Lemon & Poppy Seed Cake (National Trust Version)

July 11, 2021
22 Ratings
Photo by Bobbi Lin
  • Prep time 50 minutes
  • Cook time 55 minutes
  • Makes 1 standard loaf or 9 minis
Author Notes

This recipe and headnote have been reprinted, with permission, from Sweet: Desserts from London's Ottolenghi (Ten Speed Press 2017).

"However ambitious and discerning Helen's palate, this light lemon cake is the one she'd take with her to a desert island if she could only choose one. It's much simpler than many of the other cakes she loves, but it's the one she returns to again and again. There's something safe and reassuring about it, which would comfort as the waves came crashing down around the island.

It's why we've called it, affectionately, our National Trust cake. However unpredictable the weather, however disastrous the outing, however much fun has not really been had on the family-day out, there's something wonderfully reassuring about the predictability of the cake you'll have in the café, along with a cup of tea. It's one of life's great certainties.

You can make this in a standard 8 1/2 x 4 1/3-inch/900-g loaf pan, as we do here, or, if you have them, nine mini-loaf pans (3 1/2 x 2 1/3 x 1 1/2 inches/9 x 6 x 4 cm) also work well. If you are making the mini loaves, shorten the baking time to 25 minutes.

This will keep for 3 days in an airtight container." —Helen

What You'll Need
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (225 grams) granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup (120 grams) sour cream
  • 5 tablespoons (70 grams) unsalted butter, cubed, plus extra for greasing
  • 1 tablespoon poppy seeds
  • Finely grated zest of 3 lemons (1 tablespoon)
  • 1 1/3 cups (170 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup (90 grams) confectioners' sugar, sifted
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  1. Heat the oven to 325° F (160° C). Grease the loaf pan(s) and line with parchment paper, then set aside.
  2. Place the eggs and granulated sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer with the whisk attachment in place and whisk on medium-high speed for about 2 minutes, until pale and frothy. Add the sour cream and continue to beat for about 2 minutes, until the mixture has combined.
  3. In the meantime, melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat, stir in the poppy seeds and lemon zest, and set aside.
  4. Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together into a bowl, then use a rubber spatula to fold this into the egg mixture before folding in the butter, poppy seeds, and zest.
  5. Spoon the mixture into the loaf pan(s) so that it rises three-quarters of the way up the sides. Place on a baking sheet and bake for 55 to 65 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. Do not open the oven door to check the cake during the first 45 minutes of baking.
  6. To make the glaze, whisk the confectioners' sugar with the lemon juice in a bowl.
  7. Pour the glaze over the top of the cake as soon as it comes out of the oven, spreading it over the top so that it sinks in and creates a nice coating. Set aside to cool for 30 minutes before removing from the pan. Leave to come to room temperature before serving.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • ShaiLa Ja
    ShaiLa Ja
  • Elizabeth Escamilla
    Elizabeth Escamilla
  • Toya L Dubin
    Toya L Dubin
  • Hina Khokhar
    Hina Khokhar
  • Candy Vongpraseuth
    Candy Vongpraseuth
Co-author of Yotam Ottolenghi's newest cookbook, Sweet (Fall 2017 by Ten Speed Press).

69 Reviews

Kate August 29, 2022
The first attempt didn't rise as much as I would have liked. However, on the second attempt, I changed the temperature to 350 for 15 minutes and then lowered it to 325 for 40 minutes. Better rise and crumb.
vicki April 2, 2022
Loved this cake. Tasty, soft, aromatic. Easy to make. Definitely a keeper.
alicelee October 28, 2021
I just made this cake and it came out great. I did have to bake it a bit longer and I added 2 tbsp of poppy seeds because I like them. It was a tender crumb and had a slight dome-y center. I would make this again.
ShaiLa J. January 28, 2021
I've tried a couple of recipes from Helen Goh and they have been excellent. So, when I heard that this cake was her favorite cake I had to try it. The cake baked beautifully. Good rise. Golden. Beautiful crumb. And yet, I found the taste lacking and the texture quite dense. Personally I like a light fluffy lemon poppy seed cake and this did not deliver such dreams. Oh well to the next recipe. Any recommendations?
Elizabeth E. July 1, 2020
I wish I had I read the reviews before I made this - just wasted eggs and butter during quarantine! I tried baking the cake in mini-pans which probably didn’t help the cause.
Toya L. April 27, 2020
Was very excited to try this cake, as I've always been a huge admirer of Yotam Ottolenghi, but found myself hugely disappointed in the structure of the recipe. It felt obvious as a home baker that this is a recipe intended for someone with a sous chef.

How on earth would it be possible to have sifted the dry ingredients, melted the butter, AND zested the lemons in the 4 total minute increment in which one is supposed to be whipping the eggs simultaneously?

A far better order is:
1. Melt the butter, and zest the lemons, stirring occasionally. Once the butter is just melted, add the poppy seeds and lemons.
2. Sift the dry ingredients together.
3. Whip the eggs and sugar
4. Make sure that the butter is cool before adding it to the mixture, so as not to cook the eggs.

My bake took the full 65 minutes, I'm American and used King Arthur All Purpose flour and American size large eggs.

I observed this order, and produced an acceptable but not hugely noteworthy cake. It matched the photo almost exactly, but I found the texture to be a bit dense, and that the frosting could have been made with 1.5 tsp of lemon juice instead of 2, as the 2 tsp version soaked into the top layer of the cake and made what should have been a crisp bite a bit gummy.

Overall, I was disappointed and underwhelmed by what felt like an elitist take on a humble country cake, with much of the order of the recipe either left intentionally vague, or simply ill considered.
lizz April 22, 2020
i made this cake & it turned out great. I did make 3 adjustments: I substituted coconut milk based yogurt because I did not have any sour cream in the house, I used slightly less sugar (between 3/4 and 1 cup) which is more to my taste and used 4 American large eggs based on the comments below--I never knew egg sizes varied country to country and weighed them and lo & behold! Texture of cake was great and I did not have issues with it falling. I only cooled butter the duration of time I was preparing other ingredients, including zesting the lemon.
Bellahughes March 21, 2020
Would not recommend making this cake!! Saw other people had problems with the cake collapsing, same with me! Possibly the butter was too warm, but I followed the UK edition of Sweet, which just says “set aside”, aka makes no reference to needing this to cool (mine was probably warm, definitely not hot). So disappointing when recipes are written badly / don’t work!
Hina K. January 20, 2019
Has there been an update to this recipe? I made it when it was first posted and I could have sworn it called for heavy cream but now it says sour cream.
Eh444 January 20, 2019
Yes, it definitely used to say heavy cream
Eh444 January 20, 2019
See Authors comments below regarding heavy cream vs sour cream
Samtuller December 7, 2018
tammany November 11, 2018
Quick question on sour cream vs heavy cream: It seems like many people had success (albeit after a bit of extra mixing) using heavy cream. Can I sub heavy cream for the sour cream? I ask bc I will use up the extra half cup of heavy cream but extra sour cream just sits around my fridge until it becomes a moldy mess. I just don't use it very often. (Or is there a sour cream hack - like clabbering milk? - that I need to know about??!! Tell me please!!) Thanks!!
Helen November 11, 2018
Hello, where are you based? Just asking because the cream, even heavy cream in the US is much thinner than here in the UK, and affects the liquid content of the cake. The cream we used is closer in consistency to the sour cream, so if you are based in US, sour cream is a better bet. If Aus/NZ, heavy cream is fine. You could freeze the remaining sour cream and add to sauces/soups another time. Another tip, make sure your melted butter is not hot when you fold it into the batter. Cool to room temp before use. Hope that is helpful.
tammany November 11, 2018
Helen - thank you! I'm in the US so using thinner heavy cream. But I didn't know I could freeze sour cream - and that is what I will do! That way I have another half-container ready for the next batch of lemon & poppy seed cake. And thanks too for the butter tip - I'll make sure it's room temp.
Eh444 June 5, 2018
Just made this cake...it was absolutely DELICIOUS! A permanent place in my repertoire. I cant wait to bring this out at an afternoon tea and watch the reaction to this humble lemon cake!
geugca May 6, 2018
The corrections on the book call for sour cream instead of heavy cream. A whisk instead of a paddle attachment on medium speed. Has anyone made this cake with these changes?
Candy V. March 14, 2018
I’m a little confused after reading the comments. If I’m in the US, should I be using large or extra large eggs?
sunnycooksandhow February 14, 2018
I made this to bring to a dinner party and it was a hit! This was an easy cake to put together and I like the ingredients are accessible. 2 lemons was enough to get me to 1 tbsp of zest. My cake rose quite beautifully and did not sink. I'll be making this again because it makes a great loaf for gifting!
Bill January 13, 2018
http://crownpublishing.com/sweetupdate Some of the bakers problems here might be due to the errors made by the publisher in the US. Calls for whisk no paddle attachment in Step 2.
Gal February 27, 2018
Bill is correct. In February 2018, Penguin Random House sent the following email with an "Important Information for the North American Edition of Sweet"

"We would like Penguin Random House readers who purchased the North American edition of Sweet to be aware that a number of errors occurred during the book publisher’s editorial process when converting ingredient measurements and oven temperatures to American equivalents. While we are in the process of producing the corrected edition of the book, which will be available in mid-March, we want to ensure that our readers are aware of the corrections to the current edition, which are detailed in this document.

For those who purchased the North American first edition, we are offering replacement copies when the new printing is available; please email [email protected] to request a copy of the new printing".
Tasha December 19, 2017
any thoughts on freezing (adding glaze to the defrosted loaf?)
shecky2000 December 15, 2017
This recipe calls for a paddle attachment on the mixer but I only have a hand mixer with the traditional beater type blades. Will that work just as well, or would it be better for me to mix by hand with a wooden spoon or such? Thanks in advance for the advice.
Idalu December 15, 2017
Yes it will.
shecky2000 December 15, 2017
Many thanks, Idalu!
Joycelyn December 10, 2017
For anyone wondering about bleached flour being banned in the UK, read the link.

Also, link to an explanation on the difference in egg size, UK versus US, from Ask Nigella.

JosieD December 9, 2017
Help! I’ve made this cake twice and each time the Center has fallen after a 55-60 minute bake. Does it just need more time in the oven or am I doing something else wrong?
Joycelyn December 10, 2017
Might be as simple as how you measured your flour. If you scoop and level you'll end up with more flour than fill and level.

For best baking result, invest in a digital kitchen scale ( they're not that expensive ) and you'll see a noticeable difference ( as in success ) in your baked goods.

MarkP March 21, 2018
I weighed the flour but had similar results with the center collapsing. Any additional advice appreciated.
Helen November 5, 2018
Hi Mark, sorry I have just seen this. Is it possible that your melted butter was too warm when you folded it into the cake batter?
Matt K. January 18, 2019
Mine collapsed too. I weighed the ingredients. The butter had a fair amount of time to cool. What temp should it be?