a spatula or a spoon to create dramatic swirls. Using a propane torch if available, scorch the meringue, blackening the tips and swirls.

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  1. What a fun birthday cake! Great job. I reallllllly want to try this!

  2. Happy birthday! Way to do something big for yourself.

  3. Stunning cake for birthday!!!

  4. It’s gorgeous! Happy Birthday to you!

  5. Tout simplement magnifique ! que ce soit aux niveaux des saveurs que de tes photos, qui sont absolument splendides 🙂

  6. Absolutely gorgeous! And happy birthday =)

    I always have to make my own cake, too. This may do it for me.

  7. looks deliccc 🙂

    check out my blog at cookteen.blogspot.com

  8. treewhisperer says:

    OMG! I do not like meringue, but your photos make it looks absolutely tempting to eat…and make me wish I could have partaken in baking it with you (notice how I didn’t say for you, because I don’t have the patience for a four hour project like that either, especially if meringue is involved)! LOL I hope you had a great day and bossed Dave around appropriately (“um, could you scratch my toe, I can’t seem to reach it…”) and I hope you loved your gifts! I want to see pics with the necklaces (please)! XOXO


    I agree that making your own birthday cake is the way to go. This ensures that you have exactly what you want and you enjoy the journey of getting it.

    Did I mention the first black and white photo is incredible???

  10. Happy birthday Bridget! (Now you know to never reveal your cake’s sources to the eaters before you make ’em 😉
    The cake is gorgeous and looks just as fantastic as the one from the book! Never had my chiffon from the book sink on me, but also I’ve never baked it in two layers (though I imagine that would make the sink less? I dunno). It does contract a bit as it cools, though, so what may be happening is the sides are still sticking to the pan refusing to contract, which gives the illusion of sinking. Maybe you can try cooling upside-down. I’m glad you liked it. This chiffon is one I’ll be making over and over again!

  11. This cake is simply beautiful. I am going to bake my birthday cake next year. People never buy the kind I love. I can completely understand why you did 🙂

  12. Happy Birthday! I love making my own birthday cake, since I’m picky about the desserts I like. It looks like you made a great choice and it looks delicious! I love the way the torching came out. It looks perfect!

  13. What a beautiful yummy looking birthday cake. Hope you had a great day and ate lots of cake;)

  14. Happy Birthday!
    Lovely cake! You had me from…torch the cake.. lol

  15. This is brilliant, I’m so impressed! Happy birthday!

  16. What a show stopper! This cake is magnificent!!! Happy Birthday!!

  17. Wow. So impressive! My pyromaniac husband will go nuts over this. Hope you had a wonderful birthday!

  18. I am the same way about making my own birthday cake! This looks wonderful, I love the fact it has caramel sauce in addition to the lemon cream. I hope you had a great birthday!

  19. Lemon & caramel… I never would think to put those together, or think they would taste good together. But if you say it was good… it must be true!

    Happy Birthday by the way!

  20. That cake looks absolutely delicious and your photography really shows everything off very well. Who misses their cookbooks when there are blogs like yours?

    Happy Birthday.

  21. Jennifer says:

    That cake is absolutely stunning! Happy Birthday!

  22. Your cake is gorgeous ! I just bought a blow torch and I can’t wait to try to do the same ! Here is a little secret : I’m just like you, I tend to underbake my cakes so now I use a little timer in the shape of a cow and I force myself to let my cake in the oven until it rings !

  23. That cake is GORGEOUS.

  24. Happy birthday! I’m an august baby too. Your cake looks perfect.

  25. So lovely!!! Happy Birthday! You are a rock star!

  26. Those are some sexy looking browned meringue peaks there lady – just awesome, and just perfect for your birthday! I wasn’t allowed to make my own bday cake, but oh well 😛 And now you’re making me regret not getting Tartine during my cookbook buying frenzy!

  27. Happy birthday to you my dear! that cake looks like a visual spectacle and i’m sure it must have tasted amazing despite all the mishaps. Now i’m really inspired to bake my own birthday cake this coming December. watch my space!

  28. The Garlic Queen says:

    Cooooool! I’m trying to plot the next most convenient time to make this cake, hmmmmmmm…..I’d say maybe this weekend but I’m sure a birthday cake will have been organised for the intended recipient, darn. Oh oh oh, I know, four layers, my partner and I have been together for four years this November. Time will fly by, as it does…

  29. Adelina says:

    Happy Birthday!!!

    What’s a beautiful cake! Love your meringue! Nice work on the blow torch too!

    Thanks for posting and for sharing!

  30. Absolutely stunning photos!

  31. Your photos are absolutely gorgeous! I think Caitlin hit it spot on – they are sexy! If a cake can be sexy, that is…

  32. Gorgeous cake!!! That lemon cream + caramel filling looks simply to die for. Happy Birthday, indeed!

  33. That is too darling! I love mini cakes! I recently paired lemon and caramel together as well, absolutely thinking it would be a disaster, and like you say, they complement each other surprisingly well! Happy Birthday!

  34. Um, wow! So pretty! I think I prefer the lemon curd of lemon meringue pie to lemon cream but regardless, you did a beautiful job on this cake! Bravo! Happy birthday!

  35. “I’m gonna go torch my birthday cake. Do you want to watch?” – haha. I think I’d be a little alarmed if someone said that to me XD.

    I know exactly what you mean about birthday-cake-for-bakers; my birthday’s this Sunday, and my mum’s already come up and sheepishly asked me, ‘…do you have plans to make yourself something or should I make you a sponge cake?’. She’s torn between thinking I’d be better off doing my own thing, and thinking that I shouldn’t make my own birthday cake, haha. Ah well.

    Happy birthday, and congratulations on a stunner of a cake!

  36. you are a rockstar–that looks gorgeous! happy birthday!!!

  37. Wow. That is a stunning cake! I’ve seen it in Tartine and been very curious about it… I think I’m going to have to give it a try… Happy Birthday!

  38. You’re going to start a tradition now.. Torch The Cake!! It looks amazing!!

  39. I’m licking the screen, literally. Hot damn, that looks like a mighty fine birthday cake! Well done!

  40. What a gorgeous birthday cake! I haven’t seen meringue that looks as sexy.

  41. I made this cake for my own birthday too, back in June, though I must say yours looks much better than mine did! My cake sunk too, almost by half, and then was kind of sloped over when I served it, but it was still completely delicious!

  42. I call this the 24 hr cake. After making it for my husband on his birthday each year, I now have to make two so that the company can have one and he can have the other!

  43. Whoa! This cake looks beautiful!