Lemon Layer Cake with Lemon Cream Cheese Buttercream

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 my blog: lemon blueberry cake. Lemon blueberry cake has been in my top 10 recipes for the past 4 years. It’s moist, sweet, buttery, and loaded with fresh lemon. Since its publish date, I’ve received many questions about leaving out the blueberries to make it plain. I 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, buttermilk, and flour. I love the additional tang buttermilk gives the cake, but you can use whole milk or 2% milk instead. I 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. Cake flour is too light for this lemon cake; my 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 my set of sifters. Love them. I’m 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 my lemon cupcakes recipe. They taste identical to the cake!

Lemon Cream Cheese Buttercream

I was torn between cream cheese frosting and lemon buttercream, so I 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 I 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. We received it for our wedding and I can’t find it anywhere online! Here is their line of cake stands.

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 10-12
  • 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

  • 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) buttermilk, 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*
  • 5 cups (600g) 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 9-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 buttermilk, 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 Mixer | Love is Love Spatula | Zester | Sieve | 9-inch Round Pans | Icing Spatula | Icing Bags | Ateco #849 Closed Star Icing Tip | Cake Stand
  3. Flour: Sift all-purpose flour before measuring.
  4. Buttermilk: Buttermilk helps produce a supremely moist cake. If you don’t have buttermilk, use whole milk instead. You can use lower fat or nondairy milks in a pinch, but the cake won’t taste nearly as rich and moist.
  5. Dense Cake: *Updated in 2019* The current amount of baking soda this recipe needs is 1/2 teaspoon, which I increased from 1/4 teaspoon. This extra amount helps with extra rise and a less dense texture. I also reduced the eggs from 4 to 3, which helps guarantee a lighter crumb.
  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.

slice of lemon cake on a white plate

367 Comments

Comments are closed.

  1. First time making a lemon cake. Amazing.
    The frosting was delicious.

  2. Can I make the cake layers a few days ahead of eating it and make the frosting the day I want to serve it? If so, should the cake be refrigerated?

    1. Hi Mary, If you are making it more than a day in advance, go ahead and tightly wrap each layer and store in the refrigerator. Enjoy!

  3. Thena Oravits says:

    Yesterday I baked this for a family BBQ and it was so delicious they devoured it. This moist, fluffy recipe’s balance between sweet and lemony is perfect. I’ve received many compliments, thank you.

  4. Hi Sally! I’ve made this 2x already and it’s always been a fave!!! I added Macadamia, candied Lemon slices, and Lemon Curd for toppings. Thank you!!! How I wish I could email you a photo Chach

  5. Fabulous!! Worth every minute it takes to make!

  6. If I wanted to make this in 8in pans instead of 9in but only have two can the remaining batter sit out or be refrigerated while the first two bake, and would the baking time differ much?

    1. Hi Brandis! The cake batter can sit out at room temperature until the cake pans are ready again. The bake time will be a little longer since the cakes will be thicker.

  7. You obviously did something wrong. This is one of the BEST cake recipes I tried and I tried a lot of them.

  8. I’ve never made a cake from scratch before, but this was very easy and it turned out amazing! I made it for my husband’s birthday and he loved it. He thought I bought it from a bakery, haha!

    The only variation I made from your recipe was adding 1/4 tsp almond extract to the batter. I do that with my chocolate chip cookies and thought I’d see how it works with cake. Delicious! Thank you

    1. YAY! I’m thrilled that you baked your first cake from scratch!! I’m so happy you enjoyed it and hope your husband had a happy birthday. 🙂

  9. Just finished baking your layered lemon cake, and it was beautiful! It was denser than I expected. If you are wanting a fluffier airy cake, I would recommend more baking soda, but I like this cake as it is – lemony and moist. Perfect!

  10. Marion Lehman says:

    Sally! I need help! I don’t have buttermilk OR ANY MILK for that matter! What I DO have is that buttermilk blend stuff. NOW, the instructions call for adding the dry buttermilk blend with the other dry ingredients, then use water in place of the buttermilk. For some reason, it scares me. My son brought the blend so I don’t have to buy buttermilk all the time. I TRUST you is that stuff I’m uncertain of. What do you think?

    1. Hi Marion! You could definitely try it, but it would be best to get to the store and purchase the buttermilk or another milk to make the DIY buttermilk. 🙂

  11. Marion Lehman says:

    I forgot to add, this cake is for my son’s 21st birthday and he said…make me a cake from Ms.Sally’s site. He chose the lemon one. My personal favorite is the lemon blueberry layer.

  12. Marion Lehman says:

    Hello Sally, I made the cake yesterday with the buttermilk blend & it WORKED well! I was surprised & VERY happy with the results. I HAVE used the DIY version & for NOW, I couldn’t tell the difference. The frosting is to DIE for! It was so smooth & so easy to spread. My son was so excited & happy! Now I just have to figure out which is my favorite…the homemade strawberry one is still a top contender. THANK YOU for making baking so dang easy!

  13. First of all, thank you for encouraging me to finally sift my flour. For one, I mismeasured to begin with (using a 1/3 cup instead of a 1/4), so I would have used way too much if I hadn’t sifted and then remeasured with a spoon a 1 cup. The flour came out so fine and fluffy, I’ll definitely sift from now on.
    I followed the cake recipe to the T (maybe didn’t use enough lemon peel), and I could tell from the batter that it will be lemony and delicious.
    The layers were thin, but thanks to the wax paper, baking spray, and bit of loose flour, they popped right out.
    When it came to the frosting, I only had whipped cream cheese but I feel that the texture contributed to the fluffiness. I also ended up using a bit more cream cheese, some more peel, and some lemon extract I found in my cupboard. It really made the lemon flavor pop, but I did have to add just a tad more powdered sugar (I usually use quite a bit less sugar than frosting recipes call for because I don’t like my frosting too sweet). The result was super whipped, lemony frosting that spread well and I had more than enough for the tops and sides (I’m going to freeze the rest).
    I’m going to bet this will be one of my successful cakes! 🙂

  14. Hi Sally, I use this recipe in my catering business over and over and it is constantly getting wonderful feedback. I use lemon curd in the layers and I add a barely there naked layer of lemon butter cream over the cake before topping with orchids or white stock buds. Thanks for the flawless recipe

  15. Made this cake again over the weekend. It is my absolute favorite. Turns out gorgeously soft and lovely, with just the right amount of lemon flavor. I actually made six layers (froze two and used four) and filled it with blueberry compote. At least four people at the party told me it was “the best cake I’ve ever eaten!” Thanks Sally!!

  16. Do you store this in the refrigerator?

    1. Yes, anything with cream cheese frosting I recommend storing in the refrigerator!

  17. I made this today, and it turned out amazing! I was extra surprised because I read the directions too fast and mixed a bunch of the ingredients out of order, and it still came out delicious. I also made a second batch and added a pint and a half of blueberries, to make cupcakes – equally as delicious!! Thanks for a great recipe – they aren’t all foolproof!

  18. I made this recipe for an 80th birthday cake and everyone LOVED it! The layers bake up light and fluffy with the perfect amount of lemon flavor. I was a little worried if the layers could handle the weight of 4 layers and heavy fondant accents on top, but it was perfect and cut into picture perfect slices. Thank you for yet another wonderful recipe to add to my collection!

  19. I found this trying to find a recipe for my boyfriend’s birthday as lemon cake is his favorite, I’m very excited to try this out though I’m no baker. I was wondering how I could do it if I only had one 9″ cake pan, how would I make the layers even?

    1. This lemon cake batter will fit into a 9×13-inch pan if you want to bake it all as one layer. See recipe notes for directions. If you want to bake one round layer at a time you can measure out the batter and divide into three equal parts before transferring to the pan. I would caution though that by the time you bake the third layer the batter will have been sitting for quite a while and might not rise as much.

      1. I need to bake a lemon sheet cake in an 11 x15 1/2 sheet pan. I’d love to use this recipe. Do I just double it?

      2. This recipe, as written, should fit nicely into that size pan.

      3. Will this recipe work in a 12x12x3 pan? I’m trying my first time at making a larger event cake. You’re recipes have been my go to’s for years for any and all baking info!

  20. Best cake I or my family have ever tasted! will be made again

  21. Sumeshni Pillay says:

    This is THE MOST DELICIOUS CAKE EVER :D!!! I made it for a baby shower and everyone LOVED it! Definitely my new favourite cake :)!

    Is there a way though to make the cream cheese frosting firmer for a super smooth finish without making it very sweet by just adding additional confectioners’ sugar?

    Thanks for the best recipes! They’re always amazing!

  22. Made this for my birthday and it was so soft. Absolutely loved it. Thank you for sharing this recipe.

  23. I just made this cake last night and used fresh from my tree tahitian limes (I left them on the tree until turn yellow), the juice was quite strong and got bit afraid the cake might turn too strong flavor, so I only used half the amount, cake is absolutely delicious, but next time I definetly use all the juice for more tangy flavor.
    Bake it on 2 round 9″ x 1.5 ” tins, the only hiccup was the dense texture, but that was on me as I forgot to read again the notes to make the adjustments. I made only 3/4 of the amounts for the frosting and was more than enough, it covered the cake at least 1/2″ thick including between layers. Cake was a hit.

  24. Hi there from Madrid!

    I’ve been following your blog since long time ago and already tried quite a few recipes, but I must tell you… this lemon cake is simply AMAZING! It’s moist, it tastes beautifully like lemon (but not too much lemon, just the exact right amount – it’s incredible), and the crumble is just perfect… so thank you thank you for explaining it in so much detail! I’ll fill it and frost it this afternoon with Italian meringue and I can’t wait to try it!!!

  25. Hi Sally , planning to do this cake just wanted to ask can also use color in the batter to make cake colored n planning to use ur vanilla buttercream,will it b fine ,pls suggest
    Thanks

    1. Yes, there shouldn’t be any problems to adding food coloring to the batter.

  26. Jenny Sullivan says:

    After all the positive comments, I was hopeful that this one would be a crowd pleaser. Alas, I really did not like it. I followed the recipe exactly, no alterations, even down to sifting the flour. And I added candied lemons so it looked beautiful. But it was SO dense. Like a stodgy pound cake. Disappointing as I was expecting a fluffier or at least crumblier cake. To be fair, my family did like it, but as a baker, I thought it was pretty mediocre. Not making this one again.

  27. Hi Sally,

    As a fellow baker, I understand how difficult it is to dial-in a recipe to perfection. I always test a recipe exactly as written before forming opinions or making modifications. This cake was light and airy, yet textured with a moist crumble to the cake. I whipped the frosting extra long for an exceptionally light and fluffy frosting that resembled a stabilized whip cream. This is a keeper exactly as written. <3 I came home yesterday from having a uterine biopsy, and I needed a lemon cake. You know, it actually made yesterday a good day. 🙂 Thank you for such a wonderful recipe. It's a new family favorite.

  28. Hi Sally – I was trying to decide between testing your lemon layer cake and the lemon cupcakes that you say taste the same. I was comparing the two and notice you use buttermilk in the cake but milk in the cupcakes. Is there a specific reason why? Thank you!

    1. Hi Trish! This is a great question. Cakes tend to dry out easier and quicker, so I prefer to use buttermilk here– always a wonderful moisture-adding ingredient in cakes.

  29. sheryl hussey says:

    making frosting ahead q’s: can i make it 3-4 days ahead and keep refrigerated?
    will it taste as lemony, or will the lemon loose flavor? wondering about putting in lemon peel as well? does this loose flavor after a few days, or will anything happen because of the oils? tyia

    1. Hi Sheryl, The frosting won’t lose any lemon flavor if it’s refrigerated. Just cover tightly to store it and then you will want to bring leave it out at room temperature for a bit and give it a good stir before covering your cake to make it soft enough to spread easily.

  30. Just made this last week for a birthday. The cake baked up perfectly and was so light and the icing was delicious. Even had one person who was not a huge lemon fan really enjoyed the cake.
    As we speak your Pumpkin Cheesecake Muffins are baking in my oven for my hubbies work and I look forward to hearing their feedback!

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