Lemon Layer Cake with Lemon Buttercream Frosting


Photo by the author

Celebrations call for cake. You don’t have birthday pie. Wedding brownies. Graduation tart. No. You have cake.

And not just any cake. For me, a celebratory cake is a layer cake. There’s something in the scale of it, the impact of tier upon tier, that excites anticipation. Sheet cake feels like a letdown to me. Fake cake.

Though I love layer cakes, I don’t usually bake them. They feel outsized for the intimate parties I host. If I want to bake a cake I go for cupcakes or whoopie pies, or maybe a loaf cake. Not only are they a more manageable size, but batches of cupcakes or whoopie pies can be split between occasions, and the extras will keep in the freezer until you are ready for them. It’s a bit awkward to serve half a layer cake at a party, but six cupcakes can do the trick.

This year I invited two friends for Easter dinner. We had much to celebrate in addition to the holiday, including the arrival of spring and what everyone hopes is a turning point in the pandemic-not to mention the chance to have parties again. I had to make a layer cake.

In honor of spring I chose the Lemon Layer Cake recipe from “Jim Fobel’s Old-Fashioned Baking Book,” published by Lake Isle Press. Like every recipe I’ve tried from this classic book, it was easy to follow and turned out perfectly. I made my own cake flour rather than buying it (just remove two tablespoons per cup of flour, substitute two tablespoons of cornstarch, and give it a whisk). And I paid attention when the recipe said to beat the batter after you add the eggs for 2–3 minutes. I could see the batter growing fluffier as the beaters whirred, it really made a difference. The resulting cake was moist and lemony, substantial without being heavy.

I wanted to try Jim’s lemon meringue buttercream frosting as well (I include the recipe below), but one of my guests had a thing about eggs. They’re okay in a cake batter, but not in a frosting. I can respect that, being a finicky eater myself. (Don’t ask me to eat olives. And I have a hard time with peaches and pears, too.)

In lieu of Jim’s yummy-sounding meringue, I frosted my cake with a lemon buttercream from the blog Sally’s Baking Addiction. Kudos to Sally; her frosting is fabulous. I adapted it for a layer cake: 2 ½ cups of unsalted butter, 4 ½ cups or thereabouts of confectioner’s sugar, 3 Tbsps of fresh lemon juice, 2 Tbsps of heavy cream (more if you need it), 2 heaping Tsps of lemon zest, and a pinch of salt. Sally says to cream the butter for 2 minutes, then after all the ingredients are added, beat it on high for a full three minutes. After seeing the impact the extra minutes of beating had on the batter, I made sure to follow that instruction. The result was a lemony buttercream with a beautiful fluffy texture.

I had wanted to frost my cake as smooth as lacquer but couldn’t pull that off. I went with a textured look and piped dollops of frosting around the top. I’m new to piping and was happy to see that I could make it work; still, especially with my limited powers, there was something missing. I made some thin strips of lemon with my zester and I scattered them across the top. Voila!

If you wait for the perfect circumstance to do something, you might very well wait forever. I seized the moment to bake a layer cake and all was well. Leftovers were ample but not a problem; my guests got big hunks of cake to take home, I gave a few slices to a neighbor and froze a few more. Lesson learned: layer cake doesn’t have to serve a crowd all at once, and makes any day a cause for celebration.

It’s a friend’s birthday this weekend. I’m making her this cake.

Lemon Layer Cake with Lemon Buttercream Frosting Recipe

Click here for printable recipe.

Makes one 8-inch 2-layer cake


2 ½ cups sifted cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
¼ cup milk
½ cup fresh lemon juice


  1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375°F. Grease and flour two 8-inch round cake pans, tapping out the excess flour.
  2. In a medium-sized bowl, stir together the sifted cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
  3. In a large bowl, combine the butter and lemon zest; with an electric mixer beat until fluffy. Gradually beat in the sugar. Beat in the eggs one at a time and then beat until light, 2 to 3 minutes. Beat in about one-fourth of the dry ingredients and then all of the milk. Beat in the remaining dry ingredients alternately with the lemon juice, beginning and ending with dry ingredients. Divide between the prepared pans and smooth the top of the batter with a spatula. Bake about 25 minutes, until the tops spring back when lightly touched and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in the pans on a rack for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edges to loosen from the pans and turn the layers out on a rack, turning one right side up. Cool to room temperature.
  4. Place one layer upside down on a serving plate. Spread with 1 cup of the buttercream. Add the second layer right side up. Frost the top and sides with the remaining 2 cups of buttercream. Chill to set the frosting but serve at room temperature for best flavor.

Makes about 3 cups


3 large egg whites (1/2 cup)
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at cool room temperature
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice


1.Choose a large bowl, preferably a stainless steel one, that will partially fit into a large saucepan. Fill the pan with 1 inch of water and bring the water to a simmer over moderate heat. Reduce the heat and keep at a simmer. Combine the egg whites and sugar in the bowl and whisk just until the mixture is warm and sugar has dissolved; remove from the heat.

2.Using an electric mixer (preferably an upright model with a strong motor), beat the egg white mixture until stiff glossy peaks form. The mixture should not be warm; if it is, beat until it is cool. Cut the butter into tablespoon-size slices. One at a time, beat them in, beating well after each addition. After all of the butter has been added, beat just until smooth. If the buttercream “breaks” (begins to separate), continue beating at high speed until smooth. If the frosting is still broken, chill for 10 to 15 minutes and beat again.

3.Add the lemon zest and, while beating at medium speed, gradually beat in the lemon juice. Beat at high speed, just until smooth. Use right away to frost the lemon layer cake.

Recipes reprinted from “Jim Fobel’s Old-Fashioned Baking Book” by Jim Fobel, Lake Isle Press, 1996

Originally published at https://www.lakeislepress.com on April 22, 2021.

Dara O’Brien is the Creative Director of Lake Isle Press. When she isn’t cooking or writing about cookbooks, she writes plays and sometimes acts in them.

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