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whole lemon cake on a white cake stand

Time for another layer cake! Not quite 14 layers like my no-bake s’mores cake or Smith Island cake, but just as fabulous as both. If you’re a lemon dessert lover like I am, meet our crowning glory.

slice of lemon cake on a cake server

This lemon layer cake recipe is adapted from the most popular cake recipe on our website: lemon blueberry cake. Lemon blueberry cake has been in our top 10 recipes for the past 4 years. It’s moist, sweet, buttery, and loaded with fresh lemon. Since its publish date, we’ve received many questions about leaving out the blueberries to make it plain. We decided a plain lemon cake needed its own separate blog post. Enveloped with lemon cream cheese buttercream and garnished with whipped cream, this towering beauty stands up to its blueberry studded sister!

Behind the Recipe

Besides the flavor and texture, this cake is loved is because of its ease. Very basic ingredients including a base of creamed butter + sugar, eggs, lemon, milk, and flour. We left out the brown sugar and replaced with more granulated sugar. No rhyme or reason here– just didn’t feel like reaching for both types of sugar this time. Between the cake and frosting, you’ll need 2-3 lemons. Both the juice and zest.

lemon halves with zester

Let’s chat about the flour for a second.

The key to this recipe is using sifted all-purpose flour. Sifting the flour aerates it, creating an overall fluffier cake. Just like we found in our 6 inch citrus cake, cake flour is too light for this lemon cake; our cakes were squat and flimsy. All-purpose flour is great, sifted all-purpose flour is much better. Sift flour in a large bowl, then measure 3 cups. Whenever the word “sifted” comes before an ingredient, that means you sift before measuring. (Alternatively, if the word “sifted” comes after an ingredient, sift after measuring.) Here’s our set of sifters. Love them. We’re using the medium one in this photo.

sifting flour with a mesh metal sieve
Lemon cake batter in a glass bowl

The lemon cake batter is velvety and thick. Divide between 3 9-inch or 8-inch cake pans– roughly the same bake time for both sizes. For a 2 layer cake, divide batter evenly between two 9-inch cake pans. Bake time will be longer, but you can use a toothpick to test for doneness. This lemon cake batter will fit into a 9×13-inch pan. Bake time will be close to 40 minutes. And while we’re on the subject of different size cakes, this recipe yields at least 30 lemon cupcakes. For 1 dozen cupcakes, here is our lemon cupcakes recipe. They taste identical to the cake!

Lemon Cream Cheese Buttercream

We were torn between cream cheese frosting and lemon buttercream, so we combined the two by adding 8 ounces of cream cheese and a little extra confectioners’ sugar to lemon buttercream. The result is an infinitely CREAMY and BUTTERY lemon cream cheese frosting that we know you’ll love!!! Look at this stuff!!!

lemon cream cheese buttercream in a glass bowl with a paddle attachment
spreading frosting onto lemon cake on a white cake stand

Glides on effortlessly.

spreading frosting onto lemon cake on a white cake stand

Optional Garnishes!

The cake stand you see in my pictures is the brand Juliska. I can’t find it anywhere online anymore! Here is a similar one.

Others I love:

slice of lemon cake on a white plate
slice of lemon cake on a white plate

If you love lemon cake, you’ll adore my lemon bars and lemon meringue pie!

Print
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slice of lemon cake on a cake server

Lemon Layer Cake with Lemon Cream Cheese Buttercream

  • Author: Sally
  • Prep Time: 30 minutes
  • Cook Time: 25 minutes
  • Total Time: 4 hours
  • Yield: serves 1012 1x
  • Category: Cake
  • Method: Baking
  • Cuisine: American

Description

This 3 layer lemon layer cake is made completely from scratch with real lemons. It’s deliciously moist and light and is remarkable paired with tangy cream cheese buttercream.


Ingredients

Scale
  • 3 cups (354g) sifted all-purpose flour* (spoon & leveled)
  • 2 and 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (230g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1 and 3/4 cups (350g) granulated sugar
  • 3 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup (240ml) whole milk, at room temperature
  • 1 heaping Tablespoon lemon zest (about 2 lemons)
  • 1/3 cup (80ml) fresh lemon juice (about 2 lemons)

Cream Cheese Buttercream Frosting

  • 1 cup (230g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 8 ounces (224g) full-fat brick style cream cheese, softened to room temperature*
  • 4 and 1/2 cups (540g) confectioners’ sugar
  • 2 Tablespoons (30ml) fresh lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • pinch salt, to taste

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F (177°C). Grease three 8-inch cake pans, line with parchment paper, then grease the parchment paper. Parchment paper helps the cakes seamlessly release from the pans.
  2. Make the cake: Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together. Set aside.
  3. Using a handheld or stand mixer fitted with a paddle or whisk attachment, beat the butter and sugar together on high speed until smooth and creamy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides and up the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Beat in the eggs and vanilla extract on high speed until combined, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides and up the bottom of the bowl as needed. With the mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients just until combined. With the mixer still running on low, add the milk, lemon zest, and lemon juice and mix just until combined. You may need to whisk it all by hand to make sure there are no lumps at the bottom of the bowl. The batter will be a little thick.
  4. Pour batter evenly into cake pans. Bake for around 21-26 minutes or until the cakes are baked through. To test for doneness, insert a toothpick into the center of the cake. If it comes out clean, it’s done. Allow cakes to cool completely in the pans set on a wire rack. The cakes must be completely cool before frosting and assembling. The baked cakes are fluffy, but they are not thick– about 1 – 1.5 inches.
  5. Make the frosting: In a large bowl using a hand-held mixer or stand mixer fitted with a whisk or paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed until creamy, about 2 minutes. Add the cream cheese and beat until completely smooth and combined. Add confectioners’ sugar, lemon juice, and vanilla extract with the mixer running on low. Increase to high speed and beat for 3 minutes. Add more confectioners’ sugar if frosting is too thin, more lemon juice if frosting is too thick, or add a pinch of salt if frosting is too sweet. (I always add a pinch of salt!)
  6. Assemble and decorate: Using a large serrated knife, slice a thin layer off the tops of the cakes to create a flat surface. Discard (or crumble over ice cream!). Place 1 cake layer on your cake stand, cake turntable, or serving plate. Evenly cover the top with about 1 cup of frosting. Top with 2nd cake layer and evenly cover the top with about 1 cup of frosting. Top with the third cake layer. Spread the remaining frosting all over the top and sides. I like to top mine with homemade whipped cream (I used Wilton 8B piping tip).
  7. Refrigerate for at least 30-45 minutes before slicing. This helps the cake hold its shape when cutting.
  8. Cover leftover cake tightly and store in the refrigerator for 5 days.

Notes

  1. Make Ahead Instructions: The cake layers can be baked, cooled, and covered tightly at room temperature overnight. Likewise, the frosting can be prepared then covered and refrigerated overnight. Let the frosting sit at room temperature to slightly soften for 10 minutes before assembling and frosting. Frosted cake or unfrosted cake layers can be frozen up to 2-3 months. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator and bring to room temperature before decorating/serving.
  2. Special Tools (affiliate links): KitchenAid Stand MixerZester | Sieve8-inch Round Pans | Icing Spatula | Piping Bag (disposable or reusable) | Ateco #849 Closed Star Icing Tip | Cake Stand
  3. Flour: Sift all-purpose flour before measuring.
  4. Whole Milk: You can use lower fat or nondairy milks in a pinch, but the cake won’t taste nearly as rich and moist.
  5. Recipe updated in 2022: The amount of leaveners are now 2 and 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon baking soda. (Increased from 2 teaspoons and 1/4 teaspoon respectively.) The amounts listed above amount help provide extra rise, which creates a lighter cake. I also now recommend whole milk instead of buttermilk so the cake batter is slightly less acidic.
  6. Vanilla Cream Cheese Buttercream: For a vanilla cream cheese buttercream, replace lemon juice with milk or heavy cream in the frosting. Add an additional 1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract.
  7. 2 Layer Cake: For a 2 layer cake, divide batter evenly between two 9-inch cake pans. Bake time will be longer; use a toothpick to test for doneness.
  8. Lemon Cupcakes: This recipe yields about 30 lemon cupcakes. Bake for 18-22 minutes. Use a toothpick to test for doneness. For 1 dozen cupcakes, here is my lemon cupcakes recipe. They taste identical to the cake!
  9. 9×13 inch Cake: This batter will fit into a 9×13-inch pan. Fill 2/3 full. If there’s extra batter, you can make a few cupcakes. Bake time will be close to 40 minutes; use a toothpick to test for doneness.

Keywords: lemon layer cake with lemon cream cheese buttercream

slice of lemon cake on a white plate

Reader Questions and Reviews

  1. I made this cake for my neighbor girl’s five-year birthday. It was a hit. I will definitely make it again. I have only one thing I did differently. I don’t believe in the tooth pick way of seeing if the cake is done. I always use my thermometer. I never let it get to boiling point. That makes the cake dry because the moisture boils out. By the time you put a toothpick in it it could be way over done. I’ll let the temperature be 190 or slightly above, but never over 209°F, which is the boiling point where I live.

  2. This cake looks amazing but my son has an egg allergy. Could we leave the eggs out or replace them with vinegar and baking soda?

    1. Hi Maria, we haven’t tested this recipe with any egg substitutes, but some readers have reported having success with various vegan egg substitutes.

      1. I tested this cake with three different egg replacements: 1) adding apple cider vinegar and increasing the amount of baking soda; 2) replacing egg with full fat Greek yogurt; and 3) using Bob’s Red Mill egg substitute. Instead of making 3 layers, I tested with 1 and the best results were with Bob’s Red Mill egg substitute. The yogurt was pretty good but it made the cake a little too wet. The vinegar & soda combo alone didn’t have enough substance and collapsed after taking it out of the oven. I hope this helps other eggless bakers!

  3. I made this recipe dairy free my using vanilla unsweetened oat milk and plant based butter. For the frosting, I used vegan cream cheese as well. Everything turned out so yummy!!! Highly recommend if you’re dairy free!

    1. I made this dairy free, cupcakes & I always make Italian meringue for frosting. So delicious! I’m sitting here trying to figure out how to make this same cake but different flavor.

  4. I made this recipe dairy free by using vanilla unsweetened oat milk and plant based butter. For the frosting, I used vegan cream cheese as well. Everything turned out so yummy!!! Highly recommend if you’re dairy free!

  5. Great lemon cake recipe! The frosting is absolutely delicious. I’m giving 4 stars because the first time I baked this, the cakes sunk in the middle. I followed the updated recipe using 2.5 tsp of baking powder and 0.5 tsp of baking soda. I used 2x 9 inch pans. I didn’t jostle the pans or anything during cooking and my oven temperature was correct, so I suspected the levener. For the second batch, I reduced back to the original amounts, 2 tsp of baking powder and 0.25 tsp of baking powder. The cakes were perfect, no sinking. I live at 5,000 feet and the altitude can make things rise faster, which might have something to do with my sunken cakes the first time around. If you live at altitude, consider reducing the levener.

    1. This just happened to me too and I was so sad! Huge sink. I’ll try that tip next time. I also noticed my batter was almost foam-like. Wondering if I whipped too much air in during the first couple steps.

  6. Just put my frosted cake in the fridge and wanted to say, THANKS!
    I so appreciate your coaching and helpful suggestions, as I am not a seasoned “from scratch cake baker”. Looking forward to celebrating my friend’s birthday tonight. (My friend who loves lemon cake.)
    Am sure we’ll ALL be thankful for you in a few hours. 🙂

  7. Real good. We so loved the cake. I just wish she had measurements for a 3 layer 6” cake but we made it work and it was delicious. Wish i could post a picture

    1. This cake and frosting were amazing! Will definitely come back to this website for my next cake. Thank you for all the hard work and testing that goes into your recipes.

    2. I am keen on the measurements for the 6 inch cake. Would you be willing to share them? Thanks so much. Making this for a good friend who was in an accident with her bicycle. She cracked 8 ribs and was in the hospital for 10 days. She is far from better yet. I am taking this cake to her tomorrow. Lemon is her favourite.

    3. Next time you can try the 6-inch citrus cake recipe; it’s similar and delicious. You can also use any cupcake recipe to make a three layer, 6-inch cake. =)

  8. This cake is amazing and got good reviews from my customers. However, it is always too fluffy. Pure crumbs. I can barely lift it up. Thankful, it is for my cakes in a jar.
    I am making it again today but will reduce the levener as another baker did. Hope it will be a bit dense and firmer.

  9. I just had to come back a review this recipe. I’ve been baking almost my entire life and I hate cake. I have never made a cake I liked. This cake from this recipe? It was PERFECT! I made it for a friend who also hates cake and they also loved it. Everyone at the party loved it. It is so moist and flavorful, the cake was super delicate and fluffy, the lemon flavor is just enough lemon without being over-powering, and it’s just the right sweetness. I paired it with a raspberry jam filling and it was just perfect. We made a different frosting so I can’t speak to that, but I’ll absolutely be making this cake again in the future and trying the frosting. If you’re not a cake lover, I definitely recommend trying this recipe.

  10. This recipe is delicious! I’m making this for my sister’s wedding, and so far the test runs have been very well received.
    Any advice for adjusting bake time/oven temp for different size pans? We are dividing one batch into two 7in rounds (instead of three 8in rounds), getting a smaller diameter but thicker layer. Another two batches will each get their own 10in round (to make a larger base tier for the cake).
    Thanks for your help!

    1. Hi Elissa, baking temperature can remain the same for all sizes. We’re unsure of the exact timing for those other sizes. Timing should be a bit less for smaller pans and bit more for larger pans. You can use a toothpick to test for doneness. Just a note of caution about smaller pans…be careful to only fill your pans 1/2 to 2/3 of the way full, so that the cakes will completely bake through. If there is too much batter in a pan, it can overflow and bake unevenly. Hope the cake is a big hit at the wedding!

    1. Hi Phoebe, This batter will fit into a 9×13-inch pan. Fill 2/3 full. If there’s extra batter, you can make a few cupcakes. Bake time will be close to 40 minutes; use a toothpick to test for doneness.

  11. Hi! This recipe is delicious, one of the best lemon cakes I ever tasted.
    Do you have any suggestions of filling and frosting without cheese in it? No problems with dairies, just a couple of guests that don’t eat any kind of cheese.
    Thank you so much!

    1. Hi Nancy, you definitely can add lemon curd to the layers like we do in our lemon coconut cake. We recommend layering in with the buttercream like we do in that recipe. Enjoy!

  12. My ENTIRE family loves this cake!! I’ve made it for my daughter, my mom, and my husband. I’ve made a few variations-cupcakes, orange instead of lemon, layered it with berries, etc., and they’ve all been delicious! The crumb is fantastic, better than any other cake I’ve ever made, and I bake quite frequently. This is my first recipe review ever, but I had to, we just love it so much.

    1. Hi Ruby, it’s best to stick with butter for this cake recipe.

  13. How do you think the frosting will do with food coloring? My daughter wants a lemon cake with rainbow frosting. Thoughts?

    1. Hi Katie, the buttercream is very light colored so adding food coloring should work just fine. We recommend using gel food coloring — it produces the most vibrant colors and doesn’t change the consistency of the frosting as much as liquid food coloring. Let us know how it goes!

  14. I’ve made this cake a bunch of times in the past and it’s always been a hit. I was hoping you could share the un-updated recipe that calls for buttermilk — is it just a cup of buttermilk instead of the cup of whole milk?

    1. Yes! See recipe notes for details on the 2022 update and changes.

  15. Hi Sally, I’d like to make this a Lemon Elderflower cake. Any advice on how much Elderflower liquor to use and any changes I should make to accommodate the additional liquid?

    1. Hi Gina! We would love to help but don’t have any experience baking with Elderflower liqueur. Just based on a couple recipes I took a quick look at, it looks like about 1Tbs would be a good place to start. You can reduce the lemon juice by that amount. You could add some to the frosting for more flavor as well. Let us know what you try!

  16. Want to make this for my husband’s 40 birthday because it sounds delicious but have some time constraints. Is it possible to make the cake and frosting in advance, freeze it and then assemble on the day it is needed? Should it be kept in the fridge with the creamcheese in the frosting?

    Thank you in advance

    Kind regards,
    Fionna

    1. Hi Fionna, you can prepare both the cake and frosting in advance and then freeze it. Here is everything you need to know about how to freeze cakes. Place the frozen cake layers and frozen frosting in the refrigerator the night before you plan to assemble so that they can thaw. We do recommend storing the assembled cake in the refrigerator, but it will be okay at room temperature for a few hours while serving. Hope it’s a hit!

  17. I am making my daughter’s wedding cake. She loves lemon and this sounds fantastic. I am making a 12” 2-layer base tier, 9” 2 -layer 2nd tier, and 6” 2-layer top tier. She also wants lemon curd filling. Is this recipe sturdy enough to stack?

    Thanks!!
    Amanda

    1. Hi Amanda! With the proper dowels and supports, this cake should do well as a tiered cake. You can read more about making tired cakes in our homemade wedding cake post!

  18. Made the recipe exactly as directly…looks and tastes amazing….but how can one cover and refrigerate…maybe my fridge is too small, but there is no way I can put my glass cake cover over it! Is it ok to put in fridge without covering it? I will definitely be making this again!

  19. Hi,
    I want to make this for my Husband and surprise him on his birthday. He loves lemon cake.
    He does not like buttercream so I am wondering if I can just replace it with cream cheese frosting / substitute the amount of butter with cream cheese?
    Also I want to bring graham crackers into the recipe. Surely as crumb coat, but I wonder if I can put a graham cracker crust as cake bottom, similar to a pie. Would that taste good with this cake?

    1. Hi Sabrina, you can definitely replace it with cream cheese frosting! But cream cheese frosting still includes butter, just less, so you could also try making the lemon cream cheese frosting in this recipe with half the amount of butter (so 1/2 cup/114g) and substituting that much extra cream cheese. Graham cracker crust would also taste good, but we haven’t tested making that as the base of this cake, so are unsure of the results. Let us know how it turns out if you try it!

  20. I have made your blueberry lemon cake countless times, a huge favorite for wedding cakes. The only negative comments I have ever heard was the cake was dense, and I have to agree. I have found that if you separate the eggs and whip the egg whites separately then add them to the batter at the end, the problem is solved! I always add some lemon curd between the layer (Ina’s recipe…sorry) to really pack the lemon flavor!

  21. When making this cake as a two layer cake, can the pans be 9 x 1.5 inch pans or will it overflow?

    1. Hi Julie, we use 9×2 inch pans, so what you can do is fill your pans 2/3 way full, and use any leftover batter for a few cupcakes on the side. Enjoy!

  22. I have made this recipe before and it turned out amazing! I am baking it for an auction and I was wondering what you used to decorate the cake. Is that candied lemon peel on the top? What would be your recommendations for decorating?

    1. Hi Maeve! This cake is decorated with simple slices of lemon. Candied lemon would be lovely!

  23. Second time making. Hi made the cake wrapped the layers individually in Saran Wrap, and made the frosting and put in fridge. Making tomorrow for a party of 10. Readers check back for my guests feedback. I think it will taste even better tomorrow when lemon really settles in.
    Questions:
    1) I am assuming I could make 6 inch cakes for smaller crowds, or do a 4 layer 6 inch which always looks pretty?
    2) If you use this recipe as a basic cake, say vanilla or chocolate how would you alter the cake and frosting?
    I am going through your website for my next dessert to try.
    Thanks for sharing your recipes!

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