Recently my daughter and I were discussing a gorgeous piece of cake we had at Marché in Nashville. We had both eaten our fill of a delicious lunch and were set to go, but I was in the early throes of my cake infatuation and suggested we chose a piece from the dessert case. I had of course been eyeing the display throughout the lunch. Oh was it wonderful, I reminisced with her about the beautiful gentle lemon flavor and pale yellow color ERRRT! (this is where you put in that sound effect of a needle scratching across the surface of an album, an effect that I assume will be lost on anyone under… a certain age.) The cake was a strawberry affair, which my daughter so gently reminded me. Try as I might I could not pull up a picture of a strawberry cake and in fact had a picture of a lemon cake right down to the fine crumb and delicate color in my noggin, and here’s the thing, I think the whole idea of a lemon dessert is just a very sad oxymoron. Lemon bars?? Nah-uh. I can only blame this imaginary picture of a lemon cake on the fact that I had recently been bewitched by a lemon pudding. Oh my yes, standing over that lovely lemony smoothness and stirring quietly in the soft flickering light of my defective kitchen lamp, transported me to a world heretofore unknown, but that’s a story for another day. I’m at the point now where I want to take my baking up a notch, and by that I mean, know what I’m doing. I want to be able to waltz into the kitchen and have the knowledge it takes to throw together a cake without my reading glasses. A lot of that comes from understanding the basic ratios, which I won’t get into but I will recommend Michael Ruhlman’s aptly named book Ratio: The Simple Craft behind Every Day Cooking, or just google ratios and you’ll get a bunch of people telling you the basics. Because I weigh my ingredients it’s harder for me to remember grams and ounces than cups and tablespoons, so it takes some concentration to convert it in my head, the simplest way for me to grasp something is to copy it down and therefore I can see on paper that the sugar weighs about the same as the flour, the eggs should weigh about the same as the fat – here’s a wonderful article on ratios from Fine Cooking. The other way to really grasp a recipe is just to make the same recipe several times in a row. I remember reading in a Jacques Pépin cookbook, and I love his approach to everything –wish I could spend the day with him, that you should cook a recipe just as it is, three times before experimenting. Now with baking, you’re basically just going to experiment with flavors and perhaps texture, but you are going to have to stick to the ratios, there’s not so much of a pinch of this and a pinch of that as you’d have in a stew pot or a love potion. The recipe that I have decided to cook repeatedly until I can cook it from heart is … a lemon cake. I will post the link to the recipe in a moment. I do just one tweek here, I make the milk half buttermilk, because I like buttermilk and because that’s what I had on hand the first time I made it. Also, because I’m experimenting now with piping flowers, and that’s a discussion for another time as well, I make a six inch cake. I call this cake The Barrel Full of Monkeys Cake, because that’s what it’s like to play with buttercream piping when it’s been ninety degrees all week and you live in a small apartment in New York city. The six inch cake is a lovely size and easily giftable, I make cupcakes with the left over batter but of course you can simply adjust the batter ingredients to fit the pans, I’m just not there yet. I also do not make the curd, because I’m just trying to master the cake and the flowers at this point, though curd is lovely and you can put it in a nice little mason jar, tie it up with a ribbon, and gift it to your Brit friends. You probably know this already, but using cake flour when called for makes quite a bit of difference in the crumb of the cake and I highly recommend it. I’m sure cake flour was used in my imaginary lemon cake friend and this recipe uses it as well. I don’t use the cream cheese frosting for piping, you probably could but I just stick with a very basic butter cream as seen in the picture with the white frosting. The picture with the yellow frosting is another go around with the lemon cake and my usual unfortunate mistake of not making enough frosting for piping and covering the cake in one batch. I am therefore, splarging out ribbons of tired and warmed icing from the very dregs of the icing bag, though I do think its sweet to look at just the same!