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Betty for the Win

Here’s a secret: sometimes I skip the headlines and go straight to the food section. I know I should be reading about egg prices and big white balloons, but those stories can’t compete with reports about pomegranate seeds or new ways to use almond flour. Last week, for example, I read about some famous chef who makes his celebrated pistachio bundt cake with instant pudding mix. He hides that shameful ingredient in the back of his pantry, but now that secret has been splashed all over the New York Times.

I feel you, brother, I thought as I gobbled up the scandal. At the back of my own pantry, I’ll confess to a box of cake mix and a couple other cheater ingredients that pull me out of a jam from time to time. In addition to perusing recipes, I like to read the comments too, and that’s what led me to messing up my kitchen and denuding my lemon tree of a bucketload of fruit.

The New York Times just featured lemon cake, and the recipe sounded irresistible – five lemons, peels, juice, and even the fruit itself chopped up and added to the batter. The lemons on my tree are so heavy right now that they’re threatening to snap branches in half. I was ready to pull out my mixing bowls. But when I read the comments, a few fellow bakers said the cake didn’t deliver on the intensity of the labor. While many said it was the best cake they’d ever had, others intoned an easier delicious cake developed by Ina Garden, the Barefoot Contessa. She’s a genius, and although I haven’t tried her lemon cake, she never disappoints. I found myself comparing recipes. The Contessa uses yogurt, while the Times uses sour cream. Both use a lot of eggs and a ton of lemons, but they advocate different styles of baking pans. Hmmmm.

I pondered these recipes, but in the back of my mind, I had another lemon cake recipe swirling in my head, my go-to lemony masterpiece that always gets rave reviews at the potluck. It’s also the cake that had me feeling for the chef who was just outed for his pudding mix crutch. That’s right, my cake comes from a mix plus a couple boxes of jello. The recipe is the only good thing that came from an ill-fated youthful romance – well, that and a delicious way to enjoy cream cheese, but that’s another story.

The cake is embarrassingly easy: a 5 minute prep and into the oven it goes. After reading those other cake recipes, though, I wondered if I’ve been deluding myself all these years with a simple but inferior cake, and I determined to set the record straight. That night, I had a bake off right in my own kitchen. My daughter and I picked a caldron of lemons, brought ingredients to room temperature, and started making a mess. Few activities give me as much joy.

The first cake up was the Barefoot Contessa’s. Interestingly, her batter is infused only with the zest of lemon, no juice or fruit, and I wondered if the flavor would be sufficiently tart. Nonetheless, I resisted the temptation to lemon-it-up and did my best to give her method an honest shot at the prize. I’ve been known to look at recipes as mere suggestions, as jumping off points for my own culinary joie de vivre. But I needn’t have worried; Ina always delivers. Her cake is enveloped in not one but two super lemony sauces. The first is a tart simple syrup that gets poured into the warm cake shortly after it leaves the oven, and the second is a true glaze made with powdered sugar and lemon juice. The result? Excellence. And since it’s made with yogurt, I knew I could have it for breakfast with a clear conscience.

Next I tackled the New York Times recipe, an 11-step process that involves gutting flesh from a lemon. I scraped, gouged, and squeezed a pile of fruit, feeling the sting of acid in my cuticles. By this time, my floor was so sticky that my shoes made a ripping sound every time I took a step. The whole kitchen was dusted in powdered sugar, even the light fixture. Plus, the Times uses a bundt cake pan which all bakers know is risky business. Having experienced the heartbreak of bundt cake fiascos, I used crisco to lube up every nook of that pan and held my breath when I overturned the finished cake onto the cooling rack. It’s delicious, one I’d be proud to serve.

At last I made my old standby, the recipe with the top secret ingredient. That’s right, I got out a mix – from the back of the pantry behind the chia seeds and homemade vinegars. Within minutes, that artificially yellowed batter was in the oven, easy peasy. I baked it in a 13 x 9 pan, the workhorse of the dessert world. My other two cakes are bakery-worthy, but I couldn’t help marvel at the ease, speed, and mess-free alternative the box offered. How it would stand up to it’s sophisticated kin?

When all three cakes were lined up on my clean counter, I portioned them out, labeled them “one,” “two” and “three” and doled them out to neighbors for a vote. The clear winner? You guessed it. Betty Crocker ruled the day.

Nan’s Top Secret Lemon Cake Masterpiece

1 Box of Lemon Cake Mix - buy the kind on sale

2 Boxes of Lemon Jello, generic is fine

4 Eggs

3/4 Cup Oil

3/4 Cup Water

Mix all ingredients. Pour the batter into a greased 13 x 9 in pan and bake for 30 minutes at 350º. While the cake is in the oven, combine the juice of two lemons with 1 1/2 Cups of powdered sugar. Pour this glaze over the hot cake. If you really want to amp it up, top the glazed cake with lemon-cream cheese frosting. It’s a winner.


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