Each home cook develops a repetoire of dishes which can be made more or less with eyes shut. These recipes don't let us down. We make them every so often; our friends and family ask for them, and they look pleased when we serve them. We cycle around to them repeatedly, so they conjure up the relative who showed us how, the old klunker stove we had to watch like a hawk, or the baby smacking her spoon on the highchair tray, squealing in anticipation. I feel, sentimentally, that cooking in this frame of mind connects us to cooks we have never met, cooking their own particular favorites, perhaps wildly different from what we are making. This is a variant of the first cake ever to find a place in my long term cooking cycle.
The earliest version I made appeared in a paperback book I no longer have. This cookbook was called something like The Farm Journal Bread Cookbook, and I bought it used, in Madison, Wisconsin in the seventies. The recipe was called "Lemon Tea Bread", though it was clearly a cake.
It is a common enough cake- common because it is so good and so universally liked. My original version was made with ordinary lemons; I still make it with ordinary lemons when Meyer Lemons are not available. But I think it is especially good made with Meyer Lemons, and with some changes copped from Fran Gage's memoir/cookbook, Bread and Chocolate.
You may be thinking by now that everything I cook takes 2 days. Not so, really. This one, for example, can easily be done in one, but it does actually taste even better if you take 2 days, so that the peel can really soak up the syrup. This is what you need:
butter, melted 1 1/2 sticks (12 tbsps, 6 oz)
sugar 2 1/2 cups
vanilla 1/2 tsp
flour, all purpose unbleached 3 cups
baking powder 1 1/2 tsps
salt 1 1/2 tsp
milk 1 cup
grated zest of Meyer lemons 1 (small)
peel of Meyer lemons 2 lemons
juice of 3 lemons
Up to one day, or as little as one hour before preparing the cake, in a pyrex measure, mix 1/2 cup of the sugar with the lemon juice and water to make a total of 1 cup. Bring mixture to a boil in a small pot, stir to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat. Place the grated zest and peel in a small bowl, pour the syrup over, and cover.
When you are ready to make the cake, spray a (preferably nonstick) bundt type pan or 2 loaf pans with plain cooking spray, or else butter it, thoroughly, but not thickly. Preheat the oven to 350F. Remove the peel from the syrup, leaving the grated zest in the syrup. Reserve syrup. Chop the peel as finely as you can. Chop like crazy. A mezzaluna is great for this task.
In a medium bowl, mix the butter, remaining sugar, eggs and vanilla and chopped peel. In a larger bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the dry ingredients. Add the egg mixture and milk alternately to the larger bowl, beating until thoroughly mixed. Pour the batter into the pan(s) and bake for approximately 70 minutes, or until a broomstraw poked in the middle comes out clean.
While the cake is baking, put a cooling rack over a cookie sheet lined in foil.
Cool cake 10 minutes in the pan(s), and carefully remove from pans. Place cake right side up on rack and pour syrup over the cake. Cool thoroughly and wrap in cling wrap.
Wait at least 24 hours before eating this; the flavor is noticeably superior when you do. Wrapped, this cake keeps a long time, and is splendid plain, but it is also good with fruit. It is nice toasted as it gets on in age. I used always to make this in loaf pans, but nowadays I'm smitten with the bundt form for plain cakes.