A fluffy Lemon Cake recipe with a plush, lemon flavored crumb, a tart lemon curd filling, and an airy whipped cream cheese frosting. Flavored completely with real lemon, no extract or pudding mixes required! Recipe includes a how-to video!
The Real Deal Lemon Cake
Today’s recipe is for the true lemon lover. Those of you who want real lemon flavor from real fresh lemons. No extract, no pudding mixes, just fresh-squeezed flavor that’s the perfect balance of sweet and tart.
This cake is super soft and fluffy and not at all dense. The plush cake layers themselves have a distinct lemon flavor that’s emphasized by a bold, tart, lemon curd filling. The frosting is a slightly tangy, light, melt-in-your-mouth cream cheese/whipped cream hybrid that’s the perfect delicate accent to the cake.
In short, it’s perfection, the ideal cake for mid-summer or springtime or anytime you have a lemon craving that can’t be sated by a simple glass of lemonade. I have plenty of important tips and tricks that I’m sharing with you in today’s post so that you can make sure your cake turns out perfectly and is the envy of all other desserts on the table, and I’ve even included a step-by-step video in the recipe card.
So let’s get started on what makes this cake the best lemon cake recipe.
Stiff Peaks (The Secret to Soft, Fluffy Cakes)
The base for my lemon cake recipe might seem familiar to you if you’ve been baking from my site for some time. It’s similar to my white cake, funfetti cake, and strawberry cake in that it uses just egg whites and no yolks to create a soft and fluffy crumb.
The egg whites must be whipped to stiff peaks, and I strongly recommend you use an electric mixer for this step as doing so by hand will be a workout and take a long time. I’ve included a photo of egg whites at the stiff peaks stage below for a visual. They’ve increased in volume and are thick and fluffy. If you pull your beaters out of the mixture, the peak that forms will hold its shape and not fold over or melt back into the bowl (hence the term “stiff” peaks).
Yes, it’s an extra step, but by whipping our eggs to stiff peaks separately and then gently folding them into our cake batter, we add volume and lightness to the batter, which leaves us with a soft and fluffy cake crumb. Once you’ve mastered this simple technique you can use it to make all sorts of fluffy cakes, like my angel food cake or tres leches cake.
Important Tips For Egg Whites:
When preparing your egg whites, make sure you use a completely clean, completely dry, completely grease-free bowl. There cannot be so much as even a tiny drop of egg yolk in with the whites. If these steps aren’t followed, your eggs may never whip to stiff peaks.
I’ve had some people ask me if they can use carton egg whites instead of fresh. I do not recommend it as most carton egg whites say on the side of the container that they will not whip properly. However, bakers who have tried have reported mixed results, with some having success and some not. It’s up to you if you’re up for the gamble or not 😉
- Measure your flour properly! For best results, use a scale. I have a guide on how to properly measure flour, in case you are new around here.
- Always combine your wet and dry ingredients and egg whites by hand using a spatula, never use an electric mixer for this step. Over-mixing your batter is one of the quickest way to end up with a cake that is dry, dense, or that tastes like cornbread… not what we want here!
- Over-baking is the enemy to cake! Always bake in the center rack and make sure your oven temperature is accurate (I keep two oven thermometers in my oven to ensure this). Even a minute or two too long in the oven can make your cake dry.
- I’ve found that this cake bakes pretty evenly, but if your cake domes or isn’t level, use a sharp serrated knife to level the cake before assembling (otherwise the layers may slide off one another!).
- Because of the frosting you will want to keep lemon cake refrigerated. I recommend refrigerating for at least an hour before serving to allow the frosting to firm up a little bit and keep the cake from falling apart when you slice it.
- For the frosting, the cream cheese should be softened, but still slightly chilled. If it is too warm, your frosting will be too soft to spread properly. If this happens, chill it in the fridge for 30 minutes or so before trying again.
- Always refrigerate in an airtight container, as refrigerators are great at drying out your cake and the container will give a little protection.
Alternative Icing Options:
The frosting for my lemon cake is very light and delicate and best suited for a thin, semi-naked covering (as seen in the cake photo above). It is not overly sweet and complements the lemon flavor beautifully. It’s fairly thin and I would not recommend using if you are making a cake that is taller than two layers (if you are trying to make a tiered cake). I have included some great icing alternatives below, or see my full frosting library.
If you want a sturdier frosting or want to decorate the lemon cake (with colors or a more stable border, etc.), I would recommend using my cream cheese frosting, buttercream frosting, or Swiss meringue buttercream.
Lemon Curd Filling
The cake layers themselves are distinctly lemon flavored. They’re light, fluffy, sweet, but still have a tart lemon tang taste to them. However, to really pack a powerful lemon punch, I recommend filling the cake with a generous layer of lemon curd.
You can buy lemon curd from the store, but my strong recommendation is that you make it yourself, from scratch, using my lemon curd recipe. You will only technically need half of the lemon curd that my recipe makes, so you could just make half of a batch but a full recipe requires 6 egg yolks. Guess what!? The lemon cake uses 6 egg whites, so use up all of your eggs and make a full batch, then use the leftover curd for petit fours or spreading on scones or just enjoying by the (very tart) spoonful!
If making from scratch, the curd will need some time to cool. I recommend making it before you begin the cake, or even make it the night before (cover the egg whites and store at room temperature or in the fridge until ready to use).
Storing/Making in Advance
Store lemon cake in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to 5 days. This cake freezes well, wrap tightly and freeze for up to 3 months.
The cake layers may be made in advance, allow them to cool and then wrap well with plastic wrap. Store at room temperature for up to one full day before assembling, or freeze for up to a month before assembling.
The lemon curd layer may be made up to 5 days in advance of assembling the cake. I recommend making the frosting just before assembling the cake.
More Recipes You Might Like:
Let’s bake together!Don’t forget to watch the how-to VIDEO in the recipe card! If you try this recipe, please leave me a comment and let me know what you think!
Lemon Cake Recipe
- 3 Tablespoons fresh lemon zest¹
- ⅓ cup fresh lemon juice 80ml, I usually need 3-4 lemons, zest your lemons before juicing
- ⅔ cup whole milk 160ml
- ½ cup vegetable or canola oil 118ml
- 4 Tablespoons unsalted butter softened (57g)
- 1 ¾ cup granulated sugar 350g
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 3 cups cake flour² see note to substitute all-purpose/plain flour (330g)
- 1 Tablespoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 6 large egg whites room temperature preferred
- ¾ cup lemon curd ³ 175ml
- 4 oz cream cheese softened, but still slightly cool (use the brick-style, full-fat cream cheese, do not use the spreadable kind sold in tubs 113g)
- 1 cups powdered sugar divided (often called “icing sugar” outside the US, 125g)
- 3/4 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cups heavy cream cold (175ml)
- Preheat oven to 350F (175C) and prepare two 8” round cake pans by spraying with baking spray and lining the bottoms with parchment paper. Set aside.
- Zest your lemons and set zest aside. Juice lemons until you have ⅓ cup of juice, whisk this with your milk and set aside.
- In a large bowl using an electric mixer or in a stand mixer, beat together oil, butter, sugar, reserved lemon zest, and vanilla extract until completely combined.
- In a medium-sized bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt and whisk well.
- Stirring by hand, gradually alternate adding the flour mixture and lemon/milk mixture to the butter mixture, stirring until just combined after each addition (I start and end with the flour and add the flour mixture in 4 parts and the milk mixture in 3 parts).
- Place egg whites in a separate clean, dry bowl, and beat on high speed with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form (see video or photo in post for a visual if needed).
- Using a spatula, gently fold egg whites into cake batter until completely combined (don’t use your electric mixer at this point or you will over-beat the batter). Divide cake batter evenly into prepared pans and bake on 350F for 28-31 minutes or until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean or with a few moist crumbs.
- Allow cakes to cool in pans for 10 minutes then run a knife around the edges to loosen cakes from pan and carefully invert onto cooling rack to cool completely.
- Once cakes have cooled completely, prepare frosting.
- Combine cream cheese, 1/2 cup (62g) powdered sugar, vanilla extract, and salt in a large bowl and use an electric mixer to beat together until creamy and smooth.
- In a separate bowl, combine remaining (1/2 cup/62g) powdered sugar, and heavy cream. Beat with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form (mixture should be thick, billowy, and the same consistency as Cool Whip).
- With mixer on low speed, stir together the cream cheese and whipped cream until completely combined.
- Pipe a dam/border along the inside rim of one cooled layer of cake (see photo in post). Fill with lemon curd and spread evenly inside the dam.
- Top with second layer of cake. Frost the entire cake with remaining frosting.
- Keep cake refrigerated in an airtight container when not eating. Enjoy!