I have potent childhood memories of wide swaths of daffodils growing down the length of my grandmother’s land, and into and beneath great canes of forsythia bushes. The forsythia bushes were a natural habitat for rabbits and little girls, and in the spring, before they put out their leaves, I used to burrow into the forsythia and squat there quietly, occasionally rewarded by the appearance of a wild rabbit peaking out among the daffodils and wriggling his nose at me. Old gardens, with their outsized proportions and hidden refuges, are the most magical places.
The daffodils must have propagated for decades because they grew so thickly that it was possible to pick armloads of them without leaving a bare spot. There were many varieties beside the most common yellow-on-yellow and yellow-on-white daffodils; Some were all white, some had peach cups, and my favorite – the pheasant eye (technically a narcissus) – had a golden yellow cup bordered in bright red, a bulb that has been grown since the Middle Ages.
To steal a phrase from Wordsworth, I love to see the daffodils “fluttering and dancing in the breeze.” Many years later, when my girls had to memorize “The Daffodils” in school, hearing them practice the poem reminded me of those chill spring afternoons among the forsythia and the daffodils. Now daffodils remind me of both my childhood and my daughters’ childhoods, when they would sit in the back of the car, practicing the Wordsworth poem on the way to school. The daffodil is a happy flower, and a good one for gracing a light spring cake.
This lemon angel-food cake is like eating lemon-flavored air, and the frosting is a delicate concoction of sugar, egg whites, and air. I made this cake four times, using three different recipes, and found the most reliable recipe came from the old Betty Crocker cookbook. It’s the simplest, and because angel food cake can be an oddly tricky thing to make, the fewer the ingredients and steps, the better it seemed to work.
For me, a cake is simply a vehicle for frosting, so as much as I like the cake, I live for the frosting. It’s a basic seven-minute frosting of my mother’s (my favorite), with a little lemon extract added. The flowers are simple: they are rubber-banded together and placed into the hole in the middle of the cake, which can be there because you use a traditional angel-food cake pan, or because you use a fluted glass to cut a hole in the middle of the cake. Either one works. Of course you can use other flowers to decorate the cake, but they wouldn’t be ‘as jocund company’ as these golden daffodils.
Adapted from the Betty Crocker Cookbook
Prep time: 1 hour
- 1 cup cake flour, sifted
- ¾ cup plus two tablespoons sugar
- 12 egg whites
- 1 ½ teaspoons cream of tartar
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¾ cup sugar
- 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
- ½ teaspoon almond extract
- ½ teaspoon lemon extract
- 6 drops yellow food coloring
(the almond and lemon flavors complement, rather than fight with, each other)
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
- Combine flour and the ¾ cup plus two tablespoons sugar and put aside for now.
- Beat egg whites, cream of tartar and salt medium high speed until frothy.
- Add additional ¾ cup of sugar, a tablespoon at a time, moving mixer to high speed until the egg mixture forms stiff peaks.
- Add lemon extract, vanilla and food coloring.
(I liked the idea of having a color contrast between the frosting and the cake, so I added yellow food coloring.)
- Add flour and sugar mixture to bowl, ¼ cup at a time, and fold in gently.
- Put batter into ungreased baking tube pan or springform pan.
- Bake 35 minutes (do not underbake or the center will be sticky like cotton candy).
- Allow cake to cool.
Lemon Meringue Frosting
Prep time: 20 minutes
Serves: covers one layer cake
- ½ cup sugar
- 2 egg whites
- ¼ cup light corn syrup
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- ¾ teaspoon lemon extract
- In a sauce pan or double boiler, mix sugar, corn starch and water.
- Cover and heat to a boil, not stirring.
- Heat to 242 degrees on a candy thermometer.
- While mixture is boiling, beat egg whites until stiff.
- Pour hot syrup mixture in a thin stream into the beaten egg whites, continuing to beat them as you pour.
- Beat on high until stiff peaks form, adding vanilla and lemon extract at the last minute of beating.
- Spread on cake immediately.
- The frosting should have a nice weight and shine to it.
For the flower garnish:
- If you don’t have a tube pan, you can use a fluted champagne glass to cut a hole in the middle of the cake, just as you would use a cookie cutter to cut out a piece of dough.
- Take a small bunch of flowers and arrange so that the heads are all roughly the same height.
- Fasten them together with a rubber band, just under the heads of the flower blossoms.
- Trim stems and place flowers into the center of the cake for an (inedible) garnish.