I’m aware I might be going overdrawn on my ‘lemon’ account with this recipe, but this really is sublime. It also works equally well with limes, if you want something more piercing. In either case, the loaf cake is made doubly moist, first with the addition of ground almonds and then with the soaking it gets from the lemon/lime syrup. It keeps for ages.
I used thyme here too; it is one of those shrubby herbs you can be quite flagrant with, unlike sage or rosemary. Whenever I’ve been tentative, it looks as though a couple of green flies have fallen into the mixture and need fishing out. It should look deliberate, so be generous. Thyme adds a resinous, woodland warmth, and tempers the sweetness. It goes particularly well with lemon; both are part of the Mediterranean palate, and with some light roughing up over heat, the smell can quickly conjure up memories of scorched earth, sea air and the sigh of singed, crackling wood over flame. Needless to say, you can leave it out.
This cake is based on a Nigel Slater recipe, a food writer with the soul of a gardener in my view. I decided on the thinnest layer of lemon icing on top; it has never felt too much and it makes the cake less gooey to handle. Anyway, that’s my excuse. Candied lemons are a good standby.
Lemon loaf cake
Adapted from Nigel Slater, Crumbs of Comfort, The Observer
At the risk of appearing slightly hysterical, this is the best lemon loaf cake I’ve ever eaten/made. It is simplicity itself and yet tastes quite amazing. People will think you’re professionally trained.
For the cake:
200g butter, softened
200g caster sugar
3 large free range eggs at room temperature
80g plain flour (rice flour works well here too)
100g ground almonds
2 teaspoons of thyme leaves (optional)
Grated zest of 1 whole lemon (reserve the juice for the syrup)
Half a teaspoon of baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 loaf tin (8″ x 5″)
For the syrup:
4 tbsp sugar
Juice of 1 large lemon (see above)
For the candied lemons (optional)
3 lemons, thinly sliced
100g caster sugar
Pre-heat the oven to 350F/175C. Butter and line the loaf tin with baking parchment. Sift the baking powder, salt and flour together. Cream the butter and sugar till they are pale and fluffy. Gradually beat in the eggs, alternating with the flour mixture to stop it curdling. Grate the lemon zest and mash it with the thyme leaves, if using, in a pestle and mortar or with the base of a jar; tearing the leaves helps release their essential oils. Or just add the lemon zest to the cake mixture, along with the ground almonds. Fold the mixture into the lined tin and bake for approximately 40 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.
While the cake is baking, dissolve the sugar in the lemon juice over a low heat – taste as you go and add more sugar if need be. Remove from the heat and steep for 20 minutes. When the cake comes out of the oven, pierce it all over with a skewer and pour over the syrup. Allow to cool.
If you want to go a bit ‘Elvis’ with it, as I did, add a thin shell of lemon icing on top of the tacky-dry syrup; wet 6 heaped tablespoons of sifted icing sugar with 2 generous tablespoons of lemon juice and spread over the cake, letting it drip down the sides. Keep the cake wrapped tightly in foil for a few days to moisten if you can.
For the candied lemons, bring a pan of water to the boil and blanch the sliced lemons by putting them in the boiling water for five minutes. Drain and set aside. In another pan, bring the sugar and water to the boil, add the lemons and simmer for about 10-15 minutes, or until the white pith turns translucent. The lemon slices will go sticky and shiny. Allow them to cool on greaseproof paper. Store in an airtight container, or place on top of the cake for a pleasant finish. They’re quite chewy.
Optional extra: Add crushed cardamom from 1½ tbsp green cardamom pods (put the seeds in a pestle and mortar and crush to a coarse powder) to the butter/sugar before creaming. I think it gives the cake a slightly mystical, smoky flavour. Shout out to Good Things to Eat by (my cousin) Lucas Hollweg for this lovely addition to a lemon cake.