Genius Recipes

The Genius, Foolproof Lemon Cake Recipe Dorie Greenspan Swears By

It’s powerfully puckery.

April 10, 2019

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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:
“This cake is by far one of the best cakes, let alone lemon cakes, we have ever eaten! My husband is a hugh lemon lover and very picky eater and he absolutely loved this cake. I would add that I did not like this cake on the first day it was baked and was not impressed with it. However, after it sits for several days, I felt the flavor improved and was unbelievably delicious; even a week later the cake was still fabulous. The texture of the crumb is very velvety. The cake is such a classic and we loved it just plain. It is our new go to cake. This will be the cake I will bake for birthday gifts because it can be made ahead and the flavor improves daily. Bake this cake; you will not be disappointed. I have Maida Heatter's books and waited all this time to try her recipes until I saw this article; now I am so excited to bake through her books. Thanks so much for showcasing such wonderful vintage recipes.”
— Debbie
Comment

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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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Called a “culinary guru” by the New York Times and inducted into the James Beard Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America, Dorie Greenspan is the author of 13 cookbooks, her latest is Everyday Dorie. Some of her other bestselling cookbooks include Dorie's Cookies, Baking Chez Moi, Around My French Table and Baking From My Home to Yours.

58 Comments

Pat November 9, 2020
I have made this cake many times, always a winner. Have tried it with orange & it is just as good. I have also used the breadcrumb method for other moist cakes & I love it.
 
MacGuffin November 9, 2020
Is it possible to get it as tart with orange?
 
Pat November 20, 2020
Not as tart as lemon, but very good.
 
Dianne November 8, 2020
I have everything measured and just realized I don't have a 10 cup tube pan. I have one six cup and a two cup. Do you think that will work if I check the baking times carefully. Any help appreciated. I do have a larger tube pan, 10 x 4-1/2. which might be better to use.
 
mudd November 9, 2020
I would use the large tube pan and bake for less time.
 
Leslye B. November 9, 2020
Use 2 loaf pans.
 
Dianne November 9, 2020
Thanks to all the replies. I didn't see till late and I baked in the 6 cup and the 4 cup ring pan for 50 minutes Came out very well. Husband is delighted. He has two cakes.
 
Debbie May 31, 2020
If you use panko breadcrumbs, are you supposed to toast them first, or just grind them up and use them? I made the cake several weeks ago using panko bread crumbs and it was outstanding but I cannot remember if I toasted the breadcrumbs first or not. This cake is by far one of the best cakes, let alone lemon cakes, we have ever eaten! My husband is a hugh lemon lover and very picky eater and he absolutely loved this cake. I would add that I did not like this cake on the first day it was baked and was not impressed with it. However, after it sits for several days, I felt the flavor improved and was unbelievably delicious; even a week later the cake was still fabulous. The texture of the crumb is very velvety. The cake is such a classic and we loved it just plain. It is our new go to cake. This will be the cake I will bake for birthday gifts because it can be made ahead and the flavor improves daily. Bake this cake; you will not be disappointed. I have Maida Heatter's books and waited all this time to try her recipes until I saw this article; now I am so excited to bake through her books. Thanks so much for showcasing such wonderful vintage recipes.
 
Lia B. December 21, 2019
Why does this recipe have 2 2/3 c flour when the one in her cookbook has 3 cups. This is in her newest cookbook and it says this is the revised recipe “#2”
 
Icemanxxxv December 21, 2019
I made this recipe just like it is printed here. Came out wonderful. Best Lemon Cake ever. Not sure why the measurements differ. Guess you will have to wait for Doris to reply...
 
Lia B. December 21, 2019
Thank you for that quick response! Will go w the 2 2/3 C flour
 
rpmerton July 23, 2019
I haven’t made this cake, but I so enjoyed watching the associated video that accompanies the story. The Maida Heatter Book of Great Desserts published in 1977 was my first dessert cookbook. The Lemon buttermilk cake is missing but I love the Blueberry Crumb cake and while local blueberries are in season give it a try—you won’t be disappointed.
 
bobbe May 9, 2019
This is still lovely the next time and the next time and the next time you watch. Congratulations on such a sweet and wonderful recipe.
 
robinorig May 7, 2019
My go to lemon cake has always been Maida Heatter's 62nd Street Lemon cake, which I love and always made extra lemony by adding lemon extract (and noticed recently that she started adding it, too, in a later edition!) I'm wondering how they compare so will have to try this one. I do love cakes that use buttermilk. All of her recipes are great. Can't wait to get her new book.
 
Elizabeth T. May 7, 2019
I'm using a non-stick Bundt pan, should I lower the temperature?
 
jpriddy May 7, 2019
I nearly bought this swirl cake pan the other day—I am kicking myself now. I have all of Maida Heatter's books. I have made her Java Cake at Christmas for decades. Every recipe is brilliant!
 
Icemanxxxv May 7, 2019
Made this for Easter Dinner. I will have to say it was very yummy! Big hit even with my youngest daughter who isn't a big cake fan.
 
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.
 
mdelgatty June 1, 2020
Did not think of sugar - I used cornmeal, since that's what I had, and the bit of crunch went really well with the delicate crumb of the cake. But I bet sugar would be even better!
This is a lovely cake (I like that it has more lemon than the East 62nd Street Lemon Cake), and I'd say with maybe a dab of whipped cream it could hold its own as dessert for the fanciest dinner party...
 
[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.
 
Carla April 28, 2019
I live in Denver and I reduced the sugar a little bit..maybe 1/4 cup and it was perfect. Today I tried Ina’s lemon loaf cake. This one is So much better! I usually use King Arthur Flour.. I took a tip from Stella Parks and used Gold Medal bleached for Maida’s cake....not sure if that made a difference.....but it did rise nice and high and had a lovely texture.
 
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. Well...it 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!