Genius Recipes

The Genius, Foolproof Lemon Cake Dorie Greenspan Swears By

It’s powerfully puckery.

April 10, 2019

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!”

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Used flour to dust the pan and found my oven baked the cake in 60 minutes...less than recommended. This is a crowdpleaser!! Great for spring/summer time. Enjoy!!”
— Kate M.

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.

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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Kari April 20, 2019
I made this last night, not exactly knowing where I was going to bring it. My cousin called with an invitation to Easter brunch this afternoon. This cake is AWESOME! Thank you for featuring it. Definitely going into my spiral-bound notecards!!
stephanie K. April 19, 2019
How long does this cake keep?
Leslye B. April 19, 2019
You don't have to worry about "keeping" it. At my house, we ate it up so quickly it never had a chance to get stale. We're only two people and I made it yesterday for a brunch I'm having tomorrow. I'll slice the leftovers and freeze each slice so my husband can have it whenever he wants.
stephanie K. April 19, 2019
Awesome! Thank you! It’s in the oven right now!!!
Pat April 19, 2019
This is the BEST lemon cake.
RisenWell April 18, 2019
Instead of breadcrumbs or flour, I use sugar after spraying (any) pan with cooking spray. Always releases perfectly and provides just a tantalizing bit of carmelized crunch.
MacGuffin April 18, 2019
I saw that recently on King Arthur Flour's post on Bundt pans that stick. It was very intriguing but does the sugar impede absorption of the lemon juice/sugar.
[email protected] April 18, 2019
What changes would you make for high altitude? In the past I’ve tried figuring out alterations with other recipes without much success. Would love some guidance on this one.
Leslye B. April 18, 2019
I baked it twice since I first saw the recipe. The first time, it was fabulous. Everything came out perfect. It baked in only 60 minutes. The second time, baked today, was different. It took 1 hour and 15 minutes and some of the batter stuck to the center tube (old fashioned pan) which makes the appearance less than perfect, although I'm trying not to notice the flaw. Will serve to special friends on Sat.
judie April 18, 2019
This a great cake. Made it last weekend and it will be put into our family cake rotation!!
Kate M. April 18, 2019
Took a chance and made this cake for a party without trying it first. It looked so good, the ingredients just right. was delicious! Just the right amount of moistness, sweet and lemony puckery. Didn't use breadcrumbs. Used flour to dust the pan and found my oven baked the cake in 60 minutes...less than recommended. This is a crowdpleaser!! Great for spring/summer time. Enjoy!!
EO April 18, 2019
Would this recipe work in individual bundt pans (12 to a pan) with time adjustment?
Estee C. April 16, 2019
This looks amazing and that pan-wow! Interesting use of crumbs, never heard of that before!
Nancy April 15, 2019
How funny! I started watching the video and saw Dorie dust the pan with breadcrumbs and thought to myself that this is NOT "my" Maida lemon cake that I've been making for years to absolutely rave reviews! But then of course she explains the change. The other thing that I do differently is not to not mix the sugar and lemon juice until just before applying to the cake. This leaves a crispy, crunchy, lemony coating that draws loving sighs from my husband and family. It's a reputation maker!!!
Nancy April 16, 2019
Quick correction to my comment above: "The other thing that I do differently is not to not mix the sugar and lemon juice until just before applying to the cake." What I meant to say is that I do not mix the sugar and lemon juice together until immediately before applying it to the cake.
mudd April 15, 2019
Maida’s carrot cake (from great American desserts) is amazing!
Baywife April 15, 2019
What is the point of the breadcrumbs? Is it just to prevent sticking or does it have some other purpose? I’d love to just spray the pan and skip the breadcrumb step.
mudd April 15, 2019
The breadcrumbs seem to act like little ball bearings. I have made a number of Maida’s cakes and she almost always uses the breadcrumbs. They also brush off really easy. Never get those white spots like you do with flour
Mary April 12, 2019
Just wondering, if you don't have dry breadcrumbs to dust the pan, would grease and flour work instead ? Thanks for sharing the recipe, it looks delicious! I can't wait to try it!
Estee C. April 16, 2019
Try PAM spray and flour!
Linda G. April 11, 2019
I have baked this cake in this same Nordicware pan (from William-Sonoma) and it was delicious ! So lemony and a great crust !
SharynSowell April 11, 2019
My baking hero sharing my favorite (GLUTEN FREE!!!) cake! If you're celiac, you'll be delighted to know this recipe works for us, too. I've made it over & over with never a fail. Just substitute the wheat flour with 1 C. white rice flour, 1 C. millet flour and 2/3 C. almond flour, and add 1 1/2 t. xanthin gum. So delicious nobody guesses it's gluten free and it's become my signature cake, the one I take everywhere for rave reviews.
Kkuhlmanning April 11, 2019
Do you sell that gorgeous pan?
mudd April 15, 2019
I’m not Food52, but that pan is a Nordicware,at Williams Sonoma for sure but probably on Amazon, etx
Nancy April 15, 2019
Nordicware calls it the Heritage Bundt Pan and can be found via a quick online search.
HalfPint April 10, 2019
Love this article! And that cake looks scrumptious :)
Kim April 10, 2019
it’s my boyfriends birthday and we are traveling but i promised him i would make this when we get home. he will love it!
Barbara April 10, 2019
Cannot wait to bake this. I love, love anything with lemon so this will be at the top of my list. Thank you.