An Easy Smile

 

Mildred Coombes answered the piercing question, “What is it?” This question had a solid footing in the back of my mind for a couple of months. My wife and I were settling into the home we had just bought, our first, in Burbank, CA. Built in the late 30s, the home was adorable with Art Deco embellishments and a backyard as enchanting as a storybook. It was the kind of residence that was rich in character and history—the kind of home that made you innately aware of its personality through every nook and cranny. A personality that was nurturing, kind and graceful.

The backyard, in particular, is where the mystery kept us perplexed for those weeks. Surrounded by a vintage rose garden, an outdoor fireplace and attractive mature landscaping was a fruit bearing tree. It was an ornate specimen standing about 12 feet tall with its mushroom-like canopy spreading nearly as wide. The deep bronze patina of the bark contrasted beautifully through the glossy kelly green leaves. Sprinkled throughout the foliage were little ivory flowers giving off the most intoxicating fragrance in notes of honeysuckle and jasmine. That alone could stop you in your tracks to take in the heady perfume. No wonder it was abuzz with bees. If I were a bee, I’d be hanging out around that tree.

 

 

But it was the bounty stemming from those powerhouse blooms that piqued my curiosity, those golden orbs of mystery. The fragrance was my jumping off point. Having spent part of my childhood living in Orange County, I had confidence in pegging the tree to the citrus family. On one hand, the fruit was more rounded and plump like an orange. On the other hand, its coloring leaned a bit towards lemon yellow. To know me is to appreciate that I wouldn’t rely solely on appearances so I cut into one for a taste. Its flesh was equally as golden as its armor and the succulence it yielded suggested it was a lemon, only sweeter. Or it could have been saying it was a sour orange! Baffled still, I let it go for the time being—there was plenty of settling in that needed to be done after the move.

 

 

Shortly thereafter, a letter arrived in the mail. The handwritten style was a nod to yesteryear but the voice was ever present and vivacious. I learned its writer was 90-something and resided at an assisted living care facility. The content revealed a 60-year history of young love, child birth, milestones, family celebrations, home canning, gardening and the passing of a dearly departed. It was a touching love story of sorts, chronicling a life lived to its fullest. There was also mention of a tree, a very special tree lovingly planted decades earlier. The verbiage described it perfectly, “The Meyer lemon tree in the back with the pretty, rounded crown.” The corners of my mouth drew upwards into an easy smile. It turned out I was reading a letter from the original owner of the house—the person we had just bought it from! In an instant, I understood the source of my new home’s charm, the life force behind the grace, kindness and nurturing.

 

 

While I was pleased to have an answer to the question simmering on the back burner of my mind, I received something of greater value from the cursive note in my hand. I learned how to live in, care for and love a family home.

 

The closing line read, “Yours truly, Mildred Coombes.”

 

This story and recipe was my very first blog post published on this day in 2010. It was spotted by Chef Dennis Littley, who was a catalyst in establishing my presence in the food world and on the web. It’s good to take a look back every now and again, to see where it all started and to give thanks to those who’ve helped along the way. Thank you, Chef and cheers!

To Mildred Coombes, though I never met you, your thoughtful gesture of the note left a lovely impression on me—one that I hold dearly in the memory of that special lemon tree.

MEYER LEMON SNOWFLAKE CAKE

Yield: Makes one 8-inch, 2-layer cake. Serves approximately 16

MEYER LEMON SNOWFLAKE CAKE

About two to three Meyer lemons should yield the required zest and juice needed for the recipe. I simply couldn’t help myself from topping the cake with a good pour of white chocolate ganache. The interplay of the flavorful cake, the tang in the frosting and the silky smooth chocolate takes the dessert into the stratosphere.

Ingredients

    Cake:
  • 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 3/4 cups sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1 tablespoon Meyer lemon zest
  • 1/4 cup Meyer lemon juice
  • 1 1/4 cup milk
  • 3 eggs, room temperature
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • Frosting:
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 8-ounce package cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon Meyer lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 tablespoon Meyer lemon juice
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 4 cups powdered sugar
  • White Chocolate Ganache:
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 1/4 cup white chocolate chips
  • Snowflake decoration:
  • 1/3 cup or more of your favorite white buttercream frosting recipe, suitable for piping

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease the bottom and sides of two 8×2 inch round cake pans. Line the bottom of the pans with parchment paper, grease the paper, then flour the pans. Set aside.
  • Measure the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a medium bowl. Whisk the ingredients together to blend well. Set aside.
  • In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle, beat the butter and sugar for about five minutes until the mixture is light and fluffy. To this, add the vanilla and zest; blend well. Beat in the lemon juice to blend thoroughly. Add one egg at a time, beating well after each addition. Scrape the bowl. Alternately add the flour mixture and the milk to the mixer bowl—beginning and ending with the flour; mix well and then scrape the bowl one final time.
  • Divide the batter equally into the prepared cake pans. Using an offset spatula, smooth out the tops of the batter to the edges of the pan until the fill is nice and even. Bake for approximately 45-48 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool the pans on a rack for 20 minutes. Run a knife around the inside edge of the pans. Invert the pans onto the racks to remove the cakes. Discard the parchment paper. Flip the cakes to top side up and allow them to cool completely.
  • For the Ganache
  • Heat the cream gently in a microwave on short cycles until it steams and bubbles slightly. Measure the chocolate into a mixing bowl. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate. Let it sit for about a minute, then whisk to blend well. Set aside to cool to room temperature. This recipe yields more than enough for the cake.
  • To make the frosting:
  • Fit the mixer with the paddle and beat together the butter and cream cheese until well blended, creamy and uniform in color. Add the zest, vanilla and salt, mix until incorporated. Add 2 cups of the powdered sugar and blend on low at first, then increase the speed slightly as it incorporates. Repeat this step with the remaining powdered sugar and continue blending on medium slow speed for about 3 minutes.
  • Assembly:
  • Begin the assembly by placing one cake bottom-side down on a plate. Spread the top evenly with frosting (about 1/4 inch thick or so). Place the other cake on top, bottom side up. Crumb coat the top and sides of the cake with a thin layer of frosting and chill in the refrigerator for a few minutes to set. Finish frosting the cake making sure to reserve a little of the frosting to use later for a border. Place the cake in the refrigerator for just a few minutes to firm up the frosting, then let the cake rest a minute or so on the counter. The ganache should be near room temperature, thick, shiny and pourable. Pour a good amount (but not quite all) of the ganache on top at the center. Use an offset spatula to help distribute the ganache evenly around the cake. As you nudge the ganache towards the cake’s edge, let gravity do its job to draw the chocolate down the sides. Don’t worry about spatula marks, the ganache is forgiving and it will self-level. Return the cake to the refrigerator to set the ganache for a few minutes.
  • Fit a piping bag with a #2 round tip and fill it with your white buttercream frosting. When the ganache has firmed up, decorate the top of the cake with a snowflake design. Fit another icing bag with a star tip. Using the reserved cake frosting, pipe a star border around the base of the cake.
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Comments

  1. I love citrus cakes and the top of it is just gorgeous!

  2. Oh, Brooks!! What a lovely story!! How thankful you must have been that she took the time to write the history of your new home, and so wonderful to live in a home that had such a history. And the cake? A beautiful gesture to the fabulous Meyer Lemon. Beautiful story! And I’m so glad our Chef found it!

  3. Well Brooks, once again, a beautiful recipe and a beautifully written story from the heart. You made me smile.

  4. This is a beautiful cake!!!

  5. Brooks,
    I just love reading your posts with your prolific prose and explanations. I can just imagine how much better a Meyer lemon must taste fresh off of your own tree, instead of one shipped from California:)

  6. Brooks, what a lovely cake! My husband and I love Meyer lemons, and I frequently make Meyer lemon cakes. These days, I rarely take the time to decorate them this nicely! Back in the days when I took a lengthy course in cake decorating, I did the leveling, the crumb coating, the piping … Now, not so much. But they still taste great! But I can still appreciate someone else’s handiwork – love that snowflake!

  7. Oh I wouldn’t dare to cut such beauty!

  8. Beautiful, both the post and the cake.
    Older homes with caring owners tell a life story. Two years ago, a woman in her 50s knocked on my door and told me she grew up there and wanted to see the house, what we had done with it. My husband knew the family and we let her come in and look around. It was nice to hear the stories.

  9. Brooks, your story welling with emotion is what makes this a truly gorgeous cake recipe.

  10. It’s a beautiful cake. I agree…it would be tough to cut into. Have you thought about a 6 sided snowflake instead of 8???

    • Thank you, Dana! I’m delighted you mentioned a 6 sided snowflake as it led me to the interesting discovery that in fact snowflakes have 6 sides. The geometry of snowflake ice crystals has escaped me until now.

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