Unlike one of my friends who possesses an ardent love for lemon desserts (her favorite cookie is lemon, out of all the flavors out there), I feel solidly meh about citrusy sweets. Don’t get me wrong, I like a sweet-tart lemon bar or slice of lemon cream pie as much as the next person — assuming the next person is cool with citrus — but I would surely go for a decadent chocolate number if given the choice. What is it about lemon, especially lemon cake, that makes me so... ambivalent? I’ve enjoyed and appreciated them, but they’ve never topped any lists for me.
So I decided to take on both a culinary and personal challenge: Could I create a lemon cake that I truly loved? Could I shake my indifference and mixed feelings? My goal was to end up with not only a memorable, delicious lemon cake but also the knowledge that I, too, could be a citrus dessert person if I tried.
The iconic iced lemon loaf from Starbucks — the overly sweet, one-dimensionally tangy, yellow-tinted mainstay seen at locations worldwide — is indicative of what I find problematic about many lemon cakes. They have a tendency to veer into “I AM A LEMON CAKE” territory: flavorful, yes, but also coming on a bit too strong, aggressively bright and erring either too sweet or too mouth-puckeringly tart. Accompanying ingredients like blueberries and ginger often get lost in the mix, overshadowed and underappreciated.
To tackle this quandary, I wondered if I could make lemon the secondary, complementary flavor in its namesake cake (the last time I checked, there were no rules prohibiting this). Instead of turning to spices or herbs, which are commonly associated with lemon, I wanted to explore the possibility of a citrus-on-citrus pairing. Could two citrus fruits coexist, and even cooperate, in the same cake? That’s how I landed on yuja (also known as yuzu), in the form of a Korean jarred citron tea — which, to be clear, is a type of zingy, honey-spiked marmalade. My hunch was that yuja, unlike, say, orange or grapefruit, could meld with lemony flavor rather than stand at odds with it.
I’m happy to report that my gut did not lead me astray. In this cake recipe, yuja works double time: Straining the tea beforehand provides both a smooth, syrupy jam to add to the batter and pieces of citron peel for garnishing later on. There’s still a bit of lemon juice and zest in the cake (it’s technically a lemon cake, after all), but it’s a pleasantly subtle lemony flavor that supports the complexity of the yuja rather than hogging the stage. Yuja’s one-of-a-kind brightness particularly shines through in the whipped cream, which is sweetened only with the marmalade, and in the concentrated yuja peel that tops the cake and adds lovely pops of citrus flavor.
This is an unfussy spring cake — one-layered and homey, yet elegant and nuanced — that can grace your dessert table and keep you company during another Zoom-meeting-heavy afternoon. It’s citrus-forward but balanced, surprisingly complex and a tad luxurious. And it made me realize that I am a fan of lemon cake; it just took reimagining the classic with another flavor. I’d happily choose this cheerful lemon-yuja cake over chocolate any day — extra whipped cream on the side, please.
Lemon-Yuja Cake Recipe
Makes one 9-inch round cake
For the cake:
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons (120 grams) all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
¾ cup (150 grams) granulated sugar
1 or 2 teaspoons lemon zest, depending on how much lemon flavor you like
2 large eggs, at room temperature
¼ teaspoon almond extract (optional)
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 teaspoons jarred citron (yuja) tea, such as this one (strain out the peel and seeds before measuring, and reserve the peel for garnish)
½ cup (120 grams) full-fat sour cream, at room temperature
Scant ¼ cup (40 grams) whole milk, at room temperature
For the yuja cream:
1 cup heavy whipping cream, cold
3 tablespoons citron (yuja) tea (strain out the peel and seeds before measuring, and reserve the peel for garnish)
Pinch of kosher salt
For the topping:
Yuja peel from the jarred tea, reserved after straining
Step 1: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease a 9-inch round cake pan with nonstick cooking spray, line the bottom with parchment paper, and grease the parchment. Place the cake pan on top of a baking sheet.
Step 2: In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.
Step 3: In a large bowl, beat the butter with an electric hand mixer or in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until smooth. Add the sugar and lemon zest and cream the mixture until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula.
Step 4: Add in the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition until combined. Scrape the bowl once more, then beat in the almond extract (if using), lemon juice, and strained yuja tea until smooth.
Step 5: Sift half of the dry ingredients over the butter mixture and beat until just combined (a few flour patches are fine). Carefully beat in the sour cream and milk, then sift in the rest of the dry ingredients and beat until just combined and the batter is smooth. Take care not to overmix.
Step 6: Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the surface with a small offset spatula or rubber spatula.
Step 7: Slide the pan and baking sheet carefully into the oven and bake for 35 to 45 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then gently loosen the edges by running a small offset spatula or paring knife around the edge. Carefully invert the cake onto a cooling rack.
Step 8: While the cake is cooling, make the yuja cream: Combine the heavy cream, strained yuja tea, and pinch of salt in a large bowl. With an electric hand mixer or in a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the cream until soft to medium peaks form, about 1 to 2 minutes.
Step 9: When the cake is completely cool, spread the whipped cream on top and garnish with the reserved yuja peel.
Note: If you plan on consuming the cake over a few days, I recommend keeping the unfrosted cake at room temperature tightly wrapped in plastic wrap, then slicing and assembling with the whipped cream and garnish when ready to serve. If you do refrigerate the assembled cake (covered), allow it to soften at room temperature for 45 to 60 minutes before enjoying.
Joy Cho is a pastry chef and freelance writer based in Brooklyn. After losing her pastry cook job at the start of the pandemic, Joy launched Joy Cho Pastry, an Instagram business through which she sells her gem cakes to the New York City area. Celeste Noche is a Filipino American food, travel, and portrait photographer based between Portland, OR and San Francisco, CA.
Recipe tested by Deena Prichep