Memorial Day: First we remember and then we eat cake
Memorial Day has its roots in the bitter Civil War that divided our nation from 1861-1865. It originated not as a federal holiday but as a grassroots movement called Decoration Day. Southern women would gather bouquets of spring flowers in May and scatter them over the graves of all soldiers, whether from the North or the South.
At the end of the Civil War, formal remembrance observances were sharply different in the North than in the South. In the North, huge military parades and special programs of that era always included the reading of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
The rural South, however, was still racially divided and smarting with defeat. There were no caretakers for the graves of the fallen. So it became a Decoration Day eve tradition for families to go to the cemetery, clear the plots of weeds and decorate them with vases of flowers. They would then return home to share cake and coffee and memories of their loved one while they remembered happier times.
One of those memories was of the famous General Robert E. Lee, commander-in-chief of the Virginia forces. A top graduate of West Point, he was the great Southern hero of the war and remains an iconic figure of American military leadership despite the controversy.
Today families in the South continue the tradition of decorating grave sites and serving cake at home afterwards. The cake most often served has been the Robert E. Lee Cake. It is called one of the most famous Southern American cakes of all times. So I offer the recipe today as perhaps a new tradition. As we bake, we can remember all those who have served and died for our country in all wars.
The cake is simple to prepare but it is also time consuming. There are three parts to the confection. The first part is similar to a lemon pound cake. While the cake bakes, you prepare a filling and put in to cook in the refrigerator; then, while the cake cools, you prepare the frosting.
It is a credit to the people of the United States of America that every Memorial Day our once divided nation comes together to honor the fallen in all wars. A national moment of remembrance takes place at 3 p.m., local time May 31. I hope you join me and take time to reflect in gratitude and humility for all those who bravely paid the supreme sacrifice for each of us. Then, we can eat cake.
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
8 eggs, separated and room temperature
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest (peel)
1/4 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
Lemon Filling (see recipe below)
Lemon-Orange Frosting (see recipe below)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans.
In a medium bowl, sift together flour, cream of tartar, and baking powder; set aside.
In a large bowl, beat egg yolks until very thick and creamy. Gradually add sugar, a few tablespoons at a time, and continue beating until mixture is smooth and pale yellow. Stir in lemon zest and lemon juice; gently fold in the flour mixture until well incorporated.
In a large bowl of your electric mixer beat egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold 1/3 of the beaten egg whites into the egg yolk batter; fold in remaining egg whites until no streaks remain.
Spoon batter into prepared cake pans. Bake approximately 20 to 25 minutes or until cake begins to pull away from sides of the pan.
Remove from oven and let cool 10 minutes in the pan. Loosen edges with a knife and turn out onto racks to finish cooling.
Prepare the Lemon Filling and Lemon-Orange Frosting.
When cake is completely cool, with a long-blade serrated knife, cut each layer horizontally in half to make four (4) layers.
Spread Lemon Filling between layers of the cooled cake. To keep cake from sliding to one side, insert a long wooden skewer into the middle and all the way to the bottom
Spread Lemon-Orange Frosting on sides and top of the cake.
Store cake in the refrigerator until serving time.
Makes 8 to 10 serving.
3 tablespoons grated lemon zest (rind)
1/2 cup freshly-squeezed lemon juice
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
6 tablespoons butter
3 eggs, lightly beaten
In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, combine lemon zest, lemon juice, and sugar. Bring just to a boil; reduce heat to medium-low and simmer 5 minutes. Add butter and stir until it has melted. Remove from heat and let mixture cool to room temperature.
When cool, beat eggs into the lemon-sugar mixture until well blended. Return to heat and cook, stirring constantly, 10 to 15 minutes or until mixture thickens and coats a spoon. Remove from heat. Cool in refrigerator until ready to use.
1/4 cup butter, room temperature
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest (peel)
3 to 4 tablespoons grated orange zest (peel)
2 tablespoons freshly-squeezed lemon juice
6 cups sifted powdered (confectioners') sugar
1/4 cup freshly-squeezed orange juice
In a medium bowl, beat butter until it has the appearance of thick cream. Beat in the lemon zest, orange zest, and lemon juice. Stir in the powdered sugar and orange juice, a little at a time; continue beating until mixture is very smooth (stir in enough orange juice to make a spreadable frosting).