Sorrento Lemon Cake – Almost

Posted by Brette in Food

I was in charge of dessert for Christmas dinner and decided to try to replicate the lemon cake we had in Sorrento, Italy, that is a local specialty. Googling did not help me find a recipe. Then I talked to my hair stylist who lived in Italy until he was a teen and frequently visits the Amalfi Coast. He suggested two cookbooks – Sophia Loren’s cookbook (now out of print: she is from the Amalfi Coast area) and The Silver Spoon, which he described as Italy’s The Joy of Cooking. I was able to get both books at the library. Sophia did not help me, but the Silver Spoon has a recipe called Lemon Delight. It sounded like it was at least close.  Here’s the recipe:

Cake:

5 eggs

1/2 cup superfine sugar

1 1/4 cups flour

1 tsp baking powder

zest of 1 lemon

 

Chantilly Lemon Cream:

4 1/4 cups milk

1/2 vanilla bean, silt lengthwise

zest of 6 lemons

6 egg yolks

1 cup superfine sugar

scant 1 cup flour

3 tbsp cornstarch

1 drop lemon extract

1 1/4 cups heavy cream

 

Bergamot syrup:

3 cups superfine sugar

1/4 cup lemon juice

1 1/2 tbsp bergamot extract

3 drops lemon extract

 

To make the cake:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9 inch cake pan with wax paper and brush with butter (I used a silicone pan I sprayed with cooking spray). Whisk the eggs and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Sift flour and baking powder and stir in lemon zest, then fold into egg mixture. Spoon into cake pan and bake 30-40 minutes (mine took 25 minutes), until a toothpick in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool, then cut the cake in half horizontally.

To make the lemon cream:

Pour milk into a pan. Scrape seeds and pulp from vanilla bean into the milk and add all but 1 tsp of lemon zest. Bring to a boil over low heat. Meanwhile, whisk egg yolks, sugar, flour and cornstarch together in a heatproof bowl. Remove the milk from the heat as soon as it begins to boil and gradually add to the egg mixture, constantly stirring. Pour it back into the pan and bring to a boil over low heat, stirring constantly. Boil, stirring constantly for 2 minutes, then remove from heat and pour into a bowl and let cool, stirring occasionally to prevent a skin from forming. (Note: I strained this through a fine sieve since it was full of lumps, then I covered it with plastic wrap to prevent the skin). When it is cool, whisk until smooth, adding remaining zest and lemon extract. Stiffly whisk the cream in another bowl then gently fold into the lemon mixture.

To make the syrup:

Pour 4 1/4 cups water into a pan and add the sugar, bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Boil, without stirring for 2 minutes until thick and syrupy, remove from heat and let cool (see my note below about this). Measure 1/2 cup of the syrup into a bowl and stir in the lemon juice bergamot syrup, and lemon extract. Pour the syrup into a large shallow dish (I used a round platter).

To assemble:

Soak each round of cake in the syrup. Put one round on a serving dish and spread with half the chantilly lemon cream, then top with the other round, using the remaining cream to cover and decorate the cake.

My notes:

Now, there are a few problems with this recipe. You’ll notice that it tells you to use 4 1/4 cups of water to make the bergamot syrup, but then you are only supposed to use 1/2 cup of it. I think there is a mistake in the translation here. So, instead, I boiled the water down for a lot longer until it was thick and syrupy. It had some crystallization of the sugar, which actually ended up being a really nice touch – having a bit of crunch when you bite into the cake.

The other issue is the bergamot extract, which I could not find. So in place, I used a few drops of lemon extract and orange extract. It worked out well.

I used gluten-free flour in this recipe and it was not a problem. I also used lactose free milk without issue.

I found the filling/frosting to be very runny and there was simply far too much of it. So I served the excess in a bowl and some people added some to their cake on the side, but it really wasn’t needed.

Overall, this was a very delicious cake with a very strong lemon flavor, but it is NOT the cake I had in Sorrento. That cake had almost a meringue on it – much lighter and fluffier than this cake was. This cake is a lovely soft sponge with intense lemon flavor with a creamy sauce on it.

This recipes was a lot of work, but it was very different than anything I’ve been served stateside, so in that respect it was a success.

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