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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 rounds, then grease the parchment paper. Parchment paper helps the cakes seamlessly release from the pans. (If it’s helpful, see this parchment paper rounds for cakes video & post.)
  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 twice, once as a practice for a wedding cake and then for the actual wedding cake. It rose well and it has a very nice moist fluffy texture, but sturdy enough for layers. My disappointment the first time was that cake itself doesn’t taste very lemony. I read another person added more zest and juice to up the flavour and I added an extra tablespoon of zest and it seemed to add a bit more flavour (although honestly i only had a tiny piece at the wedding so can’t say for sure). I had thought to add extract, but I thought it could be over powering and as I didn’t have time to experiment I decided that it was better that it was weaker on the taste. I made a lemon buttercream frosting so the lemon flavour from the frosting was sufficient. I also ripped apart raspberries and made a layer of raspberries on top of the buttercream in each layer, which worked very nicely. My last note is this was that although I oiled and put parchment circles on the bottom it stuck to the sides. By the time i was on the 5th and 6th layer I made sure to very meticulously separate the sides from the pan,. I’ve only been making vegan cakes for a long time so it could be that egg makes the cake stick more…? Also this is the buttercream recipe that I used. I used dairy butter and it was very delicious as a frosting. I will definitely save this for any future non vegan events because it really is good.
    https://www.noracooks.com/vegan-lemon-cake/

  2. I made this last week and it was fantastic! Not a delicate dessert, it’s a lemon punch in the mouth which is what I wanted! I did add a bit extra lemon juice, and added lemon zest to the frosting. Awesome cake, everyone loved it. My sister loved it so much she has demanded that I make it again!

  3. Made lemon cake with lemon cream cheese frosting. I made single layer cake and small loaf . Taste great perfect amount of lemon. Tomorrow I will give some away

  4. The last lemon layer cake recipe you will ever need! I made this for my friend’s birthday and everyone raved about it and asked for the recipe. The only thing I did differently was brush on some lemon simple syrup to the layers before icing them. My daughter has requested a marble cake for her 17th birthday this week and Sally’s version is the one I’ll be using. I haven’t tried it yet but I am sure it’s going to be a hit!

  5. I love lemon curd and was wondering if you think adding it as a layer would be a good idea or too much?

  6. This is a truly excellent and decadent lemon cake! I’ve made it 3 times now — twice for birthdays and once in cupcake form for a friend’s wedding — and the feedback I’ve gotten from the many delighted people who tasted it, myself included, is “WOW, that’s amazing.” Given the somewhat generous amount of (delicious) butter in this, I’ve made this my go-to special occasion cake. It looks beautiful topped with gold sugar crystals and raspberries/blackberries, and I’ve had great success freezing well wrapped individual slices (in case you want to spread out the indulgence). Fabulous recipe!

  7. The overall taste was great, but my layers turned out dense, almost like a pound cake. It was moist, but not loose-crumbly like the one shown in the picture. I sifted and used the metric weights for all of my ingredients. What might I have done “wrong?”
    Thanks for any help!

    1. Hi Kelly, overly dense cakes are usually the result of over mixing — you’ll want to mix the batter until it’s just incorporated. This post on how to prevent dry and dense cakes may be a helpful resource to review. Thank you for giving this cake a try!

  8. Hi, I want to make this cake, but was wondering if I could add poppyseeds to make it a lemon poppyseed cake. Will it change the texture at all (or will they sink in the batter)?

    1. Hi Sarah, Feel free to add 1 Tablespoon of poppy seeds to the dry ingredients. That’s usually plenty, but feel free to add a little more if you think the batter needs it. No need to adjust anything else.

  9. Hi! I was wondering if I’d need to adjust the sugar content or leavening if I substituted orange juice and zest for the lemon? I know the pH is different so I wasn’t sure if that would affect the reaction with the baking soda enough to cause a disaster.

    1. Hi Nora, We have not tested this cake with oranges. You can certainly try it, but they are sweeter and adjusting the sugar would take some recipe testing. You can also try our Glazed Orange Bundt Cake instead.

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