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Edible Legibles: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

27.March 2011

I’ve always been interested in synaesthesia. There was a story on 60 Minutes about it once upon a time and they interviewed a woman who experiences distinct tastes when she hears individual words.  She told the story of calling off her engagement to a man whose name conjured up a very unpleasant taste – one she simply couldn’t live with.  It was heartbreaking – can you imagine if every time you thought of the name of the person you loved, you could taste rotten eggs or vomit or something equally disgusting?

If you haven’t spent time reading about synaesthesia, I recommend it – Oliver Sacks writes about it in his book Musicophilia, as one suggestion.

But this blog post isn’t about this sort of synaesthesia.  Today I’m starting a series of posts about food in books, starting with The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender.  I’m not going to tell you it’s an earth-shattering book or one that will change your life.  But it was a very pleasant read and, if you’re at all interested in food, suggests a fascinating alternate reality.  Moreover, it sticks with you – it’s been a few months now since I read it and I still think about it frequently.

In the book, the main character discovers that she can taste emotions in food – not her own or those of the ingredients, but those of the people who grew and harvested the food, the ones who transported the ingredients, but most especially those of the people who prepared the food.  It reminds me of a moment from the first season of True Blood:

Tara: What the hell we gonna do with all this?
Lafayette: Toss it. Sookie don’t need no bad juju cooking.
Tara: Bad juju?
Lafayette: Way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. That s**t true as gold. You put some love in your food and folk can taste it. Smell this. You can smell the fear and nastiness comin’ off that cornbread.

Tragically, this ability comes upon her just before her birthday, as she is sitting down to taste a new recipe for her favorite cake – lemon cake with chocolate frosting.  In it she can taste the desperate longing for an unidentified something that the reader learns has plagued her mother for years.  Shocking, for a young girl to suddenly have access to feelings she is not properly able to process.

And this particular cake was well chosen for that pivotal scene – I don’t have a single specific memory of eating lemon cake with chocolate frosting as a kid, but the idea of it, even just thinking about it, makes me feel nostalgic.  There must be something to it.

I won’t tell much more about the story (go read it if you want!), but I will say that I’m awfully glad to not have that particular talent.  I know precisely what kind of moods go into my cooking, but I don’t need to know what the Subway sandwich artists are feeling, for starters.

More impressive than that idea, though is the way in which the book shows a brother and sister coping with an ambivalent family legacy, testing their limits and coming into their own.  The paradigm is surreal, magical, strange, but the issues at work are applicable to real life in a lot of ways.

Lemon Chiffon Cake with Chocolate Fudge Frosting

* A note on this cake: It’s a lemon chiffon cake, which means it’s very spongy, almost like angel food cake.  I don’t LOVE this cake as a layer cake, but it’s delicious anyway.  In the future, I’d probably go for a slightly heavier cake.  The cake is adapted from the America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book.

  • 1 1/2 c sugar
  • 1 1/3 c cake flour
  • 1/2 t baking soda
  • 1/2 t salt
  • 5 large eggs, separated
  • 2 large eggs
  • 3/4 c water
  • 1/2 c vegetable oil
  • 1 t vanilla extract
  • 1/4 t lemon extract
  • 1/4 t almond extract
  • 1/2 t egg white powder
  1. Heat oven to 325.  Line the bottoms of two 9-inch cake pans with parchment and butter the pans.
  2. Whisk the sugar, flour, baking soda, and salt together in a large bowl.
  3. In a medium bowl, whisk together the separated egg yolks, two whole eggs, water, oil, extracts, zest, and juice of one lemon.
  4. Whisk egg yolk mixture into dry ingredients to make a smooth batter.
  5. In a large bowl, whisk the separated egg whites and egg white powder on medium speed until frothy, then on high speed for about four minutes, until stiff peaks rise.
  6. Fold the whipped egg whites into the batter, making sure to mix in any lumps of egg white.
  7. Divide batter into two pans and bake until golden brown and springy, about 45 minutes, rotating pans halfway through baking.
  8. Invert pans onto parchment paper to cool.  When mostly cool, run a knife around the edge of the pan and tap bottom to release cakes.  When cool, assemble with fudge frosting.

Fudge Frosting

  • 4 oz bittersweet chocolate
  • 4 oz (1 stick) butter
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 t vanilla extract
  • 5-8 T whole milk
  1. In a double boiler, melt chocolate and butter until smooth, stirring frequently.
  2. Combine powdered sugar and melted chocolate and butter with vanilla extract in bowl of a stand mixer.  Mix until combined.
  3. Spread with offset spatula, decorate as desired.
  4. Add milk one tablespoon at a time until frosting is spreadable and shiny.
7 Comments leave one →
  1. Sarah permalink
    28.March 2011 00:14

    Fabulous, Em!! I love the idea and I love your photographs (as always).

    • Darby O'Shea permalink*
      28.March 2011 07:31

      Thanks, Sarah! If you have suggestions of books that would be good to feature, let me know!

  2. 28.March 2011 00:17

    I was inspired to bake a lemon cake when I read this book too (when it first came out). I liked the cake better than the book.

    • Darby O'Shea permalink*
      28.March 2011 07:31

      Yes. Maybe it was just the result of staring at that photo of lemon cake on the cover every day for however long? The book was OKAY in the deepest sense of the word. I had the nagging feeling that it could have been great, but it just wasn’t quite. I had the same feeling about The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman. Good, not great.

  3. Jamie permalink
    28.March 2011 10:28

    Love this post! Nice work! I look forward to others in the series…

  4. 10.April 2011 12:39

    I thought this was a very odd book and didn’t finish it. Love your pictures. yum,

  5. 24.April 2011 03:57

    Wow! I love the look of this cake and the idea behind the book… I’d love to take a look at it! And thanks for the recipe…

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