Childhood memories are funny things. Some fade to a distant recollections, whilst others, seemingly unimportant, remain as vibrant as they day they were splashed upon the canvas of life. When looking back upon my developing years, there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why I remember one event over another. For instance, I have very vivid memories of the three year old me, sitting on a picnic blanket eating Paddle Pops with my mother in the backyard. It’s a complete memory, flecked with afternoon sun and a grassy scent on the breeze as milky ice cream dripped through my chubby fingers.
What’s made this memory stick, as opposed to other things that I’ve completely forgotten, like moments spent with my paternal great-grandparents on more than one occasion? I’ve got photo evidence of the latter, but yet, even they don’t trigger a response in my brain. Feeble glances across the internet suggest that memory retention is somewhat linked to the hippocampus, GABA and the ‘heterogeneity of synaptic strength’. If this interests you, read on here, but for those of you interested in my in-depth ‘research’ (meaning, I just thought about it for five minutes in the course of writing this blog post) I’ve concluded that in my case, memory retention seems to be linked to the completeness of my sensory experience: sound, smell, sight, taste and a surrounding emotional connection. Like the Paddle Pop example, a small bite of deliciousness enjoyed with my mother in the sun. Either that, or I’m just essentially greedy and my brain retains memories connected to food. Actually, it’s probably a little bit of both.
So, what’s all of this sentimentality got to do with today’s recipe post? A lot, actually. Primarily because a large portion of my archived memories seem to contain a certain baked good that’s steeped in emotion, permeated by the heat of summer and days spent covered in sand by the sea. We’d usually take this treat on holiday to a place called Yanchep, where my mother’s friend owned a beach house filled with reed mats, an old television and plenty of silverfish. We’d play cards by lamplight and eat freshly caught fish with thick mayonnaise, followed by fruit and wedges of this baked delight.
This treat was my mother’s lemon syrup cake, dense with citrus and moist with lemon syrup topping that soaked deep into the cake crumb. Originally passed on to my mother by a friend, this recipe was scrawled on a now-misplaced piece of paper, and we’re still mourning the loss of an old classic.
As the years have gone by, I’ve spent plenty of time trialling variations of this cake from recipe books, magazines, the internet and… well, my own head. All have been good, but I’m yet to find one that taps into the portion of my consciousness from years gone by. I’ve come to think that it’s the same phenomenon you experience when revisiting sweets you loved as a child – with dull adult taste buds, they never seem to be the same. Nevertheless, nothing’s wasted… I’ve now got sour cream, yoghurt, olive oil and butter lemon syrup cakes in my arsenal, and all are beautiful with a dollop of cream for afternoon tea.
For those of you who have eaten at our house lately, you’d probably be aware that I’m going through a bit of a ‘spice’ phase. Everything from chicken to chocolate mousse is being dressed with clouds of cardamom, cumin and cinnamon, therapeutically ground by hand in a mortar and pestle. So, when my husband came home with two bags of lemons earlier this week, an idea formed in my head: spiced lemon syrup cake. I’ve loved the combination of lemon, honey and cardamom for a long time, so the idea of incorporating these into a cake came naturally. With underlying excitement.
I initially scrawled the recipe for this cake onto the back of an envelope, with yoghurt as the moistening ingredient as opposed to coconut cream. However, I discovered that the remnants of my yoghurt pot in the fridge were a little worse for wear, and as I didn’t have any residual sour cream, I needed a substitute. Cue some rummaging in the cupboard for a can of coconut cream. I’d heard of this ingredient being used in vegan cakes and desserts before, and the combination of coconut, spice and honey worked well on my imagined palate.
During the mixing stage, the coconut cream definitely didn’t incorporate as smoothly as dairy based cream would, however everything soon emulsified with the addition of the dry ingredients. The finished cake was beautiful, lightly risen with a pale golden crust and moist crumb. The subtle fragrance of coconut worked beautifully with the warm spiced syrup, and my husband and I polished off a slice very easily with a drizzle of raw honey and a dollop of double cream. I’d definitely recommend trying it, but if you’re not into coconut the cream can easily be replaced with yoghurt, buttermilk or sour cream, with a reduction in the lemon juice to approximately one tablespoon.
It’s not exactly the cake of my childhood, but to my more mature palate, in some ways it tastes even better. Especially on a cold winter’s night with the very best of company.
Lemon Coconut Cake
Makes one 20cm cake.
- 150g self raising flour
- 100g plain flour
- 215g caster sugar
- 125g unsalted butter (at room temperature)
- 2 whole free-range eggs
- 200g coconut cream
- 3 tbsp lemon rind (about 2 large lemons worth)
- 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 1/2 tsp freshly ground cardamom (seeds only, husks discarded)
Preheat your oven to 180 degrees C (350 degrees F). Grease and line a 20cm round cake tin, then set aside.
Beat the butter and sugar together in a large bowl until pale, smooth and creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add in your coconut cream and lemon juice, beating well until the mixture is thoroughly combined (don’t worry if it still seems a little separated, everything will come together once you add your dry ingredients).
Sift in your flours and spices, then add your lemon rind. Mix well until the mixture is thoroughly combined, thick and creamy (if it seems ‘too thick’, feel free to add a splash of milk. It should be the consistency of muffin batter). Pour into your prepared cake tin, tapping lightly on a flat surface to remove any trapped air bubbles. Bake in the middle shelf of your oven for approximately one hour, or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out with only a few moist crumbs attached. The top should be risen, slightly cracked and pale golden.
Whilst your cake is still warm in the tin, prick holes all over the top surface with a skewer. Pour over your strained lemon syrup (recipe below); the holes should allow the gently spiced syrup to seep through into the dense coconut and lemon cake. Allow to cool in the tin.
To serve: I’d recommend eating this cake slightly warmed with a dollop of double cream, fresh mint and a sprinkling of crushed, toasted pistachios. Alternatively, I’ve served mine (in the initial picture) with a mixture of crushed homemade meringue, cinnamon, powdered cardamom, toasted pistachios, mint and lavender flowers. It’s absolutely delicious and echoes the layers in the spiced honey syrup.
- juice of 1 large lemon
- 3 tbsp lemon zest (about 2 large lemons worth)
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 cup caster sugar
- 4 cardamom pods, crushed in a mortar and pestle
- 2 cinnamon quills, broken in half
- 3 cloves
- 1 star anise
Place all ingredients into a medium saucepan. Bring slowly to the boil over medium heat. Reduce to a simmer, and allow ingredients to infuse until the mixture is slightly thickened and syrupy (you will need roughly one cup of liquid). Cover, and leave the aromatics to infuse further for at least half an hour.
To serve: strain your syrup through a fine sieve into a jug. Squeeze out the aromatics and citrus zest so that the full amount of flavour is extracted. Pour your spiced syrup over the warm cake, ensuring that the surface is evenly covered. The liquid should be fully absorbed. I like to remove some of the candied zest to top the cake. If you want to do the same, make sure that any pieces of cardamom husk or other spice debris are removed.
- Make sure that your cake is fully cooled before you attempt to cut it. I sliced mine when it was semi-warm for the purposes of photography (the sun was going down!) and the edges slightly crumbled. Still delicious, just not quite as ‘presentable’ as it otherwise would be.
- This cake works best when cooked in a moderate oven, quite slowly. If you have an aggressive fan forced oven I’d probably recommend reducing the temperature to 170 degrees C (338 degrees f). If you’re going to bake cakes regularly, I’d definitely recommend playing around with the shelving racks to learn where the hot and colder spots are, whilst also being aware of where the ‘fan’ directly blows. All of these factors will affect the quality and presentation of your finished cake. When baking, I’m actually not keen on fan forced heat. All of my baked goods are cooked on the centre shelf of an old fashioned gas oven, and I rotate the tin half way through the cooking process. Works every time.
- As mentioned in the main body of the text, this recipe lends itself well to substitutions. Yoghurt, sour cream and buttermilk all work well in this type of cake as opposed to coconut cream. There will be slight differences in flavour and texture but you can still expect to achieve a dense, moist and delicious result.
- If you’re vegan, just substitute the dairy butter for olive oil or vegan butter (I haven’t tried the latter, but olive oil or coconut oil normally work very well, maybe try 2/3 cup / 160ml then test your batter for consistency). You can also try egg substitutes like ground flaxseed, if you’re feeling brave. I have not tried this so I have no idea how it would affect the texture or flavour of the cake, but if you get good results, let me know!
- Half a teaspoon of nutmeg would also be wonderful in this cake, however don’t be tempted to go overboard as the flavour is very dominant. It’s always easier to add more rather than trying to fix a nutmeg-soaked batter.
Other Traditional Lemon Syrup Cake inspirations, if you’d like to revisit memory lane:
- Lemon Yoghurt Syrup Cake from Taste.com
- Coconut and Lemon Syrup Cake from Donna Hay
- Traditional Lemon Syrup Cakes from Taste.com – probably closer to the cake I had as a child
- Lemon Drizzle Cake from Nigella Lawson’s ‘How to be a Domestic Goddess’
Vegan Lemon Cakes that sound absolutely divine: