Monday, 4 April 2011 | 8 comments

Lemon-marjoram cake with viognier icing

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I have a really healthy appreciation for un-iced cakes. (If you’re counting, that’s two out of a grand total of 12 posts on this blog dedicated to not-too-sweet cakes.) It is rare for me to meet a frosting or icing that I actually like. (Aside: Ten points to whomever can settle whether or not there is actually a difference between “frosting” and “icing”. I’ve always used them interchangeably, but in writing this post I realized that it’s rather contentious.)

Buttercream frostings, of which every hue and variation populate most iced-cake recipes out there, are toothachingly sweet to my tastes. I do like cream cheese frosting, because it’s a little tart and doesn’t rely on sugar for substance, but you can only use cream cheese frostings on certain things. So, for birthdays, which generally call for something a little fancier, I sneakily attempt to make baked goods that can be swanky without requiring frosting, like fruit tarts or cheesecakes.

But the problem is that Ben’s mom’s birthday has rolled around again, and I made her a fruit and custard tart last year for her birthday. And I made his dad carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. Running out of non-buttercream-but-still-fancy options, I decided (with some guidance from other bakers–evidently there are entire forums on the internet dedicated to this too-sweet frosting issue), I’d be attempting swiss buttercream icing, which takes its structure from meringue and butter rather than powdered sugar.

Ben’s mother loves herbs and has a beautiful herb garden, so I originally wanted my swiss buttercream to grace a lemon-thyme or lemon-rosemary cake. Google-searching those terms, though, returned about fourbajillion hits. I got a little cantankerous looking at the scores of people out there all making what essentially amounted to the exact same lemon-thyme cake—not because I doubt how good it is, but because I’m the kind of person who looks at all those recipes and thinks why am I even blogging about food if I can’t do something remotely original?

I poked around in my potted herbs on the deck. I’ve been saving recipes involving sweet marjoram for when I write about fresh za’atar, but as soon as my eyes fell on it, I knew that would be the herb I used for this cake.

(Just for fun I googled “lemon-marjoram cake” (I think I have issues; evidently I gauge my life by google search hierarchy) and the first search result was for a knockoff of a chain-Italian-restaurant seafood dish . I’ll chalk this one up as a win in the recipe originality category.)

At the last minute, I beat a few tablespoons of Virginia viognier into the icing, because the local wine industry is something that’s also pretty close to Ben’s mother’s heart (and to mine too, and I can’t believe I haven’t written about here yet. Someday!). This particular viognier has some nice citrus-y notes, and as soon as I stopped panicking because I thought I had curdled the icing, I think it all came together pretty well: light, zesty, herbal, and distinctly grown-up, especially for a frosted cake.

Lemon-marjoram cake

Lots of notes for this recipe—most likely because even though I tried making the cake twice and it was good both times, I never got it quite where I wanted it to be. Maybe you can tweak and have better luck. For starters: this is adapted from Dorie Greenspan‘s Perfect Party Cake. I don’t have to tell all of you how near-perfect Dorie’s recipes normally are, and that I knew I was playing with fire by messing with it. The original recipe includes lemony ingredients, but after a test layer, I decided I needed more lemon and more herb flavor. Dorie’s recipes always include lovely details, such as infusing the sugar with the lemon zest before creaming it into the butter.

You will need

    2 1/2 cups flour
    1 tablespoon baking powder
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1 1/4 cups whole milk
    4 large egg whites, whisked
    1 1/2 cups sugar
    Grated zest of one lemon
    Juice of half that lemon
    2 tablespoons chopped fresh sweet marjoram
    1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature


Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter two 9-inch cake pans. Put sugar, lemon zest, marjoram, and lemon juice in a large bowl and rub between fingers until sugar is well-infused with lemon.
Add butter to sugar and cream together until well-incorporated and fluffy.
Alternately add milk, eggs, and dry ingredients until homogenous. Beat for another few minutes to aerate.
Divide batter between two pans and smooth the top with a spatula.
Bake for 20-30 minutes or until cake is springy—but tender—and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool for a few minutes in the pan, then run a knife around the edges, invert, and finish cooling on a rack.

Viognier swiss buttercream icing (frosting)

I imagine this would be similarly nice with another white wine, depending on your cake. I’m thinking a lightly-oaked chard with a yellow cake, or maybe pinot grigio frosting decorating something key-lime-ish.

You will need

    1 cup sugar
    4 large egg whites
    3 sticks softened butter, chopped into pieces
    4 tablespoons viognier


    In a heatproof bowl sitting over a pot of simmering water, combine egg whites and sugar, whisking occasionally, until it looks like thin marshmallow cream. If you pull out the whisk and rub a strand of the mixture between your thumb and forefinger, you should no longer be able to feel the grains of sugar.
    Remove from heat, and whip until cool, about 5-10 minutes. The mixture will be fluffy and form soft peaks, but not be too stiff.
    Add in the butter, one stick at a time, and beat until incorporated. While you’re beating in the butter, the mixture might separate into a horrid, curdled-looking mess and you might freak out (this has never happened to me, it’s just, um, what I’ve heard) but don’t worry! Keep whipping and beating, that buttercream will come together. This is a really resilient frosting (icing?!) When it is stiff but still spreadable, add the wine a little bit at a time until incorporated throughout.

Tagged , ,

§ 8 responses to Lemon-marjoram cake with viognier icing

  • Chuck

    Actually, you’re now the #1 Google result for “lemon-marjoram cake”.

    The best part: the excerpt of the page says, “(Just for fun I googled lemon-marjoram cake (I think I have issues; evidently I gauge my life by google search hierarchy)”

    • Oh, that is funny! Wait, so I’m the first hit now? That was not the intention. When I posted that the link, the first result was something totally unrelated.

      I’m learning what snake-oil SEO is all about inadverdently, it would seem :)

  • Connie

    Sarah, you are amazing! Oh yum. And there’s a lovely lemon thyme which is my favorite…. just sayin’ ;)

    • Connie! Louise (my little sister) suggested the exact same thing when I told her I was making this cake :) Great minds think alike…

  • Fay

    Excuse my ignoance, but what is “viognier” and in you Lemon/Thyme drink, is there something else I could use besides Beer, I’m G.F.

  • Sam

    Hi Sarah,
    I commented on one of your posts yesterday, and am greatly enjoying going through your blog’s archives! Not sure if you’re still curious but, I’ve never used icing and frosting interchangeably. I used to work in a bakery at a local grocery store and I used icing (glossy, thin, and very sweet) to top freshly baked cinnamon rolls, and frosting (fluffy, thick, and heavily loaded with butter) for cakes. Although the icing came in pre-made tubs from a factory, I’m pretty sure its main components are confectioners sugar and milk, whereas the butter in BUTTERcream is you know, self explanatory.
    Also, I don’t think you should ever feel unoriginal because you use other recipes for inspiration. I have seen other renditions of recipes you have posted about and prefer your non-pretentious, homey photos compared to those of studio-like methods. I’ve researched many pizza and curd recipes online, but have never had an immediate desire to go to my kitchen and make exactly what is on my computer screen (until I stumbled upon your blog). It’s all about your voice and aesthetic, which is clearly original and unique to you!

    Bored in the library,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What's this?

You are currently reading Lemon-marjoram cake with viognier icing at The Yellow House.