Lemon Cake with lemon cream cheese frosting is sunshine served on a plate! Perfectly sweet and melt-in-your-mouth tender, this lemon cake recipe is positively bursting with bright lemon flavor.
Why You’ll Love This Layer Cake
- The Texture is PERFECT. The crumb is moist, sublimely soft, and fluffy but it still holds together when you cut into it. If you like a more dense, buttery cake, try this Lemon Blueberry Bundt Cake.
- Fresh, Lemony Flavor. The lemon is popping and present, yet balanced (if you prefer more pucker in your lemon desserts, check out the best Lemon Bars and Lemon Tart).
- Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting. The creaminess is exquisite. It’s not overly sweet, thanks to the tang of the cream cheese.
- Presentation. The layers are easy to work with, the cake slices neatly, and it looks beautiful on a plate—all important when it comes to a celebratory layer cake for a birthday, anniversary, or just because you deserve it.
- Worth It. Let’s be honest, homemade cake takes effort. Making this lemon cake from scratch is 100% worth it.
- It’s the Best Lemon Cake in the Whole World. You’ve called it “perfectly fluffy,” “spectacular,” and even baked it for weddings. It is THAT GOOD!
5 Star Review
“This is a beautiful and delicious cake. The crumb is tender and soft. The level of that lemon flavor you would expect from a lemon cake is perfect!”— Barbara —
How to Make Lemon Cake from Scratch
For the Lemon Cake Batter
- Cake Flour. It’s lighter and airier than regular flour, making it essential for the cake’s texture.
- Egg Whites. Another key component for the cake’s light texture (save the yolks to make Banana Ice Cream).
- Buttermilk. Helps create a tender crumb.
If you don’t regularly keep buttermilk on hand, you can make your own homemade buttermilk substitute.
- Mix 1 cup of milk with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or white vinegar and let it sit for 5 minutes. Then add to the recipe as directed.
- Lemon Zest + Lemon Extract. How you make lemon flavor cake! Lemon extract has a concentrated flavor, which helps the lemon shine.
- Butter. How does lemon cake taste like pure melt-in-your-mouth goodness? Butter is the answer! It adds rich flavor and ensures a moist lemon cake recipe.
- Baking Powder. Acts as a leavener to make this cake rise.
For the Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting
- Cream Cheese. It gives the frosting body, balances the sweetness, and gives it a pleasantly tangy flavor.
- Butter. Gives the frosting some structure and subtle richness.
- Powdered Sugar. Adds sweetness without taking it over the edge.
- Lemon Juice + Lemon Zest. Bold, bright, and zippy lemon flavor.
- Vanilla. I love using vanilla in lemon recipes because it enhances the flavor.
- Sift the Dry Ingredients. Sifting is key for a light, tender cake.
- Combine the Buttermilk and Eggwhites. These are your wet ingredients.
- Cream the Butter and Sugar. Along with the lemon zest and extract.
- Alternate Dry/Wet/Dry. First half of the dry ingredients go into the creamed butter, then the wet, then the rest of the dry.
- Bake. You can make this a layer cake, or see below for more sizes.
- Let Cool. If you frost when the cake is still warm, the frosting will slide off.
- Frost. Don’t worry if doesn’t look perfect, it will taste amazing!
- Lemon Cake with Lemon Curd. Use lemon curd between the layers, then spreading the lemon cream cheese frosting on the cake’s outside.
- Lemon Blueberry Cake. Gently fold blueberries into the batter (coat them with a little flour first to prevent sinking).
- Lemon Raspberry Cake. Spread a thin layer of seedless raspberry jam between the layers, directly on top of the frosting. Decorate with fresh raspberries.
- Lemon Strawberry Cake. Thinly slice strawberries and pat dry. Layer them in the center with the cream cheese frosting. Decorate with more fresh strawberry slices.
- To Use Cake Mix. See Grandma Dorothy’s top-rated Lemon Poke Cake, one of the best lemon cake recipes with cake mix.
- Lemon Cake with Almond Flour. I do not recommend making this cake with almond flour. If you’re looking for a gluten-free lemon cake, try this crowd-pleasing Almond Flour Cake with Lemon instead.
Baking Other Cake Sizes
- Lemon Cupcakes. Readers have reported they have used this recipe to make 24-26 standard-size cupcakes. Bake at the same temperature for about 16 minutes. Be sure to use paper liners so they don’t stick.
- 9-Inch Pans. Follow the recipe (which is written for 8-inch pans) as directed, checking several minutes early. Note that your layers will be thinner.
- Mini Layer Cake. Halve the recipe, then bake in two 6-inch cake pans. Check several minutes early.
- Lemon Sheet Cake. This cake recipe doesn’t yield quite enough batter for a full 9×13-inch pan, but if you don’t mind a cake that is somewhat thinner, you can experiment with it as is, or try making 1.5 times the recipe. Bake it at the same temperature indicated in the recipe, but be sure to check early, as it might finish more quickly. *NOTE* I have not tried this myself, so it would be an experiment. I recommend reading through the comments also, as several readers have shared experiences with baking the cake in assorted pan sizes.
- To Store. Cover the cake, and store it in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. Let it come to room temperature before serving.
- To Freeze. Freeze lemon cake for up to 2 months. Let it thaw overnight in the refrigerator, then bring it to room temperature before serving.
Meal Prep Tip
Bake the cake layers up to 1 day in advance, let them cool completely, then wrap airtight. Store them at room temperature until ready to frost.
Frosting can be prepared 1 day in advance and stored in an airtight storage container in the refrigerator.
- Cake Pans. Ideal for this recipe (and many other delicious cake recipes).
- Parchment Paper. Prevents your cake from sticking to the pan.
- Icing Spatula. Perfect for frosting cakes. I also have my eye on this set of three.
Recipe Tips and Tricks
- Do Use Cake Flour. It’s ground extra fine and has a lower gluten content than all-purpose flour, resulting in a lighter, fluffier cake with a tender, more delicate crumb. If you don’t have cake flour, you can make your own by swapping in some cornstarch (see recipe notes).
- Make Sure Your Ingredients are All Room Temperature. Especially the eggs and butter. Room temperature ingredients blend more easily, allowing for better incorporation of air, resulting in a fluffier cake.
- Yes, You Must Sift. It aerates the flour, ensures an even distribution of ingredients, and ultimately gives your cake a lighter texture.
- Don’t Be Temped to Add Lemon Juice. While you can add lemon juice to some cakes (like this Lemon Poppy Seed Cake), it’s important that the recipe was developed for it, as it will alter the acidity level, affecting the rise of the cake. If you can’t find lemon extract, opt for extra zest in the cake rather than swapping lemon juice.
- Check Expiration Dates. To ensure that your cake tastes great and rises properly, check the expiration dates on your baking ingredients (especially the baking powder) to make sure they’re still fresh.
- Serve at Room Temperature. If possible, serve this at room temperature for the best lemon flavor. Since it’s stored in the refrigerator, I like to take it out before we sit down to dinner to give it adequate time to warm up prior to dessert.
FOR THE LEMON CAKE:
- 2 1/4 cups cake flour*
- 1 tablespoon baking powder (I recommend aluminum free)
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 1/4 cups low-fat buttermilk
- 4 large egg whites
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
- 1 stick unsalted butter at room temperature (equivalent to 8 tablespoons or 4 ounces)
- 1/2 teaspoon pure lemon extract
FOR THE LEMON CREAM CHEESE FROSTING:
- 8 ounces cream cheese softened
- 1 stick unsalted butter softened (equivalent to 8 tablespoons or 4 ounces)
- 2 3/4 cups powdered sugar sifted
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice divided (from about 1/2 a large lemon)
- 1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon zest
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour two 8×2-inch round cake pans, line with parchment paper, then butter the parchment too.
In a medium bowl, sift together the cake flour, baking powder, and salt. In a separate medium bowl or large measuring cup, whisk together the buttermilk and egg whites until combined.
Place the granulated sugar and lemon zest in the bowl of a standing mixer or a large mixing bowl and rub them together with your fingers until the sugar is moist and fragrant. Add the butter and beat on medium speed for 3 full minutes, until very light and fluffy. Beat in the lemon extract.
Beating on medium speed, add one-third of the flour mixture, then half of the egg/buttermilk mixture and beat until combined. Still beating on medium speed, add the next third of the dry ingredients, then the remaining eggs/buttermilk. Beat until the batter is smooth, then add the remaining dry ingredients. Beat for 2 additional minutes on medium speed, ensuring the batter is very well combined and that plenty of air has been beaten into it.
Divide the batter evenly between the two pans and smooth the tops with a rubber or offset spatula. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the cakes are well risen, spring back lightly when touched, and a small knife inserted into the center comes out clean.
- Place the cake pans on a wire rack and let cool 5 minutes, then run a dull knife around the sides of the cake to loosen. Gently invert the cake into your hand so that it comes out of the pan, remove the paper liner, then place the cake directly back onto the wire rack, bottom (flat) side down and right-side up. Let cool to room temperature.
Prepare the frosting: Using a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment or a hand mixer, beat the cream cheese and butter together on medium speed until smooth and no lumps remain, about 3 full minutes. Reduce the mixer speed to low, then add the powdered sugar, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, lemon zest, vanilla extract, and salt. Once the sugar begins to incorporate, increase the mixer to high speed and beat for 3 minutes. Add the remaining tablespoon lemon juice to thin if desired.
Frost the cake: First, using a large serrated knife, trim the tops off the cake layers to create a flat surface. Place 1 layer on your cake plate or stand. Tuck wax or parchment paper strips underneath the edges of the cake to protect the plate. Evenly cover the top with lemon cream cheese frosting. Place the second cake layer on top, cut-side down. Top with more frosting and spread the frosting down around the sides. Decorate as desired. You can slice the cake right away, but for the cleanest cut, refrigerate the frosted cake or place in a cool room for 40 minutes to set. Let the cake come as close to room temperature as possible prior to serving—serving cold can cause some of the fresh lemon flavor to be hard to taste.
- *Cake flour is important for this recipe to ensure the layers are extra fluffy and light. If you do not have cake flour, you can make your own by measuring 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, removing 5 tablespoons of the measured flour, adding 5 tablespoons of cornstarch, then sifting the mixture together 5 times. Measure out the 2 1/4 c. needed for the recipe, then bake as directed.
- To Make Ahead. Bake the cake layers up to 1 day in advance, let them cool completely, then wrap airtight. Store them at room temperature until ready to frost. Frosting can be prepared 1 day in advance and stored in an airtight storage container in the refrigerator.
- To Store. Cover the cake, and store it in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. Let it come to room temperature before serving.
- To Freeze. Freeze your frosted or unfrosted cake for up to 2 months. Let it thaw overnight in the refrigerator, then bring it to room temperature before serving.
- Doubling. Please see FAQs (below), reduce the baking powder to 5 1/2 teaspoons (not 2 tablespoons), and double at your own risk.
- Other Pan Sizes. See notes in blog post (above) regarding baking this recipe as cupcakes or in a differently-sized pan.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, but proceed with caution—when doubling cake batters, the leavening agents (baking powder and/or baking soda) should NOT be completely doubled, as this throws off the baking science. If doubling the cake, use only 5 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder. Note that when doubling cakes, things can just go awry—it’s harder to evenly incorporate a larger amount of ingredients—so if you want to be 100% safe, you are best off baking the cake twice (annoying but worth it for perfect cake).
This cake calls for egg whites only. Egg yolks add heaviness and richness to cake, thus omitting them results in a lighter cake.
If you’d like to pipe the frosting, I’d suggested adding more powdered sugar so that it is a stiffer, more pipeable consistency. You could also make a different lemon frosting designed for piping, such as lemon buttercream, though that will make the cake sweeter.
In a word, no. When butter is creamed, it is very important not only for flavor, but for a cake’s texture. If you’d prefer to make a cake with oil, try this Polenta Cake instead. It’s almost like a lemon pound cake.
Definitely! Just make the batter twice in a row (or double it per the guidance in FAQ 1 above). There will be some batter leftover, so you can bake an extra layer to save for later or turn it into cupcakes.
I originally baked this cake for my 30th birthday. I’ve made it many times since (be it for an anniversary, baby shower, you name it!), and it is still my favorite lemon cake.
More Lemon Dessert Recipes
If you enjoy lemon as much as I do, you’ll love these other lemon dessert recipes: