Lemon Birthday Cake

May 30, 2021
9 Ratings
  • Serves 20
Author Notes

This is adapted from a basic lemon cake by Dorie Greenspan. It's intended to be a loaf cake, what you eat with tea, but I iced it as a layer cake for my daughter's birthday. Partly because I needed to bake it the night before, and these cakes are so durable. And partly because I was bored of the yellow and red velvet cakes I'd been making. I top it with easy 7-minute frosting. If you make this in the spring, as I do, you might slice in-season strawberries and pave the top, decorating on the sliced strawberries in your own way. —Eric Liftin

Test Kitchen Notes

Visually, this cake is a scene-stealer -- a birthday cake that makes a statement. It looks like a giant, sophisticated marshmallow. We were concerned it would be too rich (grand total: 8 whole eggs, 4 egg yolks, 1 1/3 cups of cream and 2 sticks of butter), but miraculously it's not: lemon and rum infuse the batter and give it the character of an English tea cake. The icing is a lightly sweetened meringue scented with vanilla and more lemon. Don't overwhip it as we did, and don't skip the berries, a nod to strawberry shortcake. - A&M —The Editors

What You'll Need
  • Lemon Cake
  • 4 1/2 cups cake flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 1/4 cups sugar
  • 6 lemons
  • 8 large eggs
  • 1 1/3 cups heavy cream
  • 4 tablespoons dark rum
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter (8 oz)
  • 1 quart strawberries (optional)
  • Frosting
  • 1 cup extra-fine sugar
  • 7 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  1. Center the rack and preheat oven to 350ºF. Butter and flour two 9" cake pans (using some of the 2 sticks). Melt the rest of the butter and let cool.
  2. Sift together into a bowl flour, baking powder, and salt. In the large, main mixing bowl, combine the sugar and zest of all lemons, reserving a tablespoon. Save yourself some trouble and use a Microplane, not an old-fashioned zester. This is fun: massage the sugar and zest with your fingers, activating the zest.
  3. Separate the eggs for the frosting. Dump 4 of the yolks in the main bowl; repurpose the rest as you like. Put aside the whites (in a stainless bowl). Whisk in the 8 eggs and beat until foamy. Whisk in the cream and rum.
  4. With a rubber spatula stir the flour mixture into the batter, in 3-4 additions, until thick and smooth. Fold in the cooled, melted butter.
  5. Divide the batter between the round pans, place them on an insulated or double baking pan, and put in the oven. Bake about 1 1/2 hours or until a thin knife inserted into the center emerges dry. Remove pans from oven, allow to cool about 10 minutes on a rack, remove from pan, and allow to cool completely right side up.
  6. For the frosting, I think it's easiest to use a hand mixer, but you can go with standing, if you prefer. Heat some water in a saucepan. Make sure your (stainless) mixing bowl sits nicely in the pan, not touching the water. A stainless, generous double boiler will work. Bring water to a simmer at medium high.
  7. Whisk sugar with the egg whites. Set the bowl over the simmering water and whisk constantly as you warm the mixture until it is just warm to the touch. Don't cook it.
  8. Remove from heat, and whip until you get thick, glossy meringue. This takes about 7 minutes, maybe a little less. Add the vanilla and reserved lemon zest at the end.
  9. Frost as a traditional layer cake, with the layers placed flat side up and frosting between them and over the entire cake. The hulled, sliced strawberries may go between the two layers, or for a more unusual treatment, pave the top, to show off the berries, which, in season, are nature's perfect fruit.
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14 Reviews

Kpaz459 November 28, 2023
I can see how this recipe would be delicious but the recipe is poorly written and created a lot of confusion. I am not new in the kitchen and typically I have success with recipes from this site. Please edit as I know many people would enjoy this cake. Also, bake time is way off.
LippyLou October 8, 2022
I made this cake last night and I was INITIALLY impressed with the frosting. Indeed the meringue was glossy and thick, and it was delicious and I lathered it all over my cake -- but the next day it had separated and dissolved entirely. I made it a day ahead for an event and never even had a piece of the cake, it was completely ruined. I don't even understand what happened because the meringue was perfect. A total disaster. And I'll agree with everyone else, that the recipe for the cake was confusing in the cook time was too long. After my experience I think I would just move away from this recipe altogether folks.
dan H. August 13, 2021
What a confusing recipe. Not the first on 52. Discusted
zoomorphic April 24, 2016
This cake was a disappointment. I read and reread the instructions to make sure the recipe didn't trip me up (per Merrill's explanation, it uses 8 whole eggs and 4 egg yolks), and indeed the batter looked (and tasted) amazing! But the cooking time was way too long. I've never had a problem with my oven running hot, and while I was skeptical about the 90 minute baking time, I figured that the pound cake-like richness would require a longer bake time. I checked on it around 70 minutes in and it looked fully done, passed the toothpick test, etc, so I took it out early. Even so, it was rock hard by the time it cooled.
Amma May 16, 2014
The recipe calls for 8 eggs to be used to make the cake. So no more than 8 eggs are to be used. In my opinion, the recipe is asking for you to use the egg whites of all 8 eggs "put aside the whites in a stainless bowl" but instead of using 8 egg yolks, it is asking you to use 4 "dump 4 in the main bowl and repurpose the rest".

It could be explained clearer but this is what I will do. Feels better to use 8 egg whites versus 8 whole eggs.
Alex H. April 29, 2014
I was also totally confused by this recipe, to the point where I ended up taking the strawberries and macerating them in with the zest! Good lord, it turned out amazing. Alls well that ends well?
I also halved the recipe and used slightly less sugar and (I think?) only two egg yolks in the actual recipe. Then I just took Meyer lemon zest and juice with powdered sugar and butter and poured half over the cake for the topping while it was still hot, then I piled a bunch of fresh strawberries and blueberries on top of the cake and poured the remaining icing over that. Mmmmm
Alex H. April 29, 2014
Whoops, make that 4 egg yolks.
em-i-lis February 14, 2014
This recipe is written in SUCH a confusing fashion. Who has any idea how many eggs to really use. After much consideration, I halved the recipe and used the following:
2 and 1/4 c cake flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 and 1/2 cup plus 1/8 cup sugar
zest of 2.5 lemons
1 large egg + 2 large egg yolks + 2 large egg whites beaten until fluffy (so three whole eggs)
2/3 cup heavy cream
2 T dark rum
1 stick unsalted butter
I cooked this halved recipe in a 10-cup max heart-shaped bundt pan and it was the perfect amount of batter for that pan. Cook time was 58 minutes. I just made a lemon juice-powdered sugar glaze. Hope this helps in any way!
George H. November 23, 2015
The frosting calls for 7 eggs, but the instruction only mentions "egg white". Kind of confusing.
LanBanan July 3, 2013
The recipe calls for 15 eggs altogether, 8 for the cake, 7 for the frosting, but actually what it is is 8 whole eggs and 4 egg yolks in the cake, 7 egg whites in the frosting, and 3 egg yolks for another recipe -- that's a lot of eggs!!!
call72 April 5, 2011
I am not understanding Step 3. Dump 4 yolks in bowl ; repurpose the rest. Then whisk in 8 more eggs? That's a total of 8 eggs and 4 yolks to be whisked and the recipe only calls for 8 eggs...... Your directions call or 12. Please explain further.
MrsArkban February 7, 2013
I think they mean repurpose the rest of the separated yolks. Hang on to the 8 whites and whisk those in
Marie A. May 10, 2013
Ya the egg part is confusing... I put the four yolks in and cream and rum but it was wayyyy too dry and thick when I added the flour. I had to add more rum (which isn't a bad thing necessarily) and then I also whipped the egg whites and folded those in. I guess it turned out alright though. I made a recipe of lemon curd from The Splendid Table and filled the layers with that and finished everything off with a lemon buttercream. Delicious!
LanBanan July 3, 2013
The recipe calls for 15 eggs altogether, 8 for the cake, 7 for the frosting, but actually what it is is 8 whole eggs and 4 egg yolks in the cake, 7 egg whites in the frosting, and 3 egg yolks for another recipe -- that's a lot of eggs!!!