A Brush With Curdled Milk Disaster

My Lavender Lemon Honey Birthday Cake is well on its way to being completed, and I couldn’t be more satisfied.

In an uncharacteristic move for me, I decided to plan ahead and make the cake layers in advance. So I am quite pleased to say that they are currently sitting in my freezer on a makeshift system of wobbly cooling racks that have been stacked on top of each other.

I decided to make the cake layers the weekend before my birthday because making The Beehive Cake, which I started two days before it was served, was way too stressful. I was so consumed by making sure that each of the cake’s elements came together, I almost fell into that hostess trap where you’re too worried about how the food will turn out to be any fun to talk to.

However, while I’ve been good about starting this cake in advance, I’ve still manged to have several bone-headed moments during its creation. In a much more characteristic move for the space-cadet that I am, the cake had a brush with disaster in its very infancy — all because I never paid attention in chemistry class and completely forgot that lemon juice curdles milk.

You see, I decided to modify a Cake Bible recipe and add some lemon flavoring to Rose Levy Beranbaum’s White Velvet Butter Cake recipe (which I doubled). The White Velvet Butter Cake is a slightly different recipe than the Downy Yellow Butter Cake, which I used to create The Beehive Cake. Instead of using whole eggs, the recipe uses only egg whites. The resulting cake has an exceptionally tender crumb and is a pale, creamy color. It perfectly fulfills my desire to make the Blanche DuBois of cakes — the ultra feminine, ultra girly type of cake best served at a bridal shower, baby shower, or other feminine event.

As I explained in the Banana Bread entry, The Cake Bible uses a two-stage method for mixing cake batter, by first mixing together the dry ingredients, butter, and a little liquid (stage one), and then beating in more liquid in small additions (stage two). The White Velvet Butter Cake uses a combination of egg whites, milk and vanilla in stage two, that is added to the stage one mixture.

And it’s here that I got a little tripped up and almost ruined the cake.

To create a lemon-flavored cake, before mixing my dry ingredients together I added the zest of four lemons to the sugar, beating the two together with the paddle attachment of my Kitchen Aid Mixer. This makes it more difficult for the lemon zest to clump up, which often happens if you add it straight to the wet or dry ingredients (and no, for the record, I didn’t think of this method myself, as much as I would have liked to. I think my mother saw it on America’s Test Kitchen and told me about it).

However, I wanted to add some lemon juice to the batter too—I though it would give the cake an extra lemony oomph. So I did what any girl who didn’t pay attention in chemistry class would do — I added half a cup of lemon juice to the egg white/milk/vanilla mixture.

Immediately I realized that something was wrong. Small globs of pinkish goo began to coagulate in my bowl. I frantically whisked the mixture, hoping the globs would be incorporated back into the egg whites. But they only seemed to get bigger and grainier, and their strange pinkish huge deepened.

Then, something in the back of my brain switched on, a deep knowledge that I probably gained in my childhood while watching Mr. Wizard.

“It’s curdling,” I thought. “The lemon juice is curdling the milk.”

I knew that I didn’t have enough eggs to start over (the double recipe uses nine egg whites), so I had to somehow save the cake.

In a move that I think I learned about on the food network somewhere, I instinctively picked up a fine mesh strainer. I could see that the milk was floating in salmon-colored clusters on the top of the bowl, but that the egg yolks/vanilla/lemon juice mixture looked relatively fine below.

I poured the mixture through the strainer, which left a gelatinous mass of curdled milk, mingled with some residual egg whites, in the strainer bowl. Victory! The egg whites came through the curdled milk experience relatively undamaged, and the White Velvet Butter Cake (Now With Lemon) was back on track.

Because there seemed to be quite a bit of egg white that didn’t make it out of the strainer, I added an additional two whites to the liquid. I was worried that the lemon juice would somehow curdle the cake batter when I added the egg white/vanilla/lemon mixture to rest of the batter, but it held together fine.

And now I can happily say that the cake came out just fine. I actually made an extra cake layer that Dave and I ate on Sunday, and the cake was exactly the way I wanted it — light, delicate, and silky, with that pale porcelain hue that I so desired.

Now I can’t wait to make the lavender-lemon mousse filling and honey buttercream frosting, which I think I’ll probably do on Friday night.

Let’s just hope that I have thoroughly learned my “lemon juice will curdle milk” science lesson this time.



  1. alice said

    That’s how you make paneer (Indian farmer’s cheese): boil some milk, add the juice of half a lemon. It’s pretty crazy to see for those of us who forget that chemistry dwells in our kitchens (I’m in that class too). I managed to curdle my ginger ice-cream custard and it turned out ok. Surprising, I think. Food is amazingly resilient.

  2. Laurie said

    I live in Florida and love citrus cakes. Any citrus juice has citric acid and will curdle milk (I know you know that). To use citrus juice in a cake recipe I substitute buttermilk for regular milk–it’s basically already curdled.

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