Are you ready to fall in love with the sweet side of lemons? Renowned French pastry chef Pierre Hermé will win you over with his Ligurian Lemon Cake, which shows off fresh raspberries and a crown of lightly browned meringue. It is delightfully moist, boasting both butter and extra-virgin olive oil to give alluring flavor and texture.
Hungry? Read on.
Decades ago, I reviewed the James Beard Award-winning baking book written by Hermé along with “Americanization-specialist” and cookbook author Dorie Greenspan, “Desserts by Pierre Hermé (Little, Brown, out of print, used copies available online).
I adored every sweet treat I tested, but the recipe that stood out was that lemon cake. Inside the batter, it’s dotted with fresh raspberries; the tart, reddish-pink berries add bright sparks of flavor and palate surprise, as well as a contrasting color.
It can be served plain—just turned out of the pan and cooled—or topped with meringue and browned in the oven or with a culinary blowtorch. Almost without exception, I opt for the meringue finish. It looks so pretty; if you have an electric stand mixer, it’s a cinch to prepare.
The chef’s recipe for meringue calls for using only granulated sugar, a departure from a more traditional French formula that uses granulated and powdered sugars. When baked, his meringue looks glamorous and has a crackly exterior and soft, almost-chewy interior.
I have taken liberties over the years to increase the amount of egg whites used in the meringue, preferring to add a little more, enough to adorn the top as well as oh-so-lightly cover the sides. I find that 1 1/2 egg whites work perfectly along with an extra teaspoon of granulated sugar.
As for the chef who created this irresistible dessert, Pierre Hermé began his career at the age of 14 as an apprentice to Gaston Lenôtre, the acclaimed French pastry chef that I was fortunate to study with in the early 1980s in Napa Valley.
Hermé was honored as World’s Best Pastry Chef in 2016 by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and as the fourth most influential French person in the World by Vanity Fair in 2016.
Here is the recipe for Hermé’s interpretation of a cake with Ligurian roots, the coastal region in northwestern Italy. So many great recipes and ingredients seem to come from this region. I love this wonder as a birthday cake, adorned with mint leaves and berries.
Make Ahead? “Un-meringued” the cake can be enclosed in plastic wrap and stored at room temperature for four days or frozen up to a month. However, once the cake is topped with meringue and baked, it should be served or refrigerated and eaten the day it is made.
Pierre Hermé’s Ligurian Lemon Cake
Yield: 12 servings
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup sugar
Zest (peel, colored part only) of 2 lemons, finely minced
4 eggs, room temperature
3 tablespoons whole milk or 2 percent, room temperature
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
7 tablespoons (3 1/2 ounces) unsalted butter, melted and still warm but not hot
2/3 cup mild extra-virgin olive oil
About 1 pint fresh raspberries
1 large egg white (I use 1 1/2 egg whites)
1/4 cup granulated sugar (I use 1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon
Garnish: fresh raspberries or a mixture of raspberries, strawberries and blueberries and mint leaves (In the photo I included tiny pink scented geranium flowers.)
1. Center a rack in the oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 10-inch-round cake pan, dust the interior with flour and tap out excess flour.
2. Place flour and baking powder in bowl and stir with a whisk to blend.
3. Place sugar and zest in the bowl of an electric mixer and rub ingredients together between your fingers until sugar is moist, grainy and very aromatic (or, put in the mixing bowl of electric mixer and using whisk attachment beat for 30 seconds). Using the whisk attachment beat eggs on medium-high speed until mixture is pale and thick, about 3 minutes.
4. Set mixer to lowest speed and beat in milk. Add sifted dry ingredients, beating only until they are incorporated, and then add lemon juice, warm melted butter and olive oil, again beating until blended.
5. Pour about 1/3 of the batter into the prepared pan. It should be just enough to form a thin, even layer. Top with enough raspberries in single layer to cover the batter, then pour on the rest of the batter, using a rubber spatula to gently spread the batter so that it runs down between the berries and just covers them. You’ll have a very thin top layer of batter.
6. Bake 30-33 minutes or until cake is golden and pulls away from the sides of the pan; a thin knife inserted into the center of the cake should come out clean. Remove cake from oven and immediately unmold it onto a cooling rack; invert so the cake is right side up and allow it to cool to room temperature. Once cooled, the cake is ready to serve or to decorate with meringue.
7. To top with meringue: Center a rack in the oven and preheat oven to 475 degrees (note that if you prefer you can alternatively brown the meringue using a culinary blowtorch; in that case you won’t need to use the oven). Place cake on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Working in an impeccably clean, dry mixing bowl, beat egg whites on high speed until they hold soft peaks. With machine running, add granulated sugar little by little, one spoonful at a time, and continue to beat until mixture forms firm, glossy peaks.
8. Immediately spread meringue over cake using a metal icing spatula. Dust lightly with powdered sugar and bake 4 to 7 minutes or until lightly browned. Garnish with fresh berries.
Cathy Thomas is an award-winning food writer and has authored three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce,” and “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce.”