Raymond Blanc’s Gâteau au Citron
Simplicity can be such a curse. No doubt a simple pound cake requiring only a handful of ingredients is hardly a technical challenge compared to an multi-component entremet. Yet, it is often the simplest things that are the easiest to pick up but most difficult to master. As such, I’m constantly on the hunt for THE perfect cake recipe, if there’s ever such a thing, be it a pound or chiffon, or even a simple buttercake. Some recipes “worked” for a while, and just when you thought you’d nailed it, a better cake comes along and sends one back to the drawing board! And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who’s been through this!
While searching over youtube for French recipes to prepare a rack of lamb, I came across a BBC cooking series “Kitchen Secrets” hosted by renowned French chef Raymund Blanc. Monsieur Blanc left France in the 1970s and crossed the English channel , where he found a new life and new hopes. Entirely self-taught with no formal training in classical techniques whatsoever, he opened his first restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons as a small shop in 1977 before expansion in 1984. The restaurant was conferred two michelin stars a year later and held them since. I found myself glued to the cooking series, watching the episodes for the two seasons running over youtube, all in a single sitting. Naturally, having spent all that time in front of the monitor, I didn’t get to prepare that rack of lamb for that evening’s dinner, but all was not lost as I found myself quite inspired.
Using very simple ingredients and basic techniques, he whips up dishes one after another in quick sucessions, all looking delicious! And of course, he improvises old French recipes, breathing new life to the stale and stagnant, making dishes which traditionally carry a lot of heft much lighter and hence more acceptable by our modern palates. In the footsteps of Gaston Lenotre I see… looking very promising. I especially like his Strawberry and Rhubarb Crumble, which was thoroughly deconstructed, as all 3 components, i.e. gariguette strawberries, English rhubarb and the crumble topping were all cooked and baked separately before being assembled together. Bizarre some would think, but his motives are astonishingly simple yet convincing, making me relook at how some traditional desserts could be remade to become hopefully better.
The first recipe I tried from his cooking series is a simple Gâteau au Citron, a french lemon tea cake. Very simple to bake at home with ready-at-hand ingredients. Nothing complicated and exotic, and hence making it all the more difficult to excel in and impress with. And this recipe seems to be rather widely published over the internet, as many baking bloggers wrote about their experiences in preparing it. This gateau is served at RB’s “Le Manoir” over the last 25 years and is seemingly very popular for afternoon tea in that establishment. So here you go, a bit of michelin star dust at the comforts of your own kitchen!
Raymond Blanc’s Gâteau au Citron (lemon cake) for a 26cm long x 9cm wide x 8cm deep loaf tin appro. 12 slices, reproduced from here
You can make the cake one day in advance, as the glaze will prevent it from drying out. Ensure all ingredients are at room temperature before you start.
300g caster sugar
140g double cream
zest from 3 lemons (I used 4 lemons instead)
25ml dark rum
1 pinch of salt
80g unsalted butter – melted
240g plain flour sieved with ½ tsp baking powder
50g apricot jam for glazing,
Lemon Icy Sugar Glaze (omitted) 3 tbsp lemon juice
zest of 1 lemon
150g icing sugar
- Preheat oven to 180°C.
- Lightly brush loaf tin with a little softened butter and line with the greaseproof paper.
- In a large bowl whisk together the eggs, sugar, cream, lemon zest, rum, salt and butter.
- Separately, in a large bowl, sieve together the flour and baking powder.
Whisk the flour into the egg mixture until smooth.Fold in the dry ingredients carefully in 3 batches until the flour is just incorporated. Do not overmix the batter.
- Fill the tin with the mixture and bake for 50-60 minutes approximately, turning halfway through cooking.
- To check if it is cooked insert a small knife blade into the middle of the cake, if it comes out clean it is done, the core temperature at this point will be 88°C.
- Turn it out onto a baking rack and leave to cool for 10 minutes.
Glazing the cake with apricot jam
- Gently warm apricot jam in a pot. Lightly brush the cake all over with the warmed apricot jam and leave for 5 minutes.
Glazing the cake with lemon & icing sugar: (omitted)
In a small bowl, mix together the lemon juice, zest and icing sugar. In a small saucepan or in a microwave, heat the lemon and icing sugar mixture until the sugar has dissolved into a syrup, the temperature should be 35C. Brush the lemon and icing sugar glaze all over the cake and leave for a few minutes to set, the glaze should be even and thin, if it is too thick the glaze will run when heated in the oven. Place the glazed cake back in the oven, turn off the heat and leave for 3-5 minutes. This will turn your glaze translucent and dry it out making it easier to handle. Allow to cool to room temperature before slicing and serving to your guests.
There’s a video of Raymond Blanc making the lemon cake on youtube, an excerpt from one of the episodes in “Kitchen Secrets”. When I saw how beautifully the loaf rose in the oven under fast-forward mode, I was sold! I knew I have to try this recipe as it could very well be the one I am looking for! Like the other recipes videos, Monsieur Blanc was never short of humour. But there are two glaring problems with the video. First was the narration of the recipe, which mentioned adding the zest AND juice of 3 lemons. This would overthrow the liquid proportions of the batter wouldn’t it? A quick check over the internet confirmed my suspicions, i.e. the online recipe published on BBC indicated specifically that only the zest is to be used. The juice could of course be salvaged for other purposes, e.g. making lemon curdm lemonade etc.
The second thing which caught my attention in the video was how “vigorously” he was working the batter with a handwhisk after the dry ingredients mixture of flour and baking powder was added. Surely that would work up the gluten in it which can lead to a very hard and tough cake yeah? My intuition told me to go against this and instead, I chose to fold in the flour mixture in 3 batches intead. And I was right, the cake texture was already quite dense and compact as it is, despite how carefully I’d folded the flour mixture in. Whisk it with such vigor and delirium may prove to be more “fatal”, or so I thought… or would it not? I guess I’ll have to remake it the way Blanc did to find out…
I omitted the lemon icing at the end, and instead, chose to use confit au citron i.e. candided lemon slices as decor instead, essentially like a gâteau de voyage i.e. weekend loaf cake. This can be prepared very simply by making a thick syrup with water and sugar in a ratio of 2:1 and bring it to a boil, add lemon slices, turn off flame and left to steep overnight lid on. On the next day, simply drain the lemon slices to remove excess syrup and use to decorate accordingly. They not only look good, they taste good too!
So is this THE perfect loaf cake recipe for me? Well frankly speaking, it is quite far from being ideal. While it might appeal to others, the texture of the cake is too dense and compact for my liking. Though it was incredibly moist, I would prefer it to be a bit more fluffy and soft than what it is. Also, since only lemon zest was used, it didn’t quite impart the tangy sharp flavours I was hoping for in a lemon cake. Perhaps lemon juice should be added at some point. That would seem to be right from the side, since this recipe is a very straightforward one where ingredients were merely melanged in successions, one after the other. I’d much preferred the creaming method for making butter or pound cakes. So I guess this is not the recipe for me. The flavours weren’t that altogether there and the texture didn’t work all that well. Alas the hunt continues…