A big part of being in LA for most of January was my taste buds shifting right from desiring warm, holiday flavors to craving light, bright, summery palates. With every lemon tree I passed my craving for a citrus-marinated fish or fruit-filled salad grew. While it was not exactly warm enough to be wearing shorts (most days), it felt like summer after flying from the snow-laden grounds of New Hampshire. And what better way to celebrate the luxury of comfortable weather and sunny days than with food equally as bright?
So when a group of friends and I went to Proof Bakery, a spot in Atwater Village around since 2010, the lemon cake seen upon entering was like a calculated play right to my heart. While lemon is one of my favorite sweet treat flavors, probably second behind chocolate, I don’t often get the opportunity to indulge in the great pleasure of lemon layer cake. Lemon poppy seed muffins abound and lemon loaves are a dime a dozen, but a slice of lemon cake is a special pleasure. I first became enamored with them after reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Benderas a young adolescent, a book about a girl who could taste people’s emotions in the food they made. I frankly don’t remember anything other than that I loved the book, and it made me really want to try lemon cake. Despite this I don’t think I ever made one (note to self: make lemon cake this summer) and finding a slice in a bakeshop is rare. The last one I had was at Mary’s Carrot Cakein Pittsfield, MA, the thrift shop/bakery known for, as one may guess, their carrot cake, but also with the occasional availability of an equally tasty lemon cake.
However, one thing about the cake before me at Proof gave me apprehension. Rather than a frosting, this was covered in meringue. My thoughts on cake coverage are no secret. All layer cakes should have frosting, and anything airy can get out of here. Anything akin to mallow-y fluff can wait for a s’mores flavored moment or a reasonably sized dollop on top of an appropriate pie. I do not want those whipped egg whites near my sponge.
But I must admit, there is something beautiful about a lightly toasted meringue, its impeccably shaped mounds accented with dark brown peaks and sandy beige valleys in between. It’s an aspect of visual interest that certainly cannot be achieved by trying to brulée buttercream (also known as setting fire to cake). And while decorative and possibly edible flowers (which I will not eat) are not usually my style either, the small flora atop the meringue endeared it to me. I supposed that if there wereto be a case for meringue on cake, it would be on lemon cake. So lemon cake it would be that day. We also threw in a slice of the spiced ginger loaf cake and a chocolate chip cookie to get a well-rounded feel of the place.
While it was one of the few cloudy days during three weeks of LA living, we took a seat outside in the comfortable spring-like air. While the inside was cute and quaint, adorned with dark wood and earth tones, all the seating (of which there was a moderate amount) was taken. Usually, I am unable to enjoy my treats in such outdoor luxury, as an intense phobia of birds renders me on edge at the presence of any avian creature even as I roam the streets. Add a morsel of food in my hands and I am convinced that the birds will descend upon me to try and get their chance at it themselves. And while one might think that 3.5 years of going to school in New York would have dissuaded my fear, this has not been so. But while they are still present, there are far fewer pigeons around the streets of LA, at least the one we happened to be on that moment. And with more space at my disposal were there need to uncontrollably flinch and flee were a bird to arrive, I felt brave enough to take the leap and eat outside. Small steps people, small steps.
Each item was picture perfect: The cake cut clean and sharp, the ginger cake with the idyllic candied ginger piece placed on top of the deep brown loaf, the cookie with golden brown edges and visible sprinkles of salt on top. It all could have been shot right there with a professional camera for an ad. But even with only an iPhone at my disposable, the proof can be seen below.
I wondered… would the beauty of the baked goods stop at face value? A bite of lemon cake quieted any fear of that. Delicate sponge of sweet lemon, supported with a zestier zip of lemon curd layers brought a smile to my face. Without the curd the cake would not be tart enough, and without the cake the curd would be good for only a bite or two. But together they made a lemony dessert impeccably built. And the meringue? Well, I definitely wasn’t wishing for buttercream. The small bit of whipped vanilla whites with a little bit of crust was the perfect textural complement to the delicate cake it surrounded. I have talked once before of cake worthy of a wedding, and I now invoke the phrase again. Not my own wedding , but if a friend were to have this cake at their reception I would understand, support, and enjoy.
This made my expectations a little higher for the ginger spice loaf. I love a spice cake, and looked forward to the juxtaposition of the light lemon to the warm spices. And while the loaf was perfectly moist to my relief, the spice did not shine through as much as I had hoped. The idea was there, but a lack of salt and a hesitation with the ginger made for a dampened flavor. Still enjoyable, and perhaps would have paired better with a coffee or tea, but not a stunner, and not one I would go back for.
And as far as cookies are concerned, they had a solid chocolate chip. They were making no revolutionary moves, but if all you want is a simple chocolate chip cookie you can get it. But cookie connoisseurs might want to try one of their more adventurous options like the sesame coconut or rye thumbprint.
While the loaf and cookie proved more adequate than extraordinary, the lemon chiffon makes Proof worthy of patronage. They take the layer cake and step it up a notch, while still pleasing the kid in me enamored with lemon cake. It is the delicate but simple, just like their store design, that they do well. Not there to excel in American classics that remind you of home, but not there to totally reinvent the dessert wheel either. Just right for a nice chill hang with some pals taking a much deserved work break.