Different Yolks for Different Folks: Woody's Lemon Luxury Layer Cake

After I promised to bring a dessert to serve at a dinner my friend Dorothy hosted a couple of weeks ago, I decided to make "Woody's Lemon Luxury Layer Cake" from Rose's Heavenly Cakes. The cake is named for Woody Wolston, Rose Levy Beranbaum's assistant, who made the cake for his tai chi master's wedding celebration.

This recipe has been on my to-bake list for a while. The cookbook photo (the same photo accompanying this article) shows a neat four-layer cake with intensely yellow filling and frosting -- it looks super lemony and ultra-appealing. But it also happened to be the perfect time for me to make the cake. First, the recipe requires 13 egg yolks, and I had more than that left over after making McKenna's First Holy Communion cake the day before. Second, I had just splurged on some Valrhona Ivoire 35% white chocolate. Recently I complained it's so expensive that I would never buy it -- but I was able to get a great deal and purchase three pounds for $51, shipping included. The lemon luxury layer cake uses 170 grams of white chocolate in the cake batter and another 300 grams in the frosting -- but cake looked like it would be a worthy project to devote more than a pound of my super premium white chocolate.

There are three components to this cake: a white chocolate-lemon cake; lemon curd; and white chocolate-lemon buttercream. I made the curd first, since it needs time to chill. And actually, I had made the same curd the day before, as it was a component in the lemon mousseline for the communion cake (for which I had used Rose Levy Beranbaum recipes from The Cake Bible). I cooked yolks, sugar, butter, lemon juice, and salt until thickened; strained the mixture; stirred in lemon zest; and let the mixture cool before chilling.

Next, I made the cake, which uses Bernabaum's standard two-stage mixing method and is almost identical to her White Chocolate Whisper Cake -- except that the whisper cake uses all egg whites, and this cake uses all yolks and also includes lemon zest. You put all of the dry ingredients (cake flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and lemon zest) into a mixer; add room temperature butter and milk; gradually a mixture of egg yolks, more milk, and vanilla; and add in melted and cooled white chocolate. After melting the chocolate for the batter (which I did in a double boiler), I was amazed at the fluidity of Valrhona Ivoire. It's far more viscous than any other white chocolate I've used before. I divided the batter between two 9-inch pans to bake.

As the cake was cooling I made the buttercream. The method for the frosting is a bit unusual and it requires a lot of time -- although most of it is inactive. First, you need to make a white chocolate custard base by melting white chocolate with butter in a double boiler, whisking in whole eggs, and cooking the mixture until it reaches 140 degrees. I'm not sure what I expected to happen when I added the eggs, but the mixture instantly took on the color and texture of lemon curd. As directed, I chilled the mixture for 45 minutes, stirring it every 15 minutes, until it had cooled down to 65 degrees. Then I beat the custard base into room temperature butter until stiff peaks formed. I set the mixture aside at room temperature for two hours until it was spongy, beat it until it was light and creamy, and added some lemon curd.
To assemble the cake, I leveled the two cakes and split each one into two layers. I spread plain lemon curd between the bottom two layers and the top two layers, using buttercream between layers two and three. I covered the cake with more buttercream, which ended up being challenging because the frosting became spongy upon standing and it was difficult for me to get a smooth finish. I did the best I could and had enough buttercream to pipe a border around the top. Since I had quite a bit of lemon curd left over, I covered the entire top of the cake with a thin layer of curd; it was nicely contained by the butercream border.

When I cut the cake it instantly reminded me of Ann Amernick's Lemon Buttercream Torte that I made for Liam's first birthday back in 2010. The Amernick cake is four layers of lemon génoise filled with lemon curd, orange marmalade, and lemon French buttercream. While the components are different, there is a strong physical resemblance between the two cakes. I definitely thought this cake looked a lot better -- but that was in large part because I was a much less experienced cake maker when I made the Ann Amernick cake and I did a pretty bad job with it.

My favorite parts of this cake were the tangy lemon curd and the exceptionally lightweight and silky lemon buttercream. Even though this cake is almost identical to Beranbaum's white chocolate whisper cake, it was quite different -- and by that, I mean not as good. The crumb was not as tender as the whisper cake and oddly enough, I could barely taste the white chocolate in this cake. By contrast, I loved the distinctive cocoa butter flavor in the whisper cake when I used much cheaper Callebaut 25.9% white chocolate, so I guess it might not have been necessary for me to splurge on the Valrhona Ivoire. Although if the Ivoire was responsible for the incredibly smooth texture of buttercream, it was worth every penny.

When I served this cake, the memory of the communion cake (which was Bernabaum's white butter cake, made with egg whites only) that I had eaten just the day before was still fresh in my mind -- and I thought the white butter cake tasted better and also had a more tender texture. In The Cake Bible, Beranbaum explains that cakes made with all egg whites are softer than those made with either whole eggs or only yolks because the yolk becomes firmer after baking compared to an egg white. She says the advantage to using yolks only is superior flavor and a more golden color, including a darker crust. You can put me in the white cake-loving camp. I just find a soft-textured cake to be irresistible. But to each her own.

Don't get me wrong, this was still an impressive dessert. Everyone at dinner cleaned their plates. I would definitely make this cake again -- but I would swap in the white chocolate whisper cake. Aside from the fact that I preferred the version of this cake with all egg whites, making that change would have the ancillary benefit of better matching up egg white and egg yolk usage, since I don't always have a big supply of excess egg yolks on hand. Regardless of whether you prefer your cake with all whites or all yolks, I think "luxurious" is an apt descriptor for this cake.

Recipe: "Woody's Lemon Luxury Layer Cake" from Rose's Heavenly Cakes by Rose Levy Beranbaum, recipe available here.

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