Lemon Blueberry Cake

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DSC_2240smYears ago, I found a recipe for a clementine cake made with ground almonds. This sponge-style cake (getting most of its body from beaten egg whites) enticed me as a contrast to a Christmas dessert buffet of heavy, creamy, and chocolate-y confections. The way my imagination rendered the recipe, it would be light, fresh, and naturally sweet. I made my cake and couldn’t wait to serve it to my family.

After dinner, the moment of truth came. I started cutting the cake, and right away, I was a little worried. It didn’t seem as light or fragrant as I had hoped. But I passed out the pieces, and it was kind of quiet as everyone tried it. Then my cousin’s young son critiqued it with a succinct “That’s nasty!” I had to laugh because I agreed—I hated this cake. It was dense and bitter and somehow didn’t taste much like oranges. I used a recipe from a well-regarded celebrity chef and author, so I couldn’t blame the failure on one of my experiments gone awry. Perhaps these types of cakes and I were just not cut out for each other.

Since then I haven’t wanted to try them—and that’s a problem. Orange and almond cakes are among the most popular in classic Italian cuisine, the culture of my great-grandparents on my Dad’s side. And then in exploring Jewish food, I quickly learned that sponge cakes are stalwarts of Passover baking—among Italy’s Jewish community and Jews everywhere. The classic versions feature orange or lemon and ground almonds or hazelnuts plus sometimes a little flour (or matzah meal at Passover), and, of course, eggs.

This year, craving a cake with blueberries for Passover (either for dessert or an afternoon treat, or why not even breakfast?), I finally dove back in to sponge-cake baking. In some ways, the bar was low—it just had to be better than “nasty.” But that’s not nearly enough for a cake that I wanted to share. I needed to love it and have it be versatile—Passover-friendly and also nondairy so it could be served with any meal. I also aimed for gluten-free (and thus matzah-free) because one, I’m always looking for great new GF recipes for friends on that diet, and two, baked sweets with any kind of matzah meal in them tend to have a stale, “off” taste.

Many variations of the fundamental ground nuts-citrus-egg cake recipe exist now, including gluten-free versions, so I had plenty of ideas for where to start. Because I wanted to include blueberries, I opted for a lemon version (the orange flavor didn’t seem to offer the right contrast to the berries). For structure, besides the eggs, I relied on almond flour, potato starch, and baking powder (yes, you can get kosher for Passover baking powder). Lemon zest and juice produce that bright citrusy flavor I was hoping for without any bitterness—phew. Those blueberries are what really delight me, though, adding bursts of color, mild berry sweetness, and delicate moisture.

The blueberries did present their own challenge, however. They tended to sink all the way down, which was okay but led to a slightly soggy bottom that didn’t look as nice. Using smaller berries, coating them in some of the starch, and adding them to the top of the batter helped distribute the berries more evenly. I also love seeing some blueberries on top of the cake (once you drizzle on the glaze, it looks especially pretty), so I save a handful to just lightly press into the top.

It took a million (okay, maybe 6) tries to get this just right—flavor and texture in balance and wonderful in every bite. And it was worth it. The result is a light and beautiful cake that I love, can happily share with you, and can make and serve for any holiday or any time.

Finally, this gap in my Jewish-Italian recipe repertoire has been closed.



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