My Family Recipe

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

And how it shaped my from-scratch gold standard.

December 25, 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.

Shop the Story

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.

Join The Conversation

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.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Geri Kaye
    Geri Kaye
  • Penny
  • Tedra Powers Ulmer
    Tedra Powers Ulmer
  • Caitlin Gunther
    Caitlin Gunther
  • beenz
Bio: Jessie Sheehan is the author of The Vintage Baker and Icebox Cakes. Her new easy-peasy baking book, Snackable Bakes, hits shelves in spring 2022. She contributes to the Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Food Network, and the Kitchn, among others.


Geri K. July 4, 2019
Just made this & turned out fantastic! I substituted limoncello for lemon juice in the glaze & placed a raspberry & 2 blueberries on each piece for 4th of July bbq.
Jessie S. July 4, 2019
Yay! Love the limoncello substitute - genius. Hope everyone enjoys it today and thanks for making! XO
Penny April 1, 2019
In Australia we have plain flour and self raising flour. Not sure what “ cake flour “ is. Can anyone help, please?
Julie A. April 1, 2019
I believe cake flour is Self raising and all purpose flour is plain flour. I made this cake and was a knock out!
Melbourne, Australia 😀
Penny April 1, 2019
Thanks for your help.😊
Christina S. April 1, 2019
I don't think you would want to use self rising flour because there is other leavening in the cake. Cake flour is a finer flour than regular flour. I have used regular flour when I didn't have cake flour and it worked fine.
Julie A. April 1, 2019
In Australia we don’t have “Cake Flour” . The recipe calls for All purchase flour. In Australia All purchase is plain flour, so what does cake mean compared to self raising?
Julie A. April 1, 2019
That should say cake flour
Jessie S. April 1, 2019
Cake flour is finer than all purpose flour and is often used in cakes for it produces a fine, tender crumb. It is not self rising flour (which is flour that has leavening added). You can substitute all-purpose flour for the cake flour, if you cannot find it. Good luck and let me know how it turns out!
Jessie S. April 1, 2019
Jessie S. April 1, 2019
Cake is very different than self-rising (self rising has leavening already added, and salt). Cake is a fine flour, often used for - you guessed it- making cakes.
Jessie S. April 1, 2019
Yay! so happy it was a "knock-out!"
Penny April 1, 2019
I read that cake flower can be substituted by putting 2 tablespoons of cornflour ( cornstarch ) in a cup and then filling it with plain ( all purpose ) flour. Hope this helps others in Australia. Wish your recipes gave metric measurements !
Jessie S. April 1, 2019
thank you Penny! and yes: cornflour plus all purpose is a great substitute for cake flour and i know re: the metric measurements! my books include them, but my recipes do not always have them and i am trying to change that!
Emily May 31, 2019
Cake flour is not the same thing as self-rising. It is a lower protein flour. You can replace cake flour in most recipes with a combination of all-purpose and cornstarch—search the internet for the exact proportions of each.
Tedra P. February 9, 2019
This is one of my favorite childhood cakes...ours was always in a bundt or tube pan, however. Really makes a pretty presentation and the glaze keeps it moist.
Tedra P. February 9, 2019
Oh, and I’ve tried to duplicate my maternal granny’s peach cobbler since I was a teenager. My dad and I were never able to find anything quite right (she passed in 1964), and long after he was gone I realized she probably used lard in the crust, plus her own canned peaches. I don’t think I’m desperate enough to can my own, but if I can find a nice local person who has some...
Jessie S. February 9, 2019
So happy to hear this! xo
Jessie S. February 9, 2019
That sounds so yummy!! Love peach cobbler. ❤️
Jessie S. February 14, 2019
Love hearing this!!!
Caitlin G. December 27, 2018
Love this story and love the sounds of this cake. Aaand I'm not usually a lemony dessert gal. Thanks for sharing!
Jessie S. December 27, 2018
Thank u! And yay!!
beenz December 25, 2018
As a baker and recipe developer, any chance you could include weights in your recipes? I think even Americans are beginning to catch on to the idea that baking success, especially for beginners, is tied to accurate measurements. T hanks in advance.
Jessie S. December 26, 2018
Yes! You are absolutely right and in both my cookbooks I included gram masurements for just the reasons you state. Will try to do so in all my recipe developing, as you are not the first to mention it! Thanks.
Christina S. November 23, 2018
I find it interesting that your standard for a good cake is that it tastes like a boxed mix. My mother would never let such a thing cross our threshold, so my standard has been that it not taste like a boxed cake mix. I think it shows that there is not one "right taste" for food but rather our memories and associations are what determine the foods that we love.
Jessie S. November 24, 2018
Christina S. November 23, 2018
I find it interesting that your standard for a good cake is that it tastes like a boxed mix. My mother would never let such a thing cross our threshold, so my standard has been that it not taste like a boxed cake mix. I think it shows that there is not one "right taste" for food but rather our memories and associations are what determine the foods that we love.
Julie A. November 4, 2018
Great cake! Yes! it was heavy, but delicious 😋
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?
Jessie S. November 3, 2018
Yes! how about canola or vegetable? and jsut answered this in my IG comments as well . . . xo
Christina S. November 23, 2018
So why would you not just buy a small bottle of olive oil, rather than a huge one?
Addie K. November 23, 2018
Because I couldn't find one in my grocery store....hope that helped!
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.
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.
Jessie S. October 27, 2018
Yes! Or Cup for Cup is another great gluten free brand.
Christina S. November 23, 2018
I have had good luck with converting cake recipes by substituting a gluten free baking mix such as King Arthur or Bob's Red Mill and a little xanthum gum for the flour and continuing with the recipe as written.
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?
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.
Jessie S. November 24, 2018
Oh, thank u for telling me this. Makes me so happy. XO
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!
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?
Jessie S. October 17, 2018
Olivia October 17, 2018
Love this site
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!!
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?
Jessie S. October 16, 2018
one box lemon Jell-O plus 3/4 cup warm water - stir
add 4 eggs
add contents of one package lemon velvet cake mix, beat well
add 3/4 cup oil - beat until smooth
flour and grease pan - bake 35 to 40 minutes at 350
combine 1 cup confectioners' sugar and juice of one lemon - make holes in cake and pour over
Miss_Karen March 8, 2019
Don't they call your grandma's version a 'poke cake?'
I do bake from scratch and only use a box when I am in crunch time do to single mommyitis.
I have been doggedly trying to find a scratch lemon cake for my dad. He called me crying one day because his wife (now deceased) used to make him lemon cake for his birthday. But she was so stuck on the 'family secret' thing NOBODY has that recipe now.🙄 His birthday is coming up. I'm making him THIS CAKE- thank goodness it's NOT a secret!!!
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.
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!!!!

(also I really like the article page redesign - I like how much cleaner/useful the article ingredient list preview is!)
Jessie S. October 16, 2018
yay! so happy to hear that.