Just in time for Valentine's Day, the first strawberries have appeared at the market in Nice. Seductive as these little scarlet hearts from Spain might look, I know better than to approach them. Their charm is all on the surface, their interiors hard and bland. It will be two more months before I can bite into a juicy French gariguette or ciflorette berry that signals the real beginning of red fruit season.
In the meantime, thankfully, there is citrus fruit: vivid lemons, the last of the local clementines, bergamot, bitter oranges for marmalade, and - just occasionally - the deeper orangey-yellow Meyer lemon. Those of you from California will probably be familiar with this fruit, which combines the mysterious scent of mandarin with the tang of lemon. Around Nice a similar fruit sometimes grows spontaneously when citrus trees cross-pollinate, but one farmer at the Libération market sells the real Meyer lemon for a few weeks a year.
When I get my hands on these lemons, I can never quite decide how best to use them. In the past few weeks many blogs have posted recipes for lemon bars, and their layer of crust topped with baked lemon curd reminded me of an old English recipe that turns this idea upside-down. In the deliciously retro lemon soufflé cake, a sponge cake forms on the surface while underneath lies a pool of lemon custard. Quicker to make than lemon bars and a little less rich, it's a warming, unglamorous dessert to make you glad it's still winter.
Much as I love to play around with healthier ingredients, the only substitution I have successfully tried here is nut milk instead of cow's milk (I made mine with cashews). White sugar creates the necessary creamy texture with the butter and allows the color of the lemon to shine through in the finished cake. If you're on a gluten-free diet, you might try replacing the wheat flour with almond flour. Of course, if you don't have Meyer lemon an ordinary lemon (preferably organic) will do just fine.
The most important thing to remember when making this cake is not to be alarmed by the strangeness of the batter. You may see a curdled texture when you add the egg yolks to the butter-sugar mixture, and the batter will be very liquid before you fold in the egg whites. This is what makes it separate into two layers in the oven, so don't give in to the temptation to add more flour or reduce the liquid. It's important to have everything at room temperature before you start or the butter may not soften enough to combine with the other ingredients.
Don't let the word soufflé scare you: these cakes will puff up in the oven and fall a little, but unlike a soufflé they are just as good once they have collapsed.
For aesthetics I like to bake these in glass jars (yoghurt pots are perfect), but to preserve the surprise you may want to cook them in ramekins or a soufflé dish. Either way, it will be hard to stop at one - just ask Sam.
Meyer Lemon Soufflé Cake
4 tbsp. butter, softened (50 g)
1/3 cup sugar (80 g)
1 Meyer lemon, zest and juice
2 eggs, at room temperature
1/3 cup flour (50 g)
1/4 tsp baking powder
1 cup milk of your choice (250 ml)
Pinch of salt
Melted butter, for the baking dishes
Preheat the oven to 375 F (180 C). Prepare a bain marie by half-filling an ovenproof dish large enough to hold the baking dishes with boiling water. Place this in the oven while you prepare the batter.
In a mixer, beat the butter with the sugar and lemon zest until soft and fluffy. Separate the eggs. Add the egg yolks one by one, beating well after each addition. Sift the flour with the baking powder. Add it by spoonfuls to the butter mixture alternately with splashes of milk and lemon juice, mixing on low speed until you have smooth batter.
In a clean bowl, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they have a cloud-like (not dry) texture. Briskly mix 1/3 of the egg whites into the batter with spatula, then fold in the remaining egg whites. Pour into 4 or 5 buttered ramekins or yoghurt jars, or a buttered soufflé dish. Place in the bain marie. Bake for 30 minutes for individual cakes or 45 minutes for the soufflé dish, until golden and cracked on top.
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