This delicious, buttery cake with its soft, zesty crumb is certainly a memorable afternoon tea indulgence. This classic English cake originally served with Madeira wine from the Portuguese Madeira Islands, hence the name of the cake, is just as pleasurable when enjoyed with a cup of tea. For a tall, impressive looking cake, you can bake the batter in two 15cm diameter round tins (cutting each sponge in two for a four layered cake) and layering it with tangy lemon curd and silky smooth Swiss meringue buttercream. However, a two layered cake (dividing the cake batter between two 20cm or 22cm diameter round tins) or a simple loaf cake (you might then want to half the recipe for a smallish loaf tin) with a humble dusting of icing sugar makes for an equally sensational treat.
Before you start baking, it is paramount that the cake ingredients are at room temperature (to prevent the cake batter from curdling). I remove my butter and eggs from the fridge the night before and even then I often soften my butter in the microwave for a few seconds to ensure success (especially when it is a cold day). However, if you forget to do this, you can chop the butter roughly and microwave it for a few short bursts until you can easily make a dent in it with your finger when pressing lightly (not melted though). For the eggs, if they are straight from the fridge, you can place the required eggs (unbroken) in a bowl of lukewarm water for a minute or two.
If you are very organized, you can bake the cake and make the lemon curd a day before assembling.
Enough for a tall four layered 15cm round cake or a two layered 20cm or 22cm round cake (serves approximately 10 - 12)
330g unsalted butter (at room temperature)
330g caster sugar
zest of 4 lemons
6 large eggs (at room temperature)
300g plain/cake flour
7.5ml (½ tbsp) baking powder
150g ground almonds/almond meal
pinch of salt
3 large eggs
125ml lemon juice (± 4 medium size lemons)
100g unsalted butter (can be cold out of the fridge)
SWISS MERINGUE BUTTERCREAM
150g caster sugar
100g egg whites (approximately 3 large egg whites)
120g icing sugar
220g unsalted butter (at room temperature)
pinch of salt
WHITE CHOCOLATE GANACHE (for the drip decoration)
100g white chocolate (choose your favourite variety of white eating chocolate)
50ml cream (approximately 35% fat content)
Line the bottom and sides of two round cake tins with baking paper (as mentioned, I've used two 15cm diameter round tins for a four layered
cake, but you can use two 20cm or 22cm round tins for a two layered cake).
Preheat the oven to 180°C (160°C fan).
In a heat proof bowl, softened the butter for a few seconds in the microwave then transfer it to a large mixing bowl or the mixing bowl of a free standing mixer.
Add the caster sugar and lemon zest (best done using a fine microplane over the mixing bowl to ensure all the essential oils are captured).
Beat together for about 5 minutes until the mixture is pale and fluffy (use the paddle attachment if using a free standing mixer).
Add the eggs one at a time, beating well for about a minute after each addition (scraping down the sides regularly with a spatula).
In a medium bowl, sieve together the dry ingredients then add them to the butter and egg mixture.
Beat together until just combined and uniform.
Divide the batter between the tins, smoothing out the tops.
Bake until golden and a skewer inserted in the middle of each cake comes out clean (approximately 1 hour, but will depend on your tin sizes and oven).
Once baked, remove from the oven and leave the sponges in the tins to cool completely (cover with a clean tea towel to prevent moisture from evaporating).
To make the lemon curd, combine the eggs, sugar and lemon juice in a heat proof mixing bowl (stainless steel works best) then place it over a medium saucepan of simmering water (making sure the surface of the water does not touch the bowl).
Whisk by hand for approximately 5 - 10 minutes until the mixture thickens substantially. Add the butter and whisk until smooth.
Place a sieve over a heat proof bowl or storage jar and pour the thick, cooked lemon curd through the sieve to ensure it is smooth.
Cover with clingfilm in contact with the surface of the curd (to prevent a skin from forming). Refrigerate until cool.
Lemon curd will keep for several days in the fridge (longer if placed in a sterilized jar). For future reference, if you are making lemon curd and you don't need the zest for anything, like the Madeira cake in this case, add the zest to the mixture before cooking the curd.
To make the Swiss meringue buttercream, place the egg whites and caster sugar in a large heat proof mixing bowl (I use a stainless steel free standing mixer bowl) and set it over a medium saucepan of simmering water (again making sure the surface of the water does not touch the bowl).
Whisk by hand for a few minutes until the sugar has dissolved (you can test this by rubbing a bit of the mixture between your fingers - when ready, is should not feel grainy anymore) and the mixture feels warm to touch (about 65°C on a thermometer if you are unsure). Note: You are not trying to whip the meringue at this stage but instead just dissolve the sugar and cook the egg whites gently.
Remove from the heat and whisk on a high speed with electric beaters or an electric mixer until the meringue is stiff and glossy.
Add the icing sugar (sifted) and beat until uniform (slow at first to prevent being engulfed by a cloud of icing sugar).
If the meringue still feels very warm, slow the mixer to a medium speed and whisk for a few minutes until the mixing bowl is cooler to touch (i.e. the meringue reaches room temperature).
Add the soft, room temperature butter and salt and whisk on a high speed until smooth and glossy (at least 2 - 3 minutes).
(If after several minutes of mixing the mixture seems split, the butter might be too cold - warm the mixing bowl gently using a bain-marie then whisk again on a high speed. If the buttercream looks very runny, the butter or the meringue might be too warm - cool the mixing bowl for a few minutes in the fridge, then whisk again on high).
To assemble the cake (easiest done with a cake turntable, but not essential):
For a four layered, 15cm round cake, divide each sponge in two using a sharp bread knife - turning the cake as you cut in order to see the sides and ensure it is cut evenly (for a two layered, 20cm/22cm round cake, you can simply keep the sponges as is - they should not have domed too much in the oven, but you can even the top with a knife if needed).
Place the first cake layer on a cake board or serving plate.
Spread a tin layer of buttercream over the top, then pipe a buttercream border (if you do not have a piping bag, a clean plastic food storage bag with one of the corners snipped off will do just fine).
Spoon a good dollop of cooled lemon curd in the center and spread it out, then place the second cake layer on top (if making a two layered cake, turn the cake upside down so that the bottom is facing upward to ensure a flat top).
Repeat the layering until all the cake layers have been added (finishing with the last cake layer having the bottom facing upwards).
Using a spatula or knife, cover the top and sides with a thin layer of buttercream (this is the crumb coat to trap all the loose cake crumbs, so do not stress if there are a few crumbs visible in the icing).
Refrigerate the cake for about 10 minutes until the buttercream is firm.
You can add a drop of yellow food colouring to the remaining buttercream if you wish for the second covering of buttercream to be coloured.
Coat the top and sides of the cake for a second time (thin if you prefer the semi-naked finish or thicker if you want the cake completely covered).
For a sharp finish, use a dough/cake scraper to smooth the sides (this is where a cake turntable is handy).
Flatten the top ridge by scraping with a spatula or scraper in an inward motion.
Refrigerate the cake for approximately 20 minutes until the buttercream is firm and cool (if you are adding the drip decoration, this step is essential).
For the chocolate drip effect, make the white chocolate ganache while the iced cake is cooling.
Place the white chocolate (broken into pieces) in a heat proof bowl and add the cold cream.
Microwave together for about 10 seconds at a time whisking a little in-between bursts until smooth (you can add a drop of white food colour if you wish).
Remove the cooled cake from the fridge. Using a teaspoon, start adding small amounts of ganache to the top edge of the cake (the amount of ganache you add will determine how far the ganache drips down). Since the iced cake is cool, the ganache should set fairly quickly (if too runny for your liking, allow the ganache to cool a bit before you continue).
Continue until the sides are complete then fill in the remaining top by spreading a bit of ganache with the back of the teaspoon until the top is covered.
Allow the ganache to set for a few minutes before decorating the top of the cake with fresh flowers, macarons and seasonal berries. Enjoy!