Best Lemon Cake Recipe – How to Make Foolproof Lemon Cake

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With Genius Recipes correspondent Kristen off for a few months trying to raise a genius newborn, we’re hearing from a few special surprise guests—and revisiting the column’s Greatest Hits with brand-new videos. Wish her luck! (And keep sending those tips.)


Photo by Rocky Luten

My copy of Maida Heatter’s first cookbook, Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts, published in 1974, is a mess.

The dust jacket is gone, except for the back flap, which I’ve tucked into the index, and the pages are dog-eared, marked with my notes and polka-dotted with fingerprints and spatters. Of course, the spine is frayed and hanging by a thread. This is the book that taught me how to bake, and it looks it.

One of the first cakes I made, Buttermilk Lemon Cake, was on page 116. The headnote said that the cake was “Light, moist, lemony, and lovely.” I penciled in “Precisely!” and underlined it for emphasis. If I had known the term “Genius Dessert” when I started baking, that’s what I’d have written in the margins.

Photo by Rocky Luten

It’s genius for so many reasons, among them:

  • It’s powerfully puckery. It’s got both more fresh lemon juice and zest than you’d expect or normally see in a recipe, and the flavor holds up under heat.
  • It’s given even more flavor because it’s soaked—really soaked—with a lemon and sugar syrup that seeps into the cake slowly and provides moistness, a little more keepability, and a lot more lemon intensity. That the soak is merely stirred together, not boiled, makes it even more interesting. When I made this recipe, it was the first time I’d ever been instructed to soak a just-out-of-the-oven cake—it’s such a great idea!
  • It’s got a delightful, very tender crumb, a hallmark of buttermilk. I think the lemon juice (in combination with the acidic buttermilk) might have something to do with it as well.
  • Whether you make the recipe in an old-fashioned tube pan—it’s what the recipe called for—or a Bundt with swirls (which is what I use now), the cake releases from the pan flawlessly because Maida Heatter cleverly instructs us to butter the pan and then dust the interior with dry breadcrumbs.

I made the cake for years, for dinners at home, for potlucks and as a holiday gift for my son’s teachers. I loved it and it was foolproof—at least I’d never had a problem with it, but I might just have been lucky.

If I had known the term “Genius Dessert” when I started baking, that’s what I’d have written in the margins.

Sometime between 1974 and 1977, when the book came out in paperback, the Buttermilk Lemon Cake disappeared from print. And it wasn’t until 1982, when Maida Heatter published her next cookbook, Maida Heatter’s New Book of Great Desserts, that the mystery of the missing cake was revealed. As she told it, for reasons she couldn’t explain, the cake stopped working. In the headnote to the revised recipe—Lemon Buttermilk Cake #2—she said that she figured out the problem after hearing Noble Prize–winning author, Isaac Singer, speak.

Photo by Rocky Luten

“He explained that his biggest problems in writing were caused by demons, who, he said, frequented the Singer home and created disasters. Then I knew what had happened to the Lemon Cake. Demons!”

Now, so many years later, I read these words and shudder—demons are disastrous for cookbook authors! But Maida Heatter was a perfectionist with a deep loyalty to her readers, and so she revised the recipe. She closes the introduction to cake #2 by saying, “This works.”

It does work. And, it’s even better than the original, which I loved so much. This version has even more pucker and more flavor. Happily nothing about its good-keeping qualities (you can keep it on the counter for about four days), satisfying texture, or comforting homey looks has changed.

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In GBBO-alum Benjamina Ebuehi’s cookbook The New Way to Cake, she paints a perfect word-picture about the perfect time to make this cake: “It’s a rainy Wednesday, and you’ve had a long day. That chocolate craving hits and this is what you turn to.” Couldn’t have said it better.

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Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Perhaps something perfect for beginners? Please send it Kristen’s way (and tell her what’s so smart about it) at [email protected].



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