lemon cake buttercream

Lemon cake with lemon buttercream

4 October 2013

There are tough choices in life: The steady guy or the exciting one? The unvarnished truth or the entertaining tall tale? A cake that is great to look at or great to eat? If I have to choose, it’s substance over style every time.

There’s something appealingly honest to me about a homely cake. It has to score on likability, because it’s not winning any beauty contests. Cake art may be amusing TV, but I don’t want to eat art – I just want a good, old-fashioned cake.

A flashy cake – bright colors, intricately iced – calls for compromises. A firm cake is better than a moist one for stacking or cutting shapes, but it is not as delectable for eating. Frosting made with shortening is durable and pure white, but it doesn’t have the rich flavor of butter. A few drops of tint can make a soft pastel hue, but saturated colors require an enormous amount of chemical-laden food coloring.

It is of course possible to make a great-looking cake with good ingredients. But you need patience, skill and artistry – none of which I have.

All I can offer in the cake department are tasty, easy, honest cakes for lazy bakers like myself. In my hands they are homely, but no doubt you can do better.

I modified an Alice Waters recipe for this lemon cake, substituting in applesauce for half the butter, and it is surprisingly awesome. It’s easy to hide applesauce in a pumpkin cake, but I wasn’t sure it would work in a yellow one. But the cake stayed moist for days afterward, and the buttercream frosting lasts beautifully as well.

Leave it to my five-year-old to ask for a cake I’ve never made before for her birthday: lemon cake with lemon frosting, decorated with blueberries. (Life is so much easier when they just want five-minute chocolate cake.)

I don’t sift, use cake flour, separate eggs if I can avoid it. Extra steps suck the life out of me.

Alice Waters called for cake flour. I used a slightly lower amount of all-purpose. Dry ingredients here – flour, baking powder, salt – along with lemon zest.

dry ingredients

This is a lot of sugar for my half-amount of butter, so it doesn’t cream well. But it’ll start looking nice and fluffy once you start adding eggs.

butter sugar

Alice separates her eggs. But you already know how I feel about that.

beating eggs sugar butter

Mix in some dry ingredients.

adding flour

Then some milk and applesauce. Then switch off with the flour for another round.

milk applesauce

And a final round of flour at the end.

Usually I don’t use an electric mixer at all – using it and washing it seem like extra steps – but after I made a dud cake for my daughter’s birthday party, I was trying to be a little more conscientious here. Still, I switched to stirring in flour by hand, as too much mixing will make for a tough cake (mixing stimulates gluten formation).

adding flour

Make sure you shake the pans back and forth to even out the batter before baking. I was happy that these came out nice and even.

lemon cake layers

Frosting is so easy – just butter, powdered sugar plus a bit of liquid. I love using this little chopper that attaches to my stick blender (kind of like this one), but you can also use a regular food processor if you have one – it incorporates less air than mixers. If you mix by hand or with an electric mixer, you may want to sift the powdered sugar first to avoid lumps.

butter powdered sugar

Add lemon juice and vanilla. Cake pros have colorless vanilla so the extract doesn’t tint the frosting.

lemon juice vanilla

Still a little lumpy, so added a bit of milk. You’ll want to add liquid in small amounts – there’s a fine edge between thick and runny. Though you can always add more powdered sugar to firm it up.

adding milk

Nice and creamy, not oozy at all.

creamy frosting

I greased but didn’t flour my pans, because I was going to just frost it in the pan. But then I wanted to take a layer out to show you guys. So I went round and round with my little dull spreader and slowly loosened it out.

loosening cake layer

I didn’t frost the sides. I always make a mess of it.

frosted lemon cake layer

And my daughter took charge of the blueberries. This is what five is like.

decorating with blueberries

The cake was a hit. Even with the shortcuts. Lemon cake for dummies!

birthday cake

And a second layer to enjoy later.

lemon cake buttercream

Lemon Cake with Lemon Buttercream
I modified an Alice Waters recipe for this lemon cake, substituting in applesauce for half the butter, and it is surprisingly awesome. It’s easy to hide applesauce in a pumpkin cake, but I wasn’t sure it would work in a yellow one. But the cake stays moist for days afterward, and the buttercream frosting lasts beautifully as well.


  • 3 cups cake flour (or 2 3/4 cups all purpose flour)
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1-2 tablespoons lemon zest
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 eggs, room temperature
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup applesauce
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Lemon buttercream ingredients

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened at room temperature (don’t use microwave – if you are in a hurry, just cut butter in to cubes to speed softening)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt (IF using unsalted butter)
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon milk (or another tablespoon lemon juice for a more lemony frosting)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Cake directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour two 8″ round cake pans.
  2. In a bowl, combine flour, baking powder, salt and lemon zest.
  3. In a large bowl, mix softened butter with sugar until well combined. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well until light and fluffy.
  4. Add lemon juice and vanilla extract.
  5. Add roughly 1/3 of flour mixture, mixing until just combined (overmixing may create a tough cake).
  6. Add 1/2 the milk and applesauce. Mix again to combine.
  7. Repeat one more time with 1/2 the remaining flour mixture, then the remaining 1/2 of the milk, then ending with the last of the flour. Each time mix until just combined, do not overmix.
  8. Divide batter into prepared pans. Spread batter evenly or shake pans back and forth to settle batter down into pans.
  9. Bake about 30-35 minutes, until toothpick inserted into center of cake comes out clean. Cool cakes before removing from pans, first using knife around the edge of the pans to loosen the layers.

Frosting directions

  1. If you are picky about lumps, sift your powdered sugar first.
  2. In a mixing bowl or food processor, mix butter (and salt, if using unsalted butter) until fluffy. Add powdered sugar. The volume of powdered sugar will shrink down dramatically as it gets mixed in.
  3. Add lemon juice, milk and vanilla, mixing well.
  4. Frosting should look smooth and creamy but still hold nice peaks. If frosting still seems stiff, add a bit of milk. If it gets too runny, add a bit more powdered sugar.


  • This cake has just a mild lemon flavor. Increase the lemon juice and zest if you want a stronger lemon flavor. Lemon zest in the frosting would also be great.
  • Use an additional stick of butter (1/2 cup) if you don’t have applesauce on hand.
  • You can also make cupcakes (approximately 30). Bake for 18-20 minutes.

Here’s the link to a printable version.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

ChaCha 4 October 2013 at 9:13 pm

I must say, very yummy cake. I am determined to break the chocolate cake habit in this family. This lemon cake was a well received start for them. YAY!!!
Hmmm, I may try the cake recipe for my cakeballs.


cg 4 October 2013 at 10:34 pm

chacha – you are speedy! glad your family enjoyed your foray into the world beyond chocolate. thanks so much for taking the time to comment back – i love hearing from you. =)


Brooke 25 October 2013 at 12:32 pm

HI CG – I am making this for my grandfather’s 92nd birthday this weekend. Two questions for you – How many eggs? 2 maybe. They are not listed in the ingredients. 2 – Any alterations for high altitude? Is there just a general rule like add 2 Tbsp of flour to each cake recipe that I can follow here in CO?
Thanks! Love ya.


cg 25 October 2013 at 12:56 pm

ack, how did that happen?? fixed it now – it’s actually 4 eggs. this recipe is modeled on a 4-3-2-1 cake, which is 4 eggs, 3 cups flour, 2 cups sugar, 1 cup butter. i’m not sure about high altitude baking…will check on it and let you know!


cg 25 October 2013 at 4:20 pm

ok, from what i’ve read, you may need a little higher baking temp (try 375 degrees F?) and a little less leavening (3.5 teaspoons?). hope it works for you! thanks again for letting me know about the egg omission. xo!


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: