One of my favourite cakes to make at this time of the year is the Clementine Cake from Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat, a cake which Nigella has quoted as being one of the most popular from her first cookbook, one which happens to be a firm favourite for me – I have 3 copies (UK, US and iPad version) just to prove my point.
The Clementine Cake is made from cooking a few whole clementines for a few hours until they are soft and capable of being mashed to a pulp, to which you add a whole carton of eggs, some sugar, almond meal and baking powder. Using the whole fruit means that you get maximum flavour for your cake, not to mention a very moist one. I love this cake because it lends itself well to many occasions, whether as a rustic cake for afternoon tea, a dessert with some crème fraîche or wrapped up to take to the park for a picnic. I’ve even left out the baking powder to make it a gluten-free cake when required.
Although clementines are abundant and in season at the moment, I happen to love the lemon variation which Nigella offers. If you love lemon cake, I don’t think you can find a more lemony lemon cake than this. And especially at this time of year in the middle of Europe, a welcoming lemon cake is just the burst of sunshine you need on those grey and gloomy wintry days.
Given that this cake is comprised mostly of whole lemons, it makes sense to use the best-quality lemons you can find. That said, the disadvantage of using organic lemons is having to pick out the millions of seeds. Some of the seeds will be pulverised in the food processor, but many will remain in the purée. My preference is to pick them out unless you want a seed-studded cake.
Another (not very scientific) finding of mine, gathered from the many occasions upon which I have made this cake, is to use fewer but slightly larger fruit, rather than more and smaller fruit. In other words, it is better to use 3 medium-sized lemons than 4 little ones. The same rationale applies also if you wish to use oranges or clementines in place of the lemons. I find that what you want to avoid is having too much skin which can make the overall cake taste a bit bitter. To that end, I also choose fruit which has a fairly thin peel which you can easily gauge by feeling the fruit; a thick peel means more pith, which means more bitterness. Don’t worry too much about this though – if the fruit tastes good, you’re off to a good start.
And as for cooking the lemons, you can follow the instructions as per Nigella’s recipe and cook them in simmering water for about an hour, or you can zap them in the microwave for a few minutes. I have read about the latter method from a few people who claimed to have saved lots of time and energy (literally) when making this cake. I don’t own a microwave so I can’t comment, but one thing for sure is that you will miss out on perfuming your kitchen with the wonderful citrus aroma.
Being a very moist cake, there is a tendency for the cake to be quite “wet”, particularly in the centre. I just bake it until a metal skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean and is not sticky to touch. But baking the cake in a ring tin eliminates this problem entirely.
The cake keeps quite well for a few days in a covered container, but I would be extra careful in warmer weather; this cake does not like warm and humid temperatures, meaning that it will go mouldy rather quickly if it is not kept in a cool place.
As this Lemon Cake is merely a variation of the original Clementine Cake (which, in turn, is based on Claudia Roden’s Orange Cake), it goes without saying that you can use the same weight of almost any citrus fruit in this cake. For oranges and clementines, you should reduce the sugar to 225 g and cook the fruit for about 2 hours. I have found that lemons require less time than oranges and clementines to cook, mostly because lemons are generally smaller. You should cook the fruit until it breaks easily upon the touch of a spoon. If you cook the fruit for too long, they will start to break down, releasing some of their flavour into the cooking water.
I realise now that I seem to have provided a lot of “tips” for what is, in effect, a really simple cake. But having discussed this cake at length on various food forums over the years, I thought it would be helpful to document my two cents worth here