Ellen Clifford
July 13, 2014 12:02 pm

What if you could taste the emotions felt by the person making your food? In particular, what if they were the HIDDEN emotions? In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, author Aimee Bender sends us into our protagonist Rose’s world when she first tastes sadness in lemon cake. Rose realizes she is tasting her mother’s sadness, which is well-veiled behind mother’s love and a passion for woodworking.

How can this hold interest for a whole novel without actually being the crux of conflict? It doesn’t. Rather, Rose’s taste buds provide a lens through which we see her world. This is really a coming-of-age family story, as told by a girl who is more than just intuitive.

We journey with Rose from age eight until she is college-aged. She has the typical problems of adolescence. There is unrequited love, spats with her parents, and a brilliant but deeply troubled brother (with some interesting talents) in the mix. But these troubles are compounded by her food secret.

She can hardly bear to eat foods made by people hiding dark secrets. Even simple foods are not safe. She can taste that orange juice is made of “Florida oranges, picked by workers plagued with financial worries.”  Eating a sandwich, she can tell that the maker of it wants to be loved. Milk is “weary” and jelly filled with “acidic resentment.” She can taste so many details in her food that it is an overwhelming experience that makes her feel like an outsider. She turns to factory food often, as it is “made by nobody” and less packed with secrets. We see her figure out, little by little how to make the very thing standing in her way become her biggest asset.

Unlike Rose, we may not be able to tell where every ingredient in our food came from, how it was transported, and how the chef making it was feeling. But I do think there is a difference between food made with love and passion and food made in anger. I don’t think this part is fiction. I even heard Anthony Bourdain discuss how he can taste food made by a jaded cook. Anthony Bourdain is one of my unrequited loves so if he says it, it must be true.

Rose first tastes her cake while alone in the kitchen, so I was inspired to make a miniature lemon cake for one. It is larger than a cupcake, and I added cornmeal for color and texture. This toes the line between muffin and cake. It is a dense and moist cake, for eating standing up in your kitchen at two in the morning. Welcome to my life. Inspiration for this came from many blogs—the first place I saw a single-girl cake in was Chocolate Covered Katie, then I saw blogger after blogger post their renditions. This is mine.

It can be baked in a tart pan or in a few muffin tins if you fancy the idea of eating several cakes in one go, a la Alice. It puffs up adorably. Grab a fork, or turn the cake out and add accoutrements like ice cream. Or…butter. On your cake. After all, it is almost a muffin and the only difference between a cupcake and a muffin is nothing.

Happy Lemon Cake for One

  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 1 Tbsp. cornmeal
  • 1/4 tsp. lemon zest
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 Tbsp. sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice (please don’t use the stuff in a bottle)
  • 3 Tbsp. applesauce
  • 3 Tbsp. milk (I used unsweetened almond milk)
  • 1 egg white

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, lemon zest (making lemon zest fully justifies getting a microplane to grate it), baking soda, sugar and salt.

In another even smaller bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, applesauce and milk.

In yet another bowl, beat the egg white until it makes peaks that stand up but softly curl over. You just want to avoid beating to the point that they start looking dry.

Now whisk together the bowl with flour and the bowl with the wet ingredients. Take about a third of the egg white and stir it in completely. Get a spatula to fold the rest in. You don’t want to really see more than a streak or so of white, but you don’t want to deflate the batter either. Butter or use a nonstick spray on your pan. I used a 4.5 inch tart pan, but I bet a tiny loaf pan, or a few muffin tins would work too. Put it in the oven.

Bake until it is firm and just lightly browning. It will be somewhere between 12 and 17 minutes depending on your pan and your oven. Let it cool a bit then when you can safely touch the pan untold the cake. Grab a fork. This goes stale quickly so eat it the day you make it. You get to have ALL your cake and eat it too.