Family Reunion

Candied Lemon Sheet Cake (+ 5 Tips for Taking it With You)

July 30, 2013

Sunday Dinners comes to us from our own chef/photojournalist/farmer/father figure Tom Hirschfeld, featuring his stunning photography and Indiana farmhouse family meals.

Today: Drive-in memories, a gluten-free Candied Lemon Sheet Cake, and 5 tips for taking it with you.

Candied Lemon Sheet Cake from Food52

A lemon cake. That's what I want. Something to replicate the Lemonheads from the snack bar at the drive-in movie theater. The sour pucker is perfect for the late summer heat. You could say I am fond of lemon. I always have been a borderline addict.

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Sunday is family night and we are going to the drive-in again. We will make a picnic of it this time. I pack the 4Runner with food, sleeping bags, a couple of pillows, some lawn chairs, and bug spray. It isn't a long drive to Mechanicsburg, over one state highway and up another. Other than the Welcome to Mechanicsburg sign, the drive-in theater is the only indication that you're in a town. All the times I've been here, I'm still never sure whether there was ever anything more than the drive-in and one lonesome farmhouse. It's all surrounded by cornfields -- always cornfields.

More: 9 DIY Movie-Watching Snacks.


There are ten or more minivans parked on the gravel road leading to the drive-in and everyone is waiting single file at the tollbooth-style gate. It's always at this moment, waiting to get in, my elbow resting on the open window of the door, the sting of the hot sun on my already sunburned arm, that I look up at the two story, paneled movie screen and silently reminisce.  

I remember the brightly colored muscle cars of the kids whose parents indulged them. My friends and I would wander the lot with sodas in to-go cups full of crushed ice spiked with Old Crow whiskey and bum cigarettes from each other. The noise of the B movies or horror flicks was background color to our youthful attempts at manhood. No one ever watched the movie; mostly we walked around, flirted with girls, and waited for a fight to break out because a fight always broke out.


The line starts to move and inside we follow the other cars, back in to our space, open the hatchback, and get comfortable. The scene could have come from the set of The Bevery Hillbillies: a red pickup truck with a bed full of people sitting in lawn chairs. Kids start playing tag, soccer, and Frisbee in the grass in front of the screen, passing away the time until it's dark enough and the movie begins.


I set the cooler, which will also be our table, on the grass. The girls are off to look for their friends. Amy unfolds the chairs and we settle in for dinner and a movie. The herb roasted chicken legs, the potato salad, and the slaw are as good as always. Just as the movie starts I get out the pieces of lemon cake. It's the real star of the show.  

Candied Lemon Sheet Cake from Food52

5 Tips for Taking Food with You (Drive-in, Picnic, or Otherwise)

1. When you eat cold foods it takes more seasonings to bring out the flavors than if you served it hot. Check the seasoning of the dish after it has cooled and then adjust.

2. Eating outdoors, to me, is one of the most enjoyable ways to eat. That said, it's also usually warm out. I don't think I need to say anything about egg-based foods but remember that the temperature danger zone is 4 hours between 140° F and 40° F (which may vary slighlty according to your state's health codes). Make sure you cool any food you cook as quickly as possible and keep it that way.

3. I like to put the ice, or ice packs, on top of the food. I do this because heat rises, meaning that cold air sinks. Because I pack the ice on top, the containers need to be waterproof (leak proof), as well as sturdy.

4. Because I use containers that don't collapse, it means I have less room in the cooler. This also keeps me from bringing too much food, which is a good thing because I don't like to keep leftovers from a picnic.

5. Don't forget the bottle opener and cork screw.

Candied Lemon Sheet Cake from Food52

Candied Lemon Sheet Cake

Serves 9 to 12

Candied Lemon Slices:

13 1/8-inch lemon slices, seeds gently removed
1 cup sugar
1 cup water

Sheet Cake:

1 cup Bob's Red Mill Gluten Free Flour Mix
3/4 cups sugar
2 tablespoons candied zest, minced
3 tablespoons powdered dry milk
1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cups whole milk, warm
2 large eggs, room temperature
1/2 teaspoon pure lemon extract
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 sticks of unsalted butter, each gently melted in its own bowl and kept warm

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Tom Hirschfeld

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Jane Rosenbaum
    Jane Rosenbaum
  • NCdana
  • Patty Brown
    Patty Brown
  • deborah helm
    deborah helm
  • Virginia Stokes
    Virginia Stokes
Father, husband, writer, photojournalist and not always in that order.


Jane R. August 7, 2015
Would love to hear comments from people who have actually made the cake and made it as written. Has anyone done this who can comment?
NCdana August 5, 2013
Do you think Cup for Cup could be used instead of Bob's? I don't think you need the gum with it. Looks like a fabulous cake!
Patty B. August 4, 2013
I love your site .. it's one of the most attractive I have seen. It's also very easy to navigate. Keep up the wonderful work.
Patty B. August 4, 2013
My all time favorite flavor has always been lemon, specifically, lemon meringue pie. There is a Mechanicsburg, Ohio. Where is yours?
thirschfeld August 4, 2013
There are two in Indiana
deborah H. August 4, 2013
Oh, guess that wouldn't help if he's allergic to eggs. Sorry.
deborah H. August 4, 2013
Virginia, in our gluten fee bread, we replace eggs with lots of whipped egg whites. They give it some structure.
Virginia S. August 4, 2013
I really would like to try this. My grandson is allergic to wheat and eggs, so I need a good substitute for the eggs. The "egg replacer" I've used turns the product to a sponge with terrible texture. Any suggestions?
thirschfeld August 4, 2013
Try flax meal and water. I don't know a ratio but vegans use it as an egg replaced often. You could probably find info online.
deborah H. August 4, 2013
I'm gonna give this a go, and make happy all the customers every day who beg us for GF treats. Thanks!
ATG117 July 30, 2013
Beautiful. How would you sub for flour. 1:1 and leave out xanthan? I'm not at all well versed in GF baking.
DrGaellon August 4, 2013
Seconded - I would like to make this with regular flour, too.
thirschfeld August 4, 2013
That is where I would start. Theoretically it should work.
Andrea D. July 30, 2013
I've never had candied lemons, and this cake looks like the perfect place to start :)
Devangi R. July 30, 2013
Since I saw this cake yesterday night, I want to have it. So cool. I am having a drive-in picnic in my living room tonight. So good Tom.
Guy July 30, 2013
Is there an substitute for Xanthan Gum?
thirschfeld July 30, 2013
Guar gum is often used as a substitute.
_alyssa August 4, 2013
Ground chia seeds, ground flax seeds, and psyllium husks (whole or powdered) are wonderful substitutes for the xanthan. With cakes and quick breads I don't think you really need the gums. I've been leaving them out and find the texture to be superior, more crumbly and less gummy.
thirschfeld August 4, 2013
Those are all excellent choices. I often find Xantham to be weird but in the case of this cake the texture is perfect and, to my gratification, I think better then a wheat flour cake.
_alyssa August 4, 2013
Well then I guess I'll be bustin out the dusty jar of xanthan, as well as picking up a bag of BRMGF. I usually make my own GF mix but I will follow your recipe to the letter. I have a bit of a lemon addiction myself but have always shied away from the extract. Do you have any favorite brands you can suggest? Also a big thank you for your lovely writing and photos, which alone are worth the read. I especially like the way you gracefully shift from the beauty of the present to the nostalgia of your own youth and back again. Mostly I want to pack up a delicious picnic for my family with your lemon cake and go to that drive-in at Mechanicsburg. Sweet stuff.
AntoniaJames July 30, 2013
Excellent piece, in all respects. One of your best ever. (That's saying a lot!) ;o)
thirschfeld July 30, 2013
Thanks AntoniaJames!
Kitchen B. July 30, 2013
Loved.....'youthful attempts at manhood'! And lemon cake. And drive-ins! Love the writing.
thirschfeld July 30, 2013
Thank you KB
mbj913 July 30, 2013
this looks seriously beautiful and delicious.
thirschfeld July 30, 2013
mrslarkin July 30, 2013
So looking forward to trying this, as my first go round with BRMGF scones was meh. Way too beany. I'd love to turn this into cupcakes, with a big ol' lemon round on top.
thirschfeld July 30, 2013
I wouldn't think BRMGF would be good in scones because they are pretty sublet. I made a chocolate sheet cake with it and wasn't sure how it was going to be until it baked. Besides if you have been in you cake doesn't that make it a complete protein?
thirschfeld July 30, 2013
Merrill S. July 30, 2013
This looks AMAZING.
thirschfeld July 30, 2013
thank you Merrill!
Shalini July 30, 2013
This is really beautiful, Tom. Can't wait to try it!
thirschfeld July 30, 2013
Thanks Shalini