Why you’ll love this lemon cake:
This lemon layer cake is every citrus-lover’s dream!! It’s definitely one my absolute favorite lemon desserts.
Every bite is infused with zesty lemon:
- Lemon sponge cake layers are soaked with lemon simple syrup.
- Homemade lemon curd brings a burst of fresh flavor.
- And we turned basic Swiss buttercream into citrusy delight!
This beautiful cake will instantly cheer up anyone’s day no matter how gloomy it looks outside. Seriously, how can you not smile when you look at this beauty, right?
This layer cake consists of 4 main components:
- Light and fluffy sponge cake is the blank canvas to layer the flavors.
- Lemon simple syrup turns the cake layers into melt-in-your-mouth sponges.
- Homemade lemon curd is so easy to make and adds the fresh zesty flavor in every bite!
- Lemon buttercream ties everything together, providing subtle flavor and sturdy structure.
How to make this lemon cake recipe:
1. Make the cake layer
For the cake layers, I’m using my go-to 3-ingredient sponge cake recipe as a starting point. We’ll add freshly squeezed lemon juice and zest for a subtle lemon flavor.
Check out my classic sponge cake recipe for step by step instructions.
- You may bake this cake in two 8-inch cake pans and slice each cake into 2 layers to make a 4-layer cake.
- Or bake the cake in one 9-inch cake pan and slice it into 3 layers to make a 3-layer cake, as pictured here.
It’s easier to slice the cake into thin layers when the cake has been fully chilled, preferably overnight. Fresh cake tends to crumble easily.
2. Make the lemon curd
Homemade lemon curd is so easy to make and way more delicious than store-bought one. Plus, you can make it ahead as well.
In short, here’s how to make lemon curd from scratch:
- Whisk together eggs, sugar, lemon juice and lemon zest.
- Cook the mixture over low heat until it reaches 170°F, stirring constantly.
- Remove from heat and stir in butter.
- For silky smooth texture, run the curd through a sieve.
Be sure to cover the curd with a plastic wrap touching the entire surface of the curd. This will prevent unpleasant film from forming on top.
3. Make the buttercream
Yes, we’re going with Swiss meringue buttercream, because light and fluffy frosting is the only way to go here!
I know, Swiss buttercream may seem daunting, but I promise it’s worth every effort. I laid out every little detail in my Swiss meringue tutorial, which includes a video and troubleshooting common issues.
In a nutshell, here’s how we make lemon Swiss buttercream:
- Whisk egg whites, sugar and lemon juice and gently cook it in a double boiler over simmering water until the mixture reaches 160°F.
- Then whip the egg white mixture with a whisk attachment until stiff peaks form, about 10 minutes.
- Add butter one tablespoon at a time.
- Now, switch to paddle attachment and add salt. Whip the buttercream for another minute or so until nice and fluffy.
Place the prepared buttercream in a large piping bag for easy frosting.
4. Make the lemon simple syrup
It’s the easiest and quickest part of this whole cake! But it plays major role for perfect texture.
Sponge cake is naturally a dry cake that relies on wet fillings to flavor and soften the cake layers. Don’t skip this step! I promise your cake won’t turn out overly sweet.
- To make the syrup: bring the water to a boil, and stir in sugar and lemon juice. Once the sugar is fully dissolved, remove from heat and cool completely.
5. Assemble the cake
Once ready to assemble, prepare all the components on the work area. Having everything ready to go makes the whole process so much easier and stress-free.
Before you start assembling the cake:
Smear a dollop of buttercream in the middle of a cake board and place the first cake layer on it. This will help your cake stay in place and won’t slide.
- Generously brush on lemon syrup all over the cake layer. If you don’t have a pastry brush, just use a regular spoon.
- Pipe a border with the buttercream around the edges of the cake and fill the middle with half of the lemon curd, if you’re making 3-layer cake.
- Pipe more buttercream over the curd and evenly smear the frosting with an offset spatula. It’s a bit tricky to level the buttercream over the curd, but piping the frosting makes this step super easy.
- Place the next cake layer and repeat the layers until all the layers are completed. Then frost the entire cake on the sides and on top. I used a cake scraper on the sides for a naked-style finish.
6. Finishing touches…
I’m not much of a cake decorator. For my simple design, I reserved a little bit of lemon curd and smeared in the middle.
Then piped dollops of buttercream frosting and sprinkled fresh lemon zest curls.
And I think, lemon macarons completed the cake with a wow-factor!
I used this citrus zester tool to make those cute lemon zest curls.
You may think this cake is an overkill with lemon everything. But I assure you, this lemon cake has a perfect balance of sweet and tangy! Now, let’s make some lemon tea. Just kidding.
Tips for Success:
- I highly recommend using fresh lemon juice for this recipe. You’ll need about 6 lemons total to make the entire recipe.
- Plan ahead. If you have time, break up the project and make each component over the span of a few days. (Ex: day 1: make sponge cake; day 2: make buttercream; day 3: make the curd; day 4: make lemon syrup, day 5: assemble.)
- Transfer the buttercream into a large piping bag to frost the cake. It makes the process quick and easy.
This lemon cake is a perfect make-ahead cake for a special celebration.
- You can make each component up to 1 week in advance. Store in the fridge, tightly wrapped and covered.
- The cake can be assembled a day in advance. Store in the refrigerator, covered, until ready to serve.
- Bring the cake out 1 hour prior to serving.
- Store the cake in the fridge, covered, for up to 3 days.
- And this lemon cake with lemon curd freezes fine too! To thaw, transfer the cake into the fridge and thaw overnight.
1. Make sure not to over-bake the cake.
2. Don’t skip simple syrup! Generously brush on the syrup to infuse flavor and moisture in to the cake layers.
Too much acidity may throw off the ratio of chemical leaveners in some cakes and may prevent the rise of the cake. But not to worry about this cake recipe. Since the sponge cake relies on whipped egg whites for its rise, instead of chemical leaveners, like baking soda/powder, you can add lemon juice without worry!
Lemon Layer Cake
Lemon sponge cake:
- 6 large eggs
- 1 cup (200g) granulated sugar divided Note 1
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice Note 2
- 1 tablespoon lemon zest
- 1 ½ cups (180g) plain cake flour sifted Note 3
- ½ teaspoon coarse kosher salt
Lemon Swiss Buttercream:
- 6 egg whites
- 1 ½ cups (300g) granulated sugar
- 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 ½ cups (340g) unsalted butter sliced and at room temperature Note 4
- ½ teaspoon coarse kosher salt
- 3 large eggs
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 cup fresh lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon lemon zest
- 5 tablespoons (70g) unsalted butter sliced and at room temperature
Lemon Simple Syrup:
- ¾ cup (150g) granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
To make the cake:
- Preheat the oven to 350°F (177°C). Line bottom of one 9-inch springform pan (at least 3 inches tall) with parchment paper. Do NOT grease the pan.
- Separate egg whites and yolks, making sure not even a little bit of egg yolk gets into the whites. (TIP: It’s easier to separate the egg when they’re cold right out of the fridge.)
- In a mixing bowl with a whisk attachment, whisk together egg yolks, ½ cup of sugar, lemon juice and lemon zest until pale and tripled in volume, about 5 minutes.
- In another mixing bowl with a whisk attachment, beat the egg whites at medium low speed until foamy. Add remaining ½ cup of sugar 1 tablespoon at a time and continue to whisk until stiff peaks, gradually increasing the speed to medium high, 7-10 minutes.
- Using a spatula, add 1/3 of the whipped egg whites into the egg yolk mixture and gently fold until mostly smooth. Add the remaining egg whites and gently fold until smooth.
- Add flour and salt into the batter in 3 stages, whisking the batter well after each addition.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.
- Bake the cake until inserted toothpick comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Don’t open the oven for at least the first 30 minutes!
- Let the cake cool for 5 minutes in the pan. Then run a knife around the edges and invert onto a cooling rack. Cool completely. Once cooled, wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate, preferably overnight. It’ll be easier to slice it when the cake is thoroughly chilled.
To make the buttercream:
- In a small saucepan, bring a small amount of water to a boil. Reduce the heat to simmer.
- In medium heat-proof bowl (I used my stand mixer bowl), whisk together egg whites, sugar and lemon juice and place it over the saucepan with simmering water. (This is a make-shift double boiler. Make sure the bottom of the top bowl doesn’t touch the water.)
- Cook the egg white mixture until sugar is completely melted and it reaches 160°F (70°C) stirring continuously, about 5 minutes. (This's my favorite thermometer!)
- Now, remove the bowl with egg white mixture from heat. Then whisk it on medium speed for a minute, then slowly increase the speed to medium high and beat until stiff peaks form and the mixture is cool to touch, about 10 minutes. (It may take longer with a hand-mixer.)
- Once the meringue reached stiff peaks, scrape the side of the bowl with a spatula.
- Turn on the mixer on medium speed and start adding butter, one tablespoon at a time. Make sure the butter is fully incorporated before adding the next piece. (NOTE: It’s normal if buttercream starts to curlde half way. Keep adding the butter!)
- Keep whisking the buttercream until smooth, light and fluffy, about 10 minutes.
- Now, switch to a paddle attachment and add the salt. Beat the buttercream until well combined, about a minute.
- Transfer the buttercream into a large piping bag. You can use a round piping tip, if you have it, but it's not necessary.
To make the lemon curd:
- In a medium saucepan, whisk together eggs, sugar, lemon juice and lemon zest for a minute.
- Turn on the heat to low and cook the mixture, whisking constantly, until the mixture reaches 170°F (75°C), 8-10 minutes. The mixture will be thick and it'll leave a trail if you run a finger on back of spoon dipped in curd.
- Remove from heat and stir in butter.
- Place a mesh sieve over a bowl and run the curd through it. It makes the curd silky smooth!
- Cover the curd with plastic wrap, making sure it touches the curd to avoid forming a film. Cool completely and then refrigerate.
To make the syrup:
- In a small saucepan, bring 1 cup of water to a boil. Then stir in sugar and lemon juice. Once the sugar is fully dissolved, remove from heat and cool completely.
To assemble the cake:
- Slice the cake into 3 even layers. (This cake leveler is a handy tool for this job!)
- Smear a dollop of buttercream in the middle of a cake board and place the first cake layer on it. This will help your cake stay in place and won't slide.
- Generously brush on lemon syrup all over the cake layer. If you don't have a pastry brush, just use a regular spoon.
- Pipe a border with the buttercream around the edges of the cake and fill the middle with half of the lemon curd, if you're making 3-layer cake.
- Pipe more buttercream over the curd and evenly smear the frosting with an offset spatula. It's a bit tricky to level the buttercream over the curd, but piping the frosting makes this step super easy.
- Place the next cake layer and repeat the layers until all the layers are completed. (TIP: Place the top cake layer upside down so that the top of the cake is flat with sharp corners.)
- Then frost the entire cake with the remaining frosting. I ran a cake scraper on the sides for a naked-style finish. Decorate the cake any way you like. I smeared some lemon curd on top, piped dollops of buttercream frosting and sprinkled fresh lemon zest curls. I used this citrus zester tool to make those cute lemon zest curls. And my lemon macarons added an instant wow-factor as well!
Tips & Notes:
– Sponge cake can be made and frozen up to a month in advance, or refrigerated for up to a week. Thaw it in the fridge overnight.
– Swiss meringue buttercream can also be made and frozen for up to 3 months, or refrigerated for up to 2 weeks. Thaw the frozen buttercream on the counter overnight. Whip it before using.
– Lemon curd can be frozen for up to 2 months, or refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.
– Lemon syrup can also be made a week in advance. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Assemble the cake up to 1 day in advance and store it in the fridge, covered. Bring it out 1 hour prior to serving.