I’ve baked many a cake with Meyer lemons and Eureka lemons.
But never with preserved lemons.
Yes, the salted ones typically used in savory Moroccan dishes.
That is, until I spotted this recipe for “Preserved Lemon Sheet Cake” in the new cookbook, “Time to Eat: Delicious Meals for Busy Lives” (Clarkson Potter).
It’s by Nadiya Hussain, the 2015 winner of “The Great British Baking Show” and star of Netflix’s “Nadiya Bakes.” The collection of recipes is ideal for busy families like her own. The breezy recipes include everything from “Peanut Butter and Jelly Sheetpan Pancake” and “Crustless Spinach Quiche” to “Honey Mustard Chow Mein” and “Pizza Parathas.”
Let me state at the get-go that this cake might not be everyone’s cup of tea. You have to be willing to take your taste buds on a bit of an adventurous ride.
My husband and neighbors liked the actual cake part, but were not too keen on the preserved lemon part, finding it odd. I found the cake unique and intriguing. It made me think, which admittedly is not something most baked goods do.
Preserved lemons can be purchased in jars in gourmet markets. But it’s a cinch to make your own at home, using just lemons and kosher salt. (See recipe here.) Just know that it will take about 2 to 3 weeks, though, before the lemons will be ready to use.
This lemon cake starts out like any other with a thick batter of butter, sugar, flour, eggs, baking powder, milk and fresh lemon zest. Hussain does mix all of that all at once, unlike most cake recipes that call for creaming the butter and sugar first, then adding the eggs, and finally the dry ingredients. She instructs to just put all of that in a mixing bowl and mix on high. I amended that by stating you really should start your electric mixer on low first before turning it up to high — or else be prepared to have flour come flying out all over the counter.
It’s after the cake is baked that things get really interesting. You whiz a preserved lemon with evaporated milk until it’s fully blended and thickens. Hussain didn’t note whether to use only the rind of the preserved lemon (as many savory recipes instruct) or the rind plus the flesh. I went with the latter, being careful to remove any seeds. Pour this topping over the cake when it’s still warm.
The cake is gently sweet without a pronounced lemon taste, but with a light and fluffy crumb. The glaze is again only slightly sweet, but with a long finish that’s slightly but noticeably salty and musky. There’s definitely a savory edge that most wouldn’t ever expect on first glance.
If you don’t fancy yourself quite that courageous, you can always make the cake batter with a little more lemon zest plus a squirt of lemon juice, then dust the baked cake with powdered sugar instead.
Preserved Lemon Sheet Cake
(Makes 12 square)
For the cake:
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
4 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
4 large eggs
1/4 cup whole milk
1 lemon, finely grated zest only
For the topping:
1 large or 2 small preserved lemons
6 ounces of evaporated milk
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease and line a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with parchment paper or aluminum foil.
Put the butter, sugar, flour, baking powder, eggs, milk, and zest into a mixing bowl of an electric mixer. Start on low speed to incorporate flour, then mix on high speed for 2 minutes, until you have a smooth, shiny batter. Pour it into the prepared pan and level the top.
Bake in the oven for 35 to 40 minutes.
Discard any seeds from the preserved lemon, then blitz with the evaporated milk in a blender and strain through a fine-mesh sieve.
While the cake is still hot, spread the salty lemony milk all over it, so it can be absorbed. After 15 minutes, remove the cake from the pan and it is ready to slice. This can be eaten cold, but is best warm.
The cake freezes well — just wrap it in foil, and then tightly in plastic wrap.
Adapted From “Time to Eat” by Nadiya Hussain