On October 6, 1916, Raymond Jacques Leavee was born in Hell’s Kitchen. His dad left the family when Raymond was still in single digits, and his strong-willed mother raised him alone. Fortunately, Ray was an enterprising young man, and he found ways to make money to help his mom. He wrote greeting card rhymes for American Greetings for a nickel a line.
When he was sixteen, he skipped school and rode his bicycle down to a retail store that had advertised a position for an errand boy. This was during The Great Depression, and he found himself in a ridiculously long line of grown men, all vying to pick up sandwiches. As fate would have it, the owner of the company took an interest in Raymond and made him wait in his office until he had interviewed all the men in line. To make a long story short, Ray got the job but had to promise to stay in school. He ended up going to night school to get his diploma and then went on to college and eventually Harvard Business School.
He had a long and very successful career with Macy’s, and, at thirty-something, ended up being the youngest Vice President of sales that they’d ever hired.
During his military training in World War II, he befriended a young man, Colin, whose family lived very close to Ray’s mother. During one Leave, he went to visit this young man’s family and ended up meeting and marrying Colin’s older sister, Evelyn. Evelyn and her sisters used to babysit my father when he was a little kid, and that’s how our families all came together. We could not be closer if we were related by blood. Ray and Evelyn are my aunt and uncle, and that’s all there is to it. Ray’s son, Ken, is my cousin, no matter what the Family Tree says.
We lost Auntie Ev to Alzheimer’s a few months ago. After 65 years of marriage, it has been quite an adjustment (to say the least) for Uncle Ray. I am happy to report that he is doing quite well. The Beloved and I go down to visit him frequently, as do my parents, and he has an amazing network of friends from the neighborhood and church who check in daily. Ken calls several times a day, visits when he can and is an all-around Good Son.
Uncle Ray turned 94 on Wednesday, and we all went to Pinehurst to help him celebrate. Ken was in charge of the main course, spaghetti with meatballs (Uncle Ray’s favorite), mom was in charge of the salad (yum), and I handled dessert. Uncle Ray had requested a cake with lemon and raspberry, so I really wanted to deliver. I made Rose’s All-Occasion Downy Butter Cake, but I added lemon zest and split the extract 50/50 lemon and vanilla. I didn’t want to stop there, though. I wanted to give the cake a bit of an herbal note to enhance the lemon, so I went with about 3/4 teaspoon of Herbes de Provence. It was an Excellent Choice, if I do say so myself. I highly recommend it. For the filling, I went with a pure raspberry jam. With seeds. Without high fructose corn syrup. If you’re feeling kicky, you can make your own jam.
But, as good as the cake and the yummy jam was, the icing was The Best. I went with a classic pâte à bombe based buttercream, based on another of Rose’s formulas.
Uncle Ray’s Lemon Buttercream
- 1 cup demerara sugar (you can use plain old white sugar, but I think the demerara adds a deeper and more interesting flavor)
- 2 oz freshly squeezed and strained lemon juice (that’s 2 ounces after straining)
- 2 oz water
- 6 large egg yolks
- scant 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
- zest from 1 1/2 lemons
- 1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, at about 65F-68F
Place the yolks, salt and zest in your mixer bowl. With the whip attachment, whip on high speed until thick and lightened in color. This isn’t rocket science. Just let it whip while you’re getting the sugar ready.
Put the sugar, lemon juice and water in a sauce pan and heat over medium high heat, stirring, until all the sugar has dissolved. Bring to a boil, put the lid on, turn down the heat to medium-low, and let boil for a couple of minutes to get rid of any sugar crystals. Make sure you’re using a large pot, because this stuff will bubble up quite a bit.
Turn the heat back up to medium (just so you maintain a boil) and cook the sugar until it reaches 240F.
With the mixer on medium, slowly pour the sugar down the side of the mixer bowl in a thin stream. Increase the speed to high and whip until completely cool.
Whip in the butter, an ounce at a time, until it’s all in. Whip in one ounce before you add the next, and so on, to maintain a lovely emulsion.
And that’s pretty much it. I torted each layer so I had four thin-ish layers, spread a pretty thick layer of raspberry jam between the layers and then frosted the whole thing with the buttercream. The flowers are from our yard.
This cake was Ah-Maze-Ing, if I do say so myself. Exceptionally buttery and lemony with a fresh, green note from the Herbes de Provence. The raspberry provided a lovely contrast, both visually and…taste-urally. And the buttercream tasted just like lemons, but without the chalkiness of an American-style buttercream. Seriously, if you want to Swoon with Pleasure and you are a Fan of Butter, you owe it to yourself to make cooked sugar buttercream.I was so pleased with the way this cake turned out. Uncle Ray was thrilled, and I’m hoping he’s eating leftovers for breakfast even as I type this.
Ninety-four. He’s an amazing man, and I am honored to call him Uncle. Happy Birthday, Uncle Ray.