Lemon Poppyseed Cake


When I was little, I used to spend my summers with my grandparents in New York getting spoiled rotten and loving every second of it. My grandmother and I would build our day around chores, cooking and watching soap operas. Our favorite was As the World Turns; we were hooked and made no apologies for it.  Over the summer they brought in teen plot lines, and even though I was nowhere near being a teen, I knew a good tale when I saw it. I never watched during the school year, but when I’d return to New York the following June, there my TV friends would be, almost exactly where I left them, with perhaps a day or two—a week, at best—having passed in their fairy tale lives. Within a day, I would be fully caught up and I’d settle in as though I hadn’t been gone for 9 months. Hopefully you see where this is going (I really hope you do, because my train of thought has gotten derailed a bit as I’ve travelled down memory lane…). I know I haven’t been around and that you’ve all gone on with your lives, but I hope you’ll play a little soap opera time warp game with me and pretend that only a day or two has passed since we last talked food and fun.

So. Where were we? Yes! I was traipsing around the globe, feeling very adventurous and worldly. My last trip before summer was to Ireland for a wedding. Now let’s pause here to say that there is a backstory to me flying to Ireland for 72 hours to go to the wedding of a man I met once (on St. Patrick’s Day!) located in a town that was 7 miles from the edge of nowhere. While that story, in retrospect, is somewhat as fraught with drama and tension as a plot line on The Young and the Restless, to tell it would take us on the kind of detour that we’d need a bottle of Maker’s Mark to navigate, so let’s just get to the food. I found myself in County Westmeath on a misty Friday afternoon at a lovely old mansion overlooking mile after mile of greenery (I was slightly disappointed that there was nary a field of heather, nor could anyone tell me where I could see one, but there you have it). At any rate, the first best surprise of the event was that after the ceremony we were all ushered into a beautiful atrium where they were serving tea and scones! Like in actual tea cups and with bowls of clotted cream and everything. I found this to be the most charming thing I’d ever seen, especially at a wedding, to the point that I made a fool of myself taking pictures of teacups and plates (the good thing about being the only American somewhere is that you always have an excuse for borderline behavior. “Oh, that random girl that none of us know who’s taking pictures of cups? She’s AMERICAN… [wink wink].”).

The second best surprise was the wedding cake. I have come to expect disappointment when it comes to wedding cakes, because they tend to be all looks and no taste.  This seems unfair to all involved since most likely we, as guests, have gone through every minutiae of wedding details with the couple, including the tasting, and then we don’t get anything remotely resembling the deliciousness we were promised (not that I go to weddings for the food. Ahem). Much to my happiness, though, there was a lemon poppyseed cake which, again, upped the charm factor of this wedding. It was a bold move; poppyseeds are not the fan favorite anywhere (I don’t think…?) and with a pound cake consistency, it had the potential to be dense. But, as one of my dinner companions said, the cake was “gorgeous.” I’d never in my life heard someone describe the taste of food as gorgeous before and that–along with the jet lag and Jameson’s–just about knocked me off my chair.

I wanted to recreate that cake long before I even finished eating it, but it took another two months before I got it together to make one for a friend’s birthday. She’d requested a fruit filling, so I found a recipe for a berry compote that I decided I’d put in between the layers of cake and on top. Gorgeous, isn’t it?

Yeah, that’s just about where the gorgeousness ends,unfortunately. While the berries were tasty (it’d never occurred to me to use thyme with fruit), the cake was dry and had so little flavor it was almost a crime against lemon cakes everywhere. I was disappointed, not only because I’d baked it for a friend, but because I’d really wanted to bring that bit of Ireland back with me.  The trip, like the cake, was so unexpected and lovely and just right, that to be able to return to the magic of that time just by whipping up a dessert would have been glorious.  But, the cake didn’t work, literally or figuratively (and I realize that was a lot of pressure on a little baked good (and a hefty dash of wishful thinking), but have you ever found me to not take things to levels previously unknown?).

I recently decided to try again, this time using a recipe I had long before the disastrous one, but completely forgot about.  I added poppyseeds and gambled on using lemon extract, because have you seen the price of lemons lately?  The result was–dare I say it–gorgeous.  It was moist and light and I love the texture that the poppyseeds added.  As a bonus, the lemon extract made it taste fresh with a slight tartness and lemon growers everywhere are going to have to survive without me from now on (and I’ve used bottled lemon juice as a replacement in other recipes and didn’t like the results. You purists out there can send me cash for real lemons, if you want).  I didn’t add the berries this time, since they were out of season, but I’ve included the recipe below because it’s worth trying.

As I put this cake together, I couldn’t be farther from where I was when I bit into that wedding cake in Ireland. I was a little lost then, a little disconnected from myself–nothing was quite working no matter how hard I tried and how true my intentions were. My failed attempt at my friend’s cake was how I’d been feeling for several months presented on a platter.  It’d be unfair to stress out this new lemon poppyseed cake with the pressure I placed on the other one, but I won’t lie, the success of this cake makes me feel like maybe-just-possibly-let’s-keep-our-fingers-crossed I’m back.  The fact that it was a recipe I had tucked away waiting for the right moment makes me think I was never really gone in the first place.  Either way, it’s good to be home….

Lemon Poppyseed Cake (adapted from Barefoot Contessa Parties, by Ina Garten. I used her lemon cake recipe as the base; my notes in red)

The original recipe made two loaves. I made one bundt cake. Double ingredients below if you want two cakes.

  • 1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1-1/4 cups sugar
  • 2 extra large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1-1/2 cups all purpose flour (7 ounces) I used cake flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3 teaspoons lemon extract (the original recipe called for 1/3 cup of freshly squeezed lemon juice and the zest of 3-4 large lemons)
  • 2 tablespoons poppyseeds

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour pans and line bottoms with parchment paper (I only floured the bundt pan because it is “non-stick”; this was a mistake. You’ll note there are no pictures of the whole cake and that’s because the top part of about 2/3 of the cake stayed in the pan. Grease and flour–if you figure out how to line a bundt pan with parchment, get in touch.)

Cream butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitter with a paddle attachment for about 5 minutes, or until light and fluffy. Mixing at medium speed, add eggs, one at a time (if you are using the lemon zest, add now).

Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, poppyseeds and salt in a bowl.  In another bowl, combine lemon extract, buttermilk and vanilla.  Add flour and buttermilk mixtures alternately to butter and sugar mixture, beginning and ending with flour.  Pour batter into pan(s) and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour (in the bundt pan, check at 20 minutes; mine was a bit brown at 25).

Fruit Compote

  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (I did use real lemon juice here)
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 4 cups seasonal fruit (I used 1 cup quartered strawberries, 1 cup blackberries and 1.5 cups blueberries)

In a small saucepan bring water with sugar, lemon juice and thyme to a boil, stirring occasionally, and boil until sugar is dissolved (I did this in the microwave).  Cool syrup to room temperature and stir in vanilla.  In bowl, combine fruit and syrup and chill until cold.  Can be made 4 hours ahead and chilled, covered.

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4 Responses to Lemon Poppyseed Cake

  1. Some of my favorite flavors here! Great pictures!

  2. pestlemortar says:

    Thanks! This has become one of my favorites. If you try the lemon extract, let me know what you think!

  3. H2 says:

    Mmm–that brown crust and moist interior. A light lovely cake. beautifully presented and executed!

  4. Pingback: Buttermilk Biscuits « Pestle Mortar

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