11 July 2011

In retrospect

Today I’d like to share with you a vanilla and lemon pound cake I made for my birthday that rapidly came and even more rapidly went a little bit over a week ago. To be accurate, I made the cake the day after my birthday, because my birthday was nothing as I’d planned. Now, in retrospect, I see that as a good thing to have had a calm, unfussy, non-obliging twenty-seventh birthday. But on the festive day itself I found it emotionally challenging, somewhat, to go with the flow, especially when the flow meant sprawling on a couch for the most part of the day, and watching the Travel Channel.

In a few brushstrokes: Anthony and I had an idea to start the day with a small picnic in a neighborhood park. Equipped with the two requisite birthday accessories – this cake and a bottle of champagne – we were going to pass early afternoon hours by alternating sweet nibbles with fizzy sips, shooting the breeze, and watching boats and ducks sailing up and down the nearby river. Later into the day the picnic was to be followed, according to the plan, by a celebratory meal in an Indonesian restaurant (well-executed Indonesian fare is presumably the best part of the Dutch cuisine, owing to Indonesia’s once being a colony of the Netherlands). On my birthday eve, I made a reservation, studied thoroughly the restaurant’s menu online conjuring up in my mind’s mouth the exotic tastes and flavors, told Anthony repeatedly how much he’d like the place and the food, and, overall, got hyped up about the day to come. And to be fully prepared, I even laid out all the imperishables for the vanilla and lemon pound cake on the kitchen counter before we’d head out for pre-birthday drinks.

This year my birthday fell on a Saturday, and so it seemed right to start toasting to the good and everything in the preceding Friday’s gloaming, stepping into the wee hours of my new year with a bright cocktail in my hand, you see. We went to our favorite visit-on-a-special-occasion cocktail bar and did a great job acquainting ourselves with a new summer menu – as well as reconnecting with our all-time favorite. I don’t know how to relay this with self-tact and dignity, but I’d had one too many. Was I thinking that the morning after -- the morning of my actual birthday -- my skull and its contents might be hurting so much I couldn’t possibly detach myself from a pillow for fear not to pass my soul from a headache? The cake, the picnic, the Indonesian meal – all thrown to the wind; lying deflated on a couch – what a shame, what a shame!

On the upside, though, I got to have a great pre-birthday that had started with a fresh chocolate pizza as a special sweet from Anthony, continued with long walks around sun-speckled town, and got magnified by some fine drinks. Why would I want to do almost the same the next day, doesn’t make any sense! Why not to make a restorative day in out of my birthday? I was talking myself into a better attitude, don’t you feel. And because actions speak louder than words, as we all know, I got up from the couch, cancelled the dinner reservation, and went online to order an expansive sushi take-out for two.

And the next day there was the cake: this fine vanilla and lemon pound cake. I’ve been wanting to make it since I came across the idea a moon or so ago. And although it’s not a usual birthday cake model – no layers, nor butter cream frosting – the sheer flavors of the concoction made me want to have it for my festive day. Originally the recipe is for either a lemon or an orange pound cake, but Dorie Greenspan, whose recipe this is, relays it’s also meant for “a wonderful vanilla cake”. I couldn’t pass on a chance to enjoy the heady vanilla and the refreshing, enticing lemon in one bite, so I combined the two, tweaked the recipe ever so slightly, and made what I’d planned long ago to be my birthday treat: a rich, incredibly, almost illegally, fragrant cake. Happy belated birthday to me!

Vanilla and Lemon Pound Cake

Adapted from Dorie Greenspan

Yield: serves 12

It is to a great advantage that this cake speaks well with coffee and tea, is extremely confident on its own, is happy to be utilized as a snack, and keeps a while. Just think, vanilla, lemon zest, and, shazam, rum together, seeped into the tightly-woven, moist crumb. You take a bite and it gives under your tongue with no objection. Vanilla, of course, rushes in first, followed by exciting lemon zest that has metamorphosed into some floral sensation, and then rum, which you don’t taste as much but feel. Please don’t disregard rum, nip out for a bottle if you have none! It’s worth it.

250 gr (2 cups) all-purpose flour
¾ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp table salt
300 gr (1 ½ cup) sugar
2 plump vanilla beans, seeds only
2 tsp lemon zest (one medium-large lemon)
5 large eggs, at room temperature
150 gr (2/3 cup) crème-fraiche or heavy cream, at room temperature (I used crème-fraiche)
30 gr (2 Tbsp) dark rum
110 gr (7 ½ Tbsp) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and pre-heat the oven to 180 C (350 F). Butter a 22.5 x 12.5 x 7.5-cm (9 x 5 x 3-inch) loaf pan – I used a 22-cm (8 ½ -inch) springform – and put on a regular baking sheet (seeing that the baking time will be rather long, this is done to prevent the bottom of the cake from browning too soon). Set aside.

2. Sift together the flour and baking powder. Add the salt and mix well.

3. In a separate large bowl, combine the sugar with the vanilla seeds and lemon zest, and rub them together with your fingertips to infuse the sugar with the flavors. Beat in the eggs until the mixture looks pale and foamy. Add the crème fraiche (or heavy cream) and rum; mix well.

4. Using a rubber spatula, fold the flour mixture into the egg mixture in three additions. Pour in the butter, and stir just until incorporated. The batter can be rather runny, but that’s ok.

5. Immediately pour the batter into the prepared baking pan and send the baking sheet into the oven. Dorie Greenspan instructs to bake it for 1 hour and 25 or 30 minutes, but in my oven the cake was done after 1 hour. I’d say start keeping a close eye on it after the 30-minute mark, after which you might want to cover it loosely with a foil tent in case the top is browning too fast. The cake is done when a thin knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool on a cooling rack for 10-15 mins before unmolding.