I was never the most excited student in history class. But I’ve always had a fascination with old things, what was different about the world years ago. A lot of it probably has to do with growing up in the same home my Grandpa built in the 1950s. Everything about it and many of things inside it felt like they came from a completely different time. As a child, I always loved looking at old photographs, snooping around in family photo albums and reading my grandma’s saved newspaper clippings. Today I’ll notice things around the house that I now realize come from another era; perfumes sitting on a gilded mirrored tray, a blue lounge chair, a stack of hat boxes. But there are always new things in Hawaii I grew up with that I had no idea existed for decades long before I was born. If you’re an island local, then you’ll probably be familiar with this one.
Layers of soft lemon sponge cake filled with vanilla pastry cream and lemon curd, frosted with whipped cream and crumbled bits of toffee. It’s a cake that is equal parts simple and challenging, one that has left many curious about the recipe that has somehow managed to stay a secret for so long. I spent days researching. I looked at lemon cake recipes, boxed cake recipes, yellow cake recipes, white cake recipes. My head swam with measurements and ingredients.
The biggest problem with Lemon Crunch Cake is that it’s a cake from another time, meaning every recipe called for a yellow boxed cake mix. But I wanted a cake recipe with real ingredients. So I borrowed a thing or two from Amanda, changed some other things around, and ta-da! Problem solved.
Built in 1902 in downtown Honolulu, the Alexander Young Hotel is where head baker, Norman Hideo Asao, first created the Lemon Crunch Cake. Though the bakery closed decades ago, the Lemon Crunch Cake has stayed a local favorite for years to come. Thankfully there are still two places on Oahu where you can indulge on a slice: at the Alley and Diamondhead Bakery.
Mom and Dad both remember going to the old Alexander Young Hotel bakery as kids, though my Dad said he only remembers “eyeing stuff and drooling”. The floor was covered in black and white tiles and the bakery case was lined with trays of pastries sitting on doilies. Mom remembers it as a fancy place, where the staff donned pink uniforms and white aprons, complete with pink pastry boxes, palmiers, and of course Lemon Crunch Cake.
I loved hearing about my parents’ experiences of the bakery, and it made me realize just how much life has changed for us living in a generation with social media. I couldn’t find a single photo of the inside of the bakery or the pastries they served. Yet platforms like Instagram and Yelp let us see all that and then some. Crazy, right? I hope you all have a wonderful weekend with some fun and relaxing plans ahead! Maybe a little baking perhaps? 🙂
for the yellow sponge cake
2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 1/4 cups whole milk
1/2 cup canola/vegetable oil
1 tsp lemon extract
3 eggs, separated
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and line three 8-inch pans with parchment.
2. Whisk the flour, granulated sugar, baking powder, and salt together in a large bowl. Add in the milk, oil, and egg yolks and mix until combined.
3. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk, whip the egg whites and cream of tartar to stiff peaks. Transfer the whipped egg whites to the cake batter and gently fold into the batter until mostly combined. Be careful not to over mix or deflate the whites.
4. Separate the batter evenly into three pans. Bake for 30-35 minutes until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Transfer the cakes to a cooling rack until room temperature.
small batch pastry cream
2 tbsp granulated sugar
1/2 tbsp cornstarch
small pinch of salt
1/2 cup whole milk
1 egg yolk
1/2 tbsp unsalted butter
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1. In a small pot, whisk together the sugar, cornstarch and salt. In a small bowl, whisk together the milk and the egg yolk till combined.
2. Pour the milk mixture to the dry ingredients in the pot, whisking constantly. Add in the butter. Whisk constantly on a medium heat until the pastry cream thickens. After about a minute, add in the vanilla extract and continue to whisk.
3. Once the pastry cream has thickened, strain it through a fine mesh sieve and let cool to room temperature. Cover with plastic wrap, making sure it touches the top of the pastry cream and refrigerate if making ahead of time.
1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks), cubed
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1. Line a rimmed baking tray with parchment paper. Set aside.
2. In a saucepan, combine the butter, sugar, vanilla, and salt. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly until the mixture turns light brown in color. This should take about 10-15 minutes.
3. Pour the hot caramel mixture over the parchment paper. It will harden as it cools. Once cooled, crack the pieces into smaller ones. Whizz the pieces in a food processor until you get fine crumbs. Transfer the crumbs to a bowl.
4. Add the melted butter to the toffee crumbs and mix with a fork to create a toffee crumble.
whipped cream frosting
2 cups heavy cream
3/4 tsp lemon extract
1/4 cup sifted powdered sugar
1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, on a slow speed mix in the extract and powdered sugar until combined.
2. Increase the speed to high and whip until the mixture reaches stiff peaks.
1. Spread one cake layer with the cooled pastry cream. Add a second layer of cake and spread the top with lemon curd, then top with the final layer of cake. Make sure the layers are as even as possible.
2. Use a small palette knife to spread the whipped cream over the top of the cake and down the sides.
3. Set the cake over a rimmed baking tray. This will help to catch extra toffee crumbs that fall. Use your hand to press the crumbs up the side of the cake. Sprinkle more crumbs to cover the top of the cake. Don’t be shy with it, the more toffee the better the cake!
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