I always have lemons in the house. I want a full bowl all year round, as they are an ingredient I use almost every day, for savoury and sweet recipes. I squeeze lemon into glass of cold water in the summer and a mug of hot water in the winter. At this time of year, the trees in our suburb are brightly spotted with lemons. I've seen boxes on the pavement full of the beautiful, acidic yellow fruit, with the word "free" scrawled on the front.
I picked these lemons from an overhanging branch on a walk around my neighbourhood. Their skin isn't perfect, there's no supermarket uniformity, but they're perfectly sunshine bright and full of juice.
When lemons are so prolific there are many ways to take advantage of the glut: lemon curd, preserved lemons, marmalade. But we've decided to make cake. The cake is not the best way to use all your excess lemons - the recipe only uses the zest of one lemon and just a little juice - but it certainly makes a grand and edible plinth for the candied lemons, of which you can do a big batch, as they'll keep. I love the simple flavour of a lemon sponge; light, fluffy and encased in the sour-sweet whipped cream. In the middle of winter I don't always want a hot and heavy dessert. I want something that will brighten my mood as well as the dark day.
Use any leftover candied lemons to top a syrupy almond cake, or serve alongside lemon crepes. Alternatively you can dip them in chocolate, or simply serve them in a bowl at the end of a meal and take bites of their chewy, jewelled flesh and rind. The lemon verbena, a south American shrub, makes a fragrant addition to the candy. The leaves become translucent and encased in sugar they retain their distinctive herby-lemon flavour and scent.
Choose a lemon with a thin skin for this recipe. A meyer lemon will be perfect. You'll be more likely to find these at a farmers market or at a specialty seller as they're not widely available - they are not easy to ship. Avoid the thick skinned, nubbly bush lemons, but otherwise, any lemon will really do - and the best are picked fresh from a nearby tree.Lemon sponge and candied lemons
For the candied lemons
2 meyer lemons, or any small lemon, washed and cut into 1cm thick slices, discarding the ends
1 cup caster sugar
1 cup water
6 lemon verbena leaves
Bring water to the boil in a large saucepan. Put in the sugar and swirl until dissolved. Add the lemon slices and lemon verbena leaves. Turn the heat to low. Push a sheet of baking paper down into the pot so it covers and touches the surface of the lemons. It will billow, it won't perfectly sit there, but it will stop all the water from escaping in the cold, steamy kitchen. Cook for half an hour, checking the pot every now and then but not stirring, until the sugar and water mixture is thick and bubbly. The lemons will be candied and sticky, their pith almost translucent. Remove the lemon slices and place on a greased wire rack so the excess sugar syrup can drain. Allow to cool.
For the sponge (makes two cakes)
1 ½ cups of cornflour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
6 warmed free-range eggs (bring them to room temperature and then put the carton in the preheating oven for 3 minutes)
2 tbsp golden syrup
zest of 1 lemon
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 cup sugar
For the icing
250ml pure cream
250ml sour cream
2 tbsp icing sugar sifted
Preheat oven to 170C.
Sift the cornflour and bicarbonate of soda.
Whip the eggs until very fluffy and stiff - this can take up to 15 minutes in a stand mixer. Add two tablespoons of golden syrup and continue whipping until combined. Add the caster sugar a spoonful at a time - the mix should be glossy and stiff. Spoon in the lemon juice, zest and vanilla essence and fold through carefully.
Fold through the flour, sugar and bicarbonate of soda until just combined, making sure there are no lumps. Split the mixture between two greased and floured, 22cm spring-form tins. Placing a piece of baking paper on the bottom of the tin will help removal of the cake when cooked.
Tap the filled tins on the bench to settle the mixture. Place them in the oven for 25 minutes or until the cake comes away from the edges and is golden. Do not open the oven door for at least 20 minutes, or until the cake is ready - hopefully you can see the tin through the door. When the cake is fully cooked it will still feel very soft. Let cool in tin, then transfer carefully to a wire rack.
Whip the pure cream and sour cream together until thick. Add the icing sugar and whip until combined. Ice the cake with cream in between each layer, and then top with the candied lemon.
You can double this recipe to make a decadent four-tiered cake.
Candied lemons: surprisingly versatile, and they keep well. Photograph: Lauren Bamford