lemon layer cake

general robert e. lee cake

Last night I dreamt I ate a chocolate cake.* That in and of itself is odd, because I am not a chocolate cake person in the slightest. That’s not to say that if you give me a slice of chocolate cake I won’t eat it. A glass of milk, a slice of chocolate cake, and some quiet – that would be my idea of heaven.

Generally, I’m pretty happy with any cake, chocolate or otherwise, but if I had my druthers, my perfect cake wouldn’t have a trace of chocolate in it. It would be vanilla and citrus all the way.

partial mise

This cake here, this cake, is four years in the making. You know how some people want to perfect a yellow cake for a birthday party, or, since we were just discussing chocolate, a chocolate one for that matter? All I’ve ever wanted for my birthday was a lemon layer cake with butter cream frosting and tart, bright curd. But my simple lemon dreams were proving to be not so simple. It took me years to figure out what I wanted in a lemon layer cake. Butter – not oil; buttermilk – not milk; cake flour – not all-purpose flour. These might all be obvious things, but I learned them through trial and error, which were lessons I viscerally learned.

lots of eggshells

When I moved to Chelsea into a tiny shoebox of an apartment with kitchen possessing a single counter no bigger than a regular cutting board, the first thing, the very first thing I made in that kitchen was a lemon layer cake replete with the curd and the frosting, but sans sprinkles. It was just an okay, entirely forgettable, dryish, gloppy sort of an affair. I forced myself to sample a few bites and threw the rest in the garbage.

to the oven!

Then I tried to make the cake again (tinkering with the recipe) in anticipation of my birthday, 2009 just wasn’t a very good year for birthdays. Let’s just say I got to know the Mass General oncology wing like the back of my hand. That year, in between hospital visits, I made a simple lemony buttermilk cake, ditched the frosting, and ate the whole thing myself, though not in one sitting. Then a few months later, I moved to Brooklyn and lost the recipe in the move.


That I didn’t produce a cake two springs ago, I hold Andrew responsible for distracting me (even though, technically we reconnected after my birthday, but I can still blame him, can’t I). My notes and recipe edits to the lemon layer cake from 2010 were filed away for another year. And it wasn’t until last year that I got around to playing around with this cake again. I was helping Melissa Clark with putting together the Paula Deen’s Southern Cooking Bible, when I found this cake, and naturally, all I wanted to do is write about it immediately. I wanted to shout from tops of the mountains, err, New York City skyscrapers that for everyone out there searching for the perfect lemon layer cake – the search was over. But I couldn’t – the book wasn’t out yet. So I wrote up the recipe, made a few notes of my own, and filed it away for the following year.

i had to hold myself back from eating the curd instead of spreading it over the cake

And guess what? It’s the following year – already.

This cake is perfect in every way; it offers everything you could possibly want in a layer cake. Delicate, moist crumb – check; mouth-watering, tart citrus curd – check; buttercream that tastes like the lightest, most delicious lemony cloud – check. Incidentally, adding egg whites to your buttercream is something that I highly recommend doing. It makes the frosting taste deceptively light, and as an added bonus, I found it a bit easier to spread too. It took all the self discipline I possessed not to cut myself a slice immediately after I finished frosting the cake.

frosting smudge

Instead, I boxed the cake-of-my-dreams up and brought it to my picnic-in-the-park birthday party where it was gone in mere minutes – not even a single crumb was left. The only evidence of a cake present minutes ago were a few rainbow sprinkles and a couple of frosting smudges – a cake success if there was ever one.

seconds before cutting the cake

*[Bonus points to whoever can tell me where that line is from. Were I not working on a book and planning a wedding at the same time, I’d promise baked goods. Sadly the points have to suffice.]

Lemon Layer Cake
Adapted, slightly, from The Southern Cooking Bible

This cake is also, unfortunately, known as the General Robert E. Lee Cake. Sadly, General Lee was on the wrong side of history when he fought in the Civil War on the Confederate side. He was almost tried for treason and had his civil rights revoked.

For the Lemon Curd Filling:
2 large eggs, room temperature
4 large egg yolks, room temperature
1 1/3 cups (233 grams) granulated sugar
2/3 cup fresh lemon juice
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
Finely grated zest of 2 oranges
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, chopped

For the Cake:
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups (200 grams) granulated sugar
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
4 large eggs, room temperature
3 cups (315 grams) cake flour, sifted
2 1/2 teaspoons (12.5 grams) baking powder
1 teaspoon (5 grams) baking soda
1 teaspoon (3 grams) kosher salt
1 cup buttermilk, room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

For the Buttercream Frosting:
2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened and chopped
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, strained
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice, strained
4 large egg whites, room temperature
1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon (2 pinches) cream of tartar
Pinch of kosher salt

1. To prepare the lemon curd filling, in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, whisk together eggs, egg yolks, sugar, lemon juice and lemon and orange zest. Place the pan over medium heat and stir constantly until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon, 10 to 15 minutes. Off the heat, whisk in the cold butter. Strain through a fine mesh strainer and cover the surface directly with plastic wrap. Make sure that plastic wrap is right up against the lemon curd filling so that it doesn’t form a skin. Refrigerate until thoroughly chilled, at least 2 hours.
2. When you’re ready to prepare the cake, preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease 3 (9-inch) round cake pans with butter or spray with cooking spray and line with baking paper.
3. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter on medium speed until creamy and smooth, 1 to 2 minutes. Add sugar and lemon and orange zests and beat the mixture until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Be sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl occasionally to incorporate all the sugar with the butter. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
4. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a small bowl, whisk together buttermilk and vanilla. Beat the flour mixture into the egg mixture in three additions, alternating with the buttermilk mixture and beginning and ending with the flour. Mix just until incorporated and scrape the sides of the bowl down occasionally. Spoon the batter evenly into the prepared pans, smoothing the tops. Bake about 23 to 25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean. Let cool in pan 10 minutes. Then remove from pans by inverting and peel off baking paper. Thoroughly cool your cakes on wire racks before frosting them.
5. While the cake layers are cooling, prepare the buttercream frosting. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter on medium speed until soft and creamy, 2 to 3 minutes. Beat in the lemon and orange juices until combined, about 1 minute. Place in a small bowl and clean out bowl of electric mixer.
6. Place a medium saucepan of barely simmering water on the stove. In the bowl of the electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk together egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar and salt on medium speed. Set the bowl over the pan of simmering water and whisk constantly until the mixture registers 140°F on a candy thermometer, about 10 minutes. Set the bowl on the mixer and beat on high speed until the mixture has cooled and soft peaks form, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the creamed butter 1/4 cup at a time, beating well after each addition until smooth.
7. Once the cake layers are cool, assemble the cake. Place one cake layer on a serving plate, with the flat bottom side facing down. Spread half of the lemon curd filling over the surface of the cake. Top with another cake layer, inverted, so the bottom of the cake is facing up. Spread remaining filling over this cake layer. Place the remaining cake layer, also inverted, on top. Spread the buttercream frosting over the top and sides of the cake. And then just try not to cut yourself a piece before the guests come over.

Serves 10 to 12


  • amanda

    Olga, it looks delicious! I have a soft spot for lemon layer cakes, even though I’m a chocolate kind of gal. The tart flavor is too much to pass up. Happy to have read this recipe – can’t wait to get started on it. xo

  • Andrea

    “….and when I woke up, I was sure it was true so I weighed myself just to make sure and drank a diet coke….”


  • emmycooks

    I am a chocolate person and usually choose a chocolate dessert over any other–except for lemon. This cake looks so good! I have to figure out whose birthday I can make it for to pretend I’m not JUST making it to eat myself.

  • Margarita

    This cake does sound heavenly! I like yellow cakes with something extra, extra special in them like lots of lemon flavor in the cake and in the frosting too! I find lemon cakes super classy. A birthday picnik is a great idea. P.S. I like your ring!

  • Meg

    What a gorgeous cake! I’ve always been a chocolate gal myself, but this looks phenomenal. I’ve been making lemon curd lately, so I’ll have to try it, especially once the weather gets a little warmer.

  • Megan Gordon

    Hah, I’m going to start offering points to my readers, too :) This cake looks absolutely perfect for this time of year. I’ve been to two layer-cake classes lately here in Seattle, one to volunteer and one to observe. In each, I got to sample the students final projects. There were salted caramel cakes, strawberry trifle cakes, vanilla party cakes — my very favorite, each time, was the simple lemon layer cake. I’m so looking forward to having the occasion to make this one. Thanks so much, Olga. Have a fantastic weekend, ~m

  • Cat

    Looks so delish. I’m so with you on citrus over chocolate – unfortunately J is allergic to orange which is muy inconvenient. Any suggestions on how to adapt this recipe?

  • Clare

    Last night I dreamed I was at Manderley…. from Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier! Famous first lines…… lovely cake btw. I’m going to cheat and buy some de luxe lemon curd…..

  • astheroshe

    i have recipe for this cake as well. I have been dying to bake it, and not sure if it is the same. Im with u when it comes to desserts. I am all about citrus, vanilla and fruit..not chocolate. Love ur blog :)
    Hopefully, i will bake mine and post it :)

  • Radish

    Cat – the fix is super easy, just use all lemon! Traditionally, it’s a purely lemon cake, but I had to fiddle, in my typical way. Next time you’re in NYC, we’re going out for a lemon tart feast!

    Clare – close, but Andrea got it right – it’s from a song called Fatso, by a no-longer-together duo called The Story. Now Jonatha Brooke and Jennifer Kimball (who went to my HS alma mater btw) make awesome music separately.

    Megan – points to readers tend to work well :) I like the idea!

    Margarita – thank you :)

    Andrea – well done! You got it!

    Gail – see Andrea’s response :) but a good guess.

    Amanda – you’ll love it. I want a piece for breakfast.

  • Deb

    An outstanding cake! Lemon is my favorite for dessert. The chocolate lovers at my house will just have to try a slice!

  • Marissa

    I love the cool tang of citrus in frosting – can’t wait to try this. I wonder how it would work as cupcakes? Maybe scooping the top out and spooning in a dollop of curd before frosting? Thanks so much!

  • Lesley

    And if there ever were a dire reason for me to wish with all my heart that my food allergy tests come back positive (…negative? …that they’re gone!) this summer, this cake. My god this CAKE would. Be. It.

    My birthday’s August 25. I am going to tap into whatever universe forces I can that eggs, gluten and diary will return to me so I can sample a piece of this heavenly donfection.

    When I was little, we used to get my birthday cakes made by a woman in town and they would be yellow cake with this lemony/vanilla icing. I can’t even imagine what level this cake would take those memories to. It looks delicious!!

  • Molly

    I’m happy you finally got the cake of your dreams. But honestly, I’m much happier reading your days on the oncology ward at MGH are long behind you. May your birthdays always be filled with perfect cakes and good health.

  • Winnie

    Beautiful cake, and Happy Bday once more. ps the oncology ward? Maybe someday you’ll tell me more about that. xoxo

  • Hannah

    I know what I want for Mother’s Day now…thank you for sharing such a lovely cake! Lemon cake is the best in my opinion (I like adding some fresh raspberries to the filling, too. for a pop of color and taste). I’m happy to read that your days at MGH oncology are behind you – wishing you a wonderful birthday.

  • Joy Brogan

    I’m glad I found this recipe, as I was tasked to make a lemon cake for a 50th wedding anniversary. The lemon curd is wonderfully bright and tart. If I were making the cake again, I would fold the dry/wet ingredients by hand to avoid over mixing. I’ve never had much luck with meringue butter creams, and sure enough, it curdled. I semi-saved it thanks to the internet. I added the grated zest of a lemon and 2 t. of vanilla to the icing, which was very light but piped nicely. Your photos are so reassuring – thanks for including them – yours cake looks a lot like mine!

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