Gâteau au Citron Rises Saturday

Early Saturday morning may be my most treasured time of the week. The weekend is young, still full of promise. I break out my favorite teacup, sit at my high top table, and appreciate the conversation my teaspoon has with the bone china as I mix in a little sugar. I may listen to what Paul Simon or Nick Drake has to say about the world. I breathe easily for a moment.

Or at least I used to. Recent Saturdays, I haven’t had time to ponder in my coffee. I’ve been posting online discussion points for class at 5 am or scurrying to put away the pile of clean, mismatched socks that I’ve neglected all week due to looming deadlines and life.

I’ve missed my quiet mornings. Inserting a little of this Saturday romance is important. I should have my balance back in May, but in the meantime I’ve found a way to make do. I’ve started a slight love affair with a gâteau au citron. It’s a classic French provincial-style recipe; it’s not frilly or fancy, and with its respectable ingredients it makes a bright, clean cake, thanks to a heavy-handed dose of true blue, bracing lemon. (Oh the lemony irony.)

A slice of this cake will make your Saturday come early, on a Tuesday even—if you wish. I baked it well into the evening this Wednesday and once I unmolded it from the little brioche molds I bought at E.Dehillerin in Paris (and had not had the opportunity to use until just then), I knew it was going to be a day brightening kind of cake.

Mind you, this was not how I felt about an hour before, mixing the cake. When you add the oil—which the instructions have you do last—you will immediately feel that you’ve done something terribly wrong. You may clench your teeth. Or feel a migraine coming on. As you try to make sense of this oily, gloppy mess, you may all together question your mission.

You may think it was a terrible mistake. That you’re no good at cake making. That your decision-making, in general, has been pretty lackluster as of late. And, now that you mention it, you probably shouldn’t have bothered to get up that morning. In the most desperate of circumstances, you may even do a quick scan for a nearby bottle of brandy. Keep mixing. The oil will eventually stop resisting the batter and everything will smooth to a pale yellow. Breathe. Then bake.

When a lemon scent starts to engulf your kitchen, you’ll know you’ve almost made it. Your cake-made Saturday is right around the corner. The unmolding is the coup de grâce. The soaking of the syrup and the glazing that follows is cathartic.

A bite of the cake brings weightlessness. Things become clear and simple. And just like that, it’s Saturday morning, filled with hope. For a moment, there is cake, quiet, and lightness. You can almost hear Nick Drake croon “Saturday sun came early one morning. In a sky so clear and blue …”

You may choose to eat your gâteau au citron as the sun comes up, with a cup of coffee, or standing in your kitchen at midnight, licking its sticky lemon crumbs off your fingers. Either way, it’s Saturday morningif only for a momentand it’s lovely.

Gâteau au Citron
Adapted from Molly Wizenberg of Orangette

1.5 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
Pinch of kosher salt
1 tbsp grated lemon zest
1/2 cup whole milk Greek yogurt
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1/2 cup olive oil
(plus butter for greasing)

1/4 cup powdered sugar, sifted
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 vanilla bean pod, split, seeds removed and added
Pinch of salt

1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
3 tbsp fresh lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Very liberally grease individual molds, such as brioche molds, (or a 9-inch round cake pan) with butter. Line the bottom of your molds or pan with parchment paper and then grease the paper too with butter.

In a medium bowl, mix flour, baking powder, salt and zest. In a large bowl, mix yogurt, sugar and eggs until thoroughly combined; slowly mix in flour mixture until just combined. Add oil and continue to mix until it combines with the rest of the batter (this will take a little time and may seen slightly disheartening at first: continue, it will eventually come together).

Pour the batter into your greased molds or pan and bake for about 25-35 minutes; this will depend on the size of molds/pan you are using to bake you cake. Use a toothpick to test the cake in the center for doneness; the cake will be done when the toothpick comes out clean. (It may appear slightly underdone in the center, but the toothpick will come out clean when tested, so be sure to check.)

Let the cake cool on a wire rack for about 15 minutes; meanwhile, prepare the lemon syrup by combining the ingredients listed in a small bowl. Run a knife along the edges of your pan or molds, to assist in the unmolding. Coax out the cake and invert onto a wire rack (you should see the parchment paper side) that has been placed over a plate, baking sheet, or, strategically, over the kitchen sink. Remove the parchment paper. Spoon the syrup over the cakes, excess may drip down. Cool completely.

Up to 1 hour before serving, whisk together the icing ingredients and spoon over the cooled cake.

Serves about 10

-I took this cake to a work staff meeting and it received rave, and I mean "best cake ever," reviews. I did get some strange looks assembling the icing in my office break room, prior to the meeting. (An especially odd occurrence given that I work in a nutrition office.) Just know that your icing ingredients are easily transportable. Have icing. Will travel. I made the cake and let the syrup soak in the night before and just tightly wrapped it; it was still plenty moist.

-My picture was pre-icing, but don't neglect it. The cake is tasty by itself, but the whole deal is something special.

-You ideally want to use organic lemons for this, as you'll be eating the peel. Depending on the size, you'll need about 6 or so.

-Don't skimp on the butter for greasing the pans, it will make your unmolding job so much easier.

-You can also freeze leftovers. Oh yes, you can.

-I highly suggest listening to "Saturday Sun" by Nick Drake, at any time of day. With cake? Even better.


  1. Mmm. I like lemon pound cake with a tart lemon glaze, so this sounds right up my alley!

    Saturdays are my baking days, too. This week, my project is London buns. :)

  2. I love Saturday mornings for quite the same reasons as you it seems.. But as of late I haven't had nearly as many of those quiet and content and promising early weekend mornings as I'd have liked. This sounds like the perfect recipe to force you to slow down and enjoy your weekend mornings in a state of utter food heaven! Hope you have a delicious weekend!

  3. Sounds delicious, I love cakes soaked in syrup

  4. I'm a big fan of these types of cake. I love anything that has syrup, glaze or the like to make it even more moist. And, I adore, love, crave all things citrus. Thanks much for this recipe and especially for the notes following with good bits of advice.

  5. I love your writing. I totally can relate to missing the relaxing weekend morning as life seems to be taking over my weekends too.

  6. i'm glad i'm not the only one who stands in the kitchen eating cake in the middle of the night. i now feel much less peculiar. :)

  7. I can attest that this cake is unbelievably good!!!

  8. I love listening to what Paul Simon has to say, too. Great post.

  9. Ah, don't you just love lazy Saturdays, Paul Simon, and cake? (Yes, actually you guys do too!) Always nice to have company. ;)

  10. Utterly charming, but DRAT! I found your post ten minutes too late to use my little brioche pans; my 9-inch pan lemon cake just hit the oven. Next time I'll certainly try small pans and your tweaks to the Orangette recipe. Thanks for the inspiration.

  11. I love lemon flavored anything! This sounds simply divine. I should treat myself one of these mornings and make it :)

  12. Everyone loves lazy Saturdays! Weekends are my cooking days too.
    What a lovely lemon dessert; and yes, I would be nibbling on this at midnight!