The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender (With Her Recipe)

You’d think a book with such a bright cover, with such a sweet picture of a lemon cake with chocolate frosting, would be a book about something light. Something easy to swallow. Something palatable.
But it’s about sorrows almost too heavy to bear, and how is it, exactly, that we manage to cope with day to day life at all?
They say there is a grain of truth in every jest, and I feel the same about magical realism. That element may sound fantastic, unbelievable, impossible, but the more I read books with magical realism in them (Kafka On The Shore, Of Bees and Mist), the more I discover that they contain more truth than fantasy. And so it is with our heroine, who can taste what people are feeling when she eats what they’ve prepared.
Can’t we taste more than the flavors? When we concentrate on the person, on the nuances and unsaid parts, we can often find an element of sadness. Anger. Joy or hope. (Even the psalmist said, “Taste the Lord and see that He is good.” Psalm 34:8)
In the shadow of the slice of cake is a girl. Or, is it her mother? Or, is it a couple standing so closely together you can’t even tell them apart? It is, perhaps, a brother and a sister who have each found their own way to live in this all too painful world.
This was a profoundly moving book. I will be thinking about it for a long, long time.
Find other reviews from Fizzy Thoughts,  Bookfan, S. Krishna’s Books, Stuff As Dreams Are Made On, Col Reads, New Century Reading, Estella’s Revenge. If you reviewed it, let me know so I can add you to the links.
Quotes particularly striking to me:
“Truth was, it was hard to see George eat those cookie halves without hesitation. Without tasting even a speck of the hurry in Janet’s oatmeal, which was so rushed it was like eating the calendar of an executive, or without catching a glimpse of the punching bag tucked beside every chocolate chip. I was so jealous, already, of everyone else’s mouth.” (p. 64-5)
“There’s a kind of show a kid can do, for a parent-a show of pain, to try to announce something, and in my crying, in the desperate, blabbering, awful mouth-clawing, I had hoped to get something across. Had it come across, any of it? Nope.” (p. 95)
 “Many kids, it seemed, would find out that their parents were flawed, messed up people later in life, and I didn’t appreciate getting to know it all so strong and early.” (p. 117)
 “To see someone you love, in a bad setting, is one of the great barometers of gratitude.” (p. 201)
Finally, here is Aimee Bender’s lemon cake which I made tonight:

Lemon Cake (Cake au citron)
10 tablespoons butter, plus a little extra for greasing the pan
2½ cups all-purpose flour, plus a little extra for flouring the greased pan
2 cups confectioners’ sugar, plus 1 heaping tablespoon if you decide to make syrup
Grated zest of 1 organic lemon
3 large eggs
½ cup milk, warmed in a small saucepan
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon lemon juice (optional)

1. Dice the butter and melt it in the microwave at low power.

 2. Use a pastry brush to grease the bottom and sides of a 10-inch round cake pan with butter. Sprinkle the pan with flour, turn it all around to spread the flour evenly, and tap out any excess.

 3. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

 4. Sift the sugar into a bowl. Add the lemon zest. Mix the sugar and zest well with your fingers, then whisk in the eggs. When the eggs and sugar are thoroughly combined, whisk in the melted butter and warm milk. Add the flour and baking powder, whisking constantly throughout.

 5. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake for 8 minutes. Lower the heat to 300°F and cook about 40 minutes more. The cake is finished when the blade of a knife inserted in its center comes out dry.

 6. Remove the finished cake from the oven, unmold it onto a cooling rack, and let cool.

 7. Just after cooking you can, if you like, use a pastry brush to coat the cake with syrup. Just boil 4 tablespoons water with 1 heaping tablespoon confectioners’ sugar for a couple of minutes. Allow it to cool, then stir in 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Brush the syrup on the still-warm cake.

 Yield: 6 to 8 servings

 Thanks to The BookClub Cookbook for giving us this treat!

23 thoughts on “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender (With Her Recipe)”

  1. Lovely review, Bellezza, and that cake looks divine! May I have a slice?I do think we put something of ourselves into our cooking. I've wanted to read this book for a while now, and your review tempts me even more to do so. Have you read Like Water for Chocolate? It also incorporates the idea of emotion being transmitted or expressed through food, and also uses magical realism.


  2. I've wanted to read this book for quite a while. Hopefully soon. I find the concept of tasting others moods very strange, but I can see how it would be interesting in a book. Lovely looking cake!


  3. I've heard good (and bad) things about this book…so I'm very glad that it gave you food for thought (ugh, sorry). I'm also glad that it gave you (and me) the recipe for that cake – it looks lovely. (I love the book club cookbook idea.) Happy reading!


  4. Suko, I did read Like Water For Chocolate and I remember enjoying it; but, it was so long ago I need to pick it up again. I was just beginning to understand magical realism then.Parrish, it just tore at my heart. I could feel what this girl was saying almost as if I could taste it. The writing was mesmerizing to me, even though the plot did seem to become more than strange at the end.Kay, it is a strange concept, but in a way it works. That scripture just popped into my head, and I think it's interesting that the Old Testament writer almost made a connection to taste and our Lord. Loose as it is.Col, I completely understand what you mean about the ending. It was a bit unsatisfying in terms of what happened with her brother, and her father's issues never seemed to be resolved either. But, I love that she became a cook in the lovely French restaurant with Madame and Monsieur who would finally give her the home she needed. With their love, I mean.Audrey, to be completely honest, I've made better lemon cakes. This one was rather dense. I can see why the author recommended toasting it. (Toasting it? You can, because it's almost like a bread, and a bit too sweet for me.) All the same, whenever I read a book I long to eat what the characters did.Bibliophile by the Sea, it does give you so much to think about. So much. I'll have to look for your review to add to my links.


  5. I'm sooo glad you liked this one as much as I did. I'm also finding that magical realism often touches me more than straightforward realism. This one is still hanging on and may well me my favorite of the year. Joseph was heartbreaking.


  6. I am so happy that you liked this book! I read it this year and it's easily one of my favorites. Including the recipe for lemon cake was a great touch.


  7. This book made think for a long time and I think I could have written your review! My feelings were very similar! I am glad you made the cake (even if it wasn't the best) I really wanted to!!!I think I will pick up Of Bees and Mist..I don't know why I never did!


  8. Bermudaonion, I'm glad you're reconsidering this book and migtht give it a try. I was leery at first, but I'm so glad I read it.Andi, Joseph was heartbreaking, most certainly, and I think all the more so because he could not find a way to cope at all. At least Rose could find solace in the French kitchen. That was the redeeming point for me.C.B.James, wish I had enough cake to pass out to everyone!


  9. Vasilly, it was a serendipity that the recipe came through as The BookClub cookbook had just sent me an email. I love how they've collected recipes from books we read; so often when I'm reading of a culture that's just the food I want to eat.Amy, thanks for leaving your link which I've added to the post. It's hard to find all the posts from blogging friends.Winstonsdad, I can understand the let down. It was a good coming of age, and Aimee Bender did write of a wounded family so tenderly, but the overall sensation is one of sorrow.


  10. Sara, I'm not a bit surprised we have similar feelings/attitudes regarding this book. The verse just popped into my head while I was 'typing', but I thought it applicable, don't you? I recommended Of Bees and Mist to one of my book clubs and we're reading it for next month…it has a lot of magical realism which I'll never forget (the idea of bees accompanying unkind people).


  11. Oh Bellezza, I love this review 🙂 This is one of the most recent books to make it onto my list of favorite books. So good….and thank you SO much for sharing the lemon cake recipe!! I made some more of your pinchups a couple of weeks ago and thought of you 🙂


  12. Hi! I just came across your site on the Armchair BEA page. I love your blog and am a new follower! I often think that writing about the parts of life that really speak to the reader is easier to do with magical realism…almost like a buffer. Thanks for including this recipe. I've read the book and think it would be great to bake a dessert that the author suggested.


  13. Chris, it touches my heart that you made (and continue to make!) the Pinch-ups. That is one fabulous recipe, I must say; perhaps I can say it because I didn't invent it. This cake was very dense, almost too much for my liking, but I think it would turn around and make excellent French Toast. Really! I love eating what authors suggest as an accompaniement for their books.Jenna, how sweet of you to visit and leave me such a kind comment. It's a good point you bring up, that magical realism makes a good buffer. I totally agree. Good to be an Armchair Book Blogger with you this week and on into the future.


  14. I've reread your review and all the comments, now that I've finished the book. I wonder if I would've enjoyed it better had I read the printed version? Sometimes an audio book fails to convey the underlying tone of a novel.

    Hey, if you ever want to reread Like Water For Chocolate…say next year… I'm in! 😉


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s