Tuesday, March 14, 2017

When life gives you lemons...bake

2017 has been weird. I wasn't going to write about it, but for much of the year I've spent way too much time in hospitals, as a visitor to (and advocate for) loved ones who, before this year, were perfectly healthy. One of them—my husband—is walking around in the world now, but the other—my Dad—has been through a bitch of a struggle for the past two months, and just when we think he's on his way, something else happens. Podcasts and our trusty wagon have propelled me back and forth to D.C. to see him. Coffee is my friend.

The other portion of the time, when I'm not fumbling to catch up with my kids and make up for lost time and make it to school, I'm either ignoring the news or peering out at it,  terrified, through the cracks between my fingers. The whole experience of 2017 has left me feeling hollowed-out, discouraged, overstretched but still inadequate. But here's the wonderful cliché of it: cooking really does help. It helps me do and make something tangibly good for my family, and it's an activity I can engage in with my kids when we need to re-connect. The familiar rote actions—of clicking on the stove burners, tapping eggs on the counter, chopping onions, smelling
butter in a hot pan—take me out of my head and into my hands and senses. Baking is particularly, soothingly, mechanical: as long as I pay attention to the measurements, I don't really have to think all that much.

One night, as I arrived back into Brooklyn from D.C., the house was quiet and dark and everyone was already in bed. I opened the fridge, numb from the long drive, and stood a while in the glow, assessing our provisions; for some reason we had a glut of lemons in the fruit drawer, and they were starting to go soft in that way that means you should use them before you find them fuzzy and oozing all over your apples. We also had a container of quark, which I’d bought from the excellent Hawthorne Valley Farm store out of curiosity and then promptly forgotten about. I went to bed, slept like Punxsutawny Phil, and woke up the next morning with an idea to make a not-too-sweet lemon and quark loaf cake, something that would be more like a quick bread and capable of spanning breakfast, snack, and dessert. I did some research online and modeled my recipe very loosely off of one I found in The Guardian. And I baked.

What is quark? If you’re not familiar, it is often labelled a "fresh European-style cheese," but I think of it more as a cross between yogurt and sour cream—denser than regular yogurt but less mouth-coating than sour cream. By ounce, it is lower in fat than sour cream but a little bit higher than whole milk yogurt. In the U.S., you can find it at some natural food stores or international groceries. Our German friend and former au pair, Mari, cooks with it often, which is why it was on my radar in the first place when I found it at Hawthorne Valley. According to her, she uses it in about 80% of baked goods.

One day last year, she and my 10-year-old made a trip to a German bakery in New Jersey and came back with delicious, fluffy quark ball doughnuts; we all fought over them. That was my introduction, and while I haven’t yet tackled those coveted doughnut balls, I was pleased with how the lemon cake came out: tangy, a little bit springy, vivid and humid as a July night. It is a cake in the sense that a pound cake is a cake, but lighter. I find many lemon cakes cloying, and this one is not—and the flavor, thanks to the quark, is more nuanced.

This little cake won't heal your loved ones or cure the world's ills, but it's a good one to bake and enjoy during a March snowstorm, and to share with friends…if it lasts long enough.

Lemon Quark Cake
  • 7 fl. oz. quark (just shy of a cup in a liquid measuring cup)
  • 3 fl. oz. sunflower, canola, or olive oil (olive oil imparts a stronger flavor)
  • Zest of 2 large lemons (3 lemons if small)
  • 2 TBS fresh lemon juice
  • 5 oz. (¾ cup) sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 7 oz. (1 ½ cups + 2 TBS) all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 pinch of salt
For the glaze:
  • 3 TBS fresh lemon juice
  • 2 oz. (½ cup) confectioner's sugar

  1. Preheat oven to 350°. Butter the inside of a 4.5" x 8.5" loaf pan (or similar size).
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the quark, oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, sugar, and eggs. In another, small, bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Whisk the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients and mix until just combined—do not overmix.
  3. Scrape all the batter into the prepared loaf pan and put in the oven. Bake for about 35-40 minutes, rotating about halfway through. All ovens are different, so start checking after 30 minutes. You'll know the cake is done when a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool completely.
  4.  Make the glaze by simply whisking together lemon juice and confectioner's sugar until well blended. When the cake has cooled, run a sharp knife around the edge of the pan to loosen it, then free the cake by carefully inverting it into a dish towel, then onto a serving tray. Drizzle or brush the glaze over the top of the cake, making sure to coat the edges liberally. If the cake lasts more than a day, wrap and store it in the refrigerator.