My Family Recipe

Unlocking the Secret to My Grandmother’s Lemon Velvet Sheet Cake

And how it shaped my from-scratch gold standard.

October 16, 2018
Photo by Jenny Haung

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones.

Despite the fact that I develop and write about sweets for a living, I didn’t grow up eating from-scratch desserts. No one made me birthday cakes, Sunday morning sticky buns, or yeasted buttermilk dinner rolls. And I didn't have any interest in making them myself. Instead, my brother and I celebrated our birthdays with Baskin Robbin’s ice cream cakes, and snacked on Double Stuf Oreos after school. If I wanted something sweet, I asked my mom to buy it for me, or, once a weekly allowance kicked in, purchased it on my own. The urge to bake myself just never took hold.

A few times a year, however, we flew from our home near Boston to Cleveland to visit my paternal grandparents for the weekend. Dressed in a housedress and slippers, my grandmother greeted us in the hallway of her apartment building, standing in front of her door as we exited the elevator. With her hands on her hips and a smile from ear to ear, she ushered us into the apartment, where tiny, crispy Toll-House cookies, awaited.

My grandmother had seven grandchildren, but, between you and me, I was one of her favorites. She and I bonded over our love of mini Krackle bars (she always had a glass bowl filled with them in the TV room) and lobster. We both loved shopping, gossiping, and going out to eat. We always started our meals with a drink: she with her Manhattan, and under-aged me with my Coke in a can, no-ice. I can’t share much about her baking and cooking—like whether my great-grandmother taught her to cook, or even if she enjoyed doing it—because I never asked her. Despite the fact my strongest memories of weekends with her all involve the food she prepared for me.

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She baked yeasty, egg-y challah, with a soft yellow crumb and a glossy dark brown crust, which we sliced and slathered with butter during dinner. And a flourless chocolate jellyroll cake filled with a Hershey’s Syrup and coffee-flavored whipped cream. And that was just Friday night’s menu. After Saturday’s lunch, we ate what I still consider to be my grandmother’s pièce de résistance: her lemon velvet cake.

Photo by Jenny Haung

She served this bright yellow beauty, topped with a sparkly, crackly lemon glaze, straight from a 13x9x2-inch metal pan. My slice was always tall and square. Each tender and light bite was both tart and sweet in equal measure. I enjoyed my cake with a tall frosty glass of milk. My grandparents, seated at each end of their long, plastic-covered table, drank mugs of black coffee fresh from the Mr. Coffee machine.

All weekend I feasted on slices of this cake. Yet I never once entered her slender galley kitchen to catch the master-baker in action. I was more likely in my grandfather’s office down the hall playing accountant with my brother, or sneaking into my grandparents’ bedroom to try on my grandmother’s jewelry and rose-scented perfume. Despite how fondly I remember hours spent as a wonderfully scented, bejeweled accountant, I can’t help but feel a twinge of remorse that I didn't join my grandmother making cake (and licking bowls). When I listen to a fellow-baker’s stories about a childhood at a relative’s apron strings, I envy they learned tricks of the trade from loved ones.

As I have said, we did not prepare cakes at home—not even cakes from mixes, which were just a tad too “from scratch” for our Devil-Dog-eating family. But, for some reason, a boxed cake mix cake has always been the gold standard to which I hold all other cakes. A slice of a cake made from a mix tastes more than just delicious, but profoundly familiar and comforting. Today, when developing cake recipes professionally, my goal is always to replicate the taste similar to Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines. If a slice of cake does not have the springy, moist crumb of a cake-mix cake, it just doesn’t taste right.

My slice was always tall and square. Each tender and light bite was both tart and sweet in equal measure.

About a decade after my grandmother passed away, I began baking and developing recipes professionally. But I could not stop thinking about her lemon velvet cake. So, I turned to my cookbooks. I looked to Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours and learned her Perfect Party Cake benefited from rubbing lemon zest into sugar to activate the flavor. I read through Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Parties, and wondered if her lemon cake glaze might not be similar to my grandmother’s. I perused a few others, but nothing quite fit.

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Top Comment:
“I followed the recipe exactly and the cake is so delicious I can hardly believe it. This is one of those recipes I’ll definitely save to make over and over. Outstanding! ”
— Julie

So I bit the bullet and wrote to my cousin Rachel (our family recipe keeper and my grandmother’s other favorite), asking if she could send the lemon velvet cake recipe my way. I was finally ready to develop my own version of the cake and eager to see what kind of magic my grandmother worked all those years ago.

I was shocked by the ingredients. My grandmother’s cake recipe called for oil, water, eggs, lemon Jell-O, and a “Lemon Velvet” cake mix. Suddenly, I understood why boxed cake mixes have always tasted so homey, intimate, and scrumptious. Although I’d been planning on twisting and tweaking my grandmother’s recipe to develop my own, the challenge of now doing it “from scratch” seemed more than appropriate and well-deserved.

My lemon velvet sheet cake tastes like a cake from a boxed mix, but in the best way. The lemon flavor is extra bright from copious amounts of zest and freshly squeezed juice. I use oil, rather than butter (a la Betty Crocker and my grandmother) for an extra moist cake, with a tender crumb. (It also helps that subbing oil for butter makes it easier.) I call for a couple of yolks for additional moisture and richness, and crème fraiche (or sour cream) for a little tang.

The glaze, however, is straight from my grandmother. I like to think this cake would make her happy. Of course, I still wish I’d been following her around the kitchen back in the day, rather than snooping in her bedroom. But making her cake—no matter the ingredients—is an auspicious start at making up for lost time.

Got a family recipe you'd like to share? Email [email protected] for a chance to be featured.


Julie A. November 4, 2018
Great cake! Yes! it was heavy, but delicious 😋
Author Comment
Jessie S. November 4, 2018
Yay! Happy to hear this. ❤️
Addie K. November 3, 2018
I'm kind of sticking on the olive oil - only have extra virgin and don't want to buy a huge bottle of other just for this. Any other substitutes you can recommend?
Author Comment
Jessie S. November 3, 2018
Yes! how about canola or vegetable? and jsut answered this in my IG comments as well . . . xo<br />
Janecia B. October 22, 2018
Any idea how one might go about making this gluten-free? I have a copious amount of almond flour but not sure how that will change the texture of the cake.
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Jessie S. October 23, 2018
wish i could help, but that is not my specialty . . .
Linda October 27, 2018
Try using King Arthur Measure for Measure Gluten Free flour blend. I wouldn't use your almond flour, the texture will not be the same.
Author Comment
Jessie S. October 27, 2018
Yes! Or Cup for Cup is another great gluten free brand.
tina October 22, 2018
food porn...
Abby L. October 22, 2018
This sounds delicious! I was asked to make cupcakes for a child's birthday party next month, and this cake sounds kind of perfect. Do you think the recipe would translate ok to cupcakes if I adjusted the baking time?
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Jessie S. October 22, 2018
You know, I do. And u could make an easy lemon buttercream to top them with, or just the glaze! Let me know how they turn out.
Tzimmes October 21, 2018
I never comment but I was touched by your story. I, too, wish I had watched my grandmother(s) prepare their delicious specialties. If only our memories could recrecreate them! TY for sharing.
Julie October 18, 2018
I followed the recipe exactly and the cake is so delicious I can hardly believe it. This is one of those recipes I’ll definitely save to make over and over. Outstanding!
Author Comment
Jessie S. October 18, 2018
How wonderful! Can't even begin to tell you how happy that makes me. Thank you and yay! XO
barbara960 October 17, 2018
Do you think greek yogurt would work for the creme fraiche?
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Jessie S. October 17, 2018
Olivia October 17, 2018
Love this site
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Jessie S. October 17, 2018
Me too!
Denise October 16, 2018
I had my bestie and her hubs over for dinner, a rare occasion as she and her hubs are excellent cooks and I find them intimidating when it come to having them over. Dinner was steaks on the grill and mashed taters and a broccoli salad, all delicious. But I made your cake. I have never felt more proud impressing my friend. She raved about it and her hubs asked for some to take home. My kitchen was kinda a mess while putting it all together but that’s on me! It was truly yummy and will make it again for sure!!
Author Comment
Jessie S. October 17, 2018
yay! Love hearing this. So glad it was a hit and you basically made them my favorite dinner (ie: steak and potatoes . . . ). ❤️
wahini October 16, 2018
Any chance of getting your grandmother’s cake mix and jello version of the lemon velvet cake recipe?
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Jessie S. October 16, 2018
sure: <br />one box lemon Jell-O plus 3/4 cup warm water - stir<br />add 4 eggs<br />add contents of one package lemon velvet cake mix, beat well<br />add 3/4 cup oil - beat until smooth<br />flour and grease pan - bake 35 to 40 minutes at 350<br />combine 1 cup confectioners' sugar and juice of one lemon - make holes in cake and pour over
HalfPint October 16, 2018
I love family recipes like these. I have a lot of respect for them. They scream "Love" in each bite. This was a wonderful story and I got my own sad twinge thinking about my grandmother who adopted my mother as an infant. She was a legendary baker in the village and passed away right before we left Vietnam. I am always to jealous of my older sisters who got to cook with her and see The Master in action.
Author Comment
Jessie S. October 16, 2018
so glad you enjoyed the story and thanks for sharing this little bit of yours . . .
Alexa M. October 16, 2018
I flag an obscene amount of dessert recipes to try out one day, but this one is jumping to the top of the list!!!!<br /><br />(also I really like the article page redesign - I like how much cleaner/useful the article ingredient list preview is!)
Author Comment
Jessie S. October 16, 2018
yay! so happy to hear that.