Maida Heatter's Lemon Buttermilk Cake

April 20, 2021
84 Ratings
Photo by Rocky Luten
  • Prep time 20 minutes
  • Cook time 1 hour 15 minutes
  • Serves 12 to 15
Author Notes

This light, moist, lemony cake is genius for so many reasons: 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. Adapted slightly from Maida Heatter’s New Book of Great Desserts (Knopf, 1982). —Genius Recipes

Test Kitchen Notes

Featured in: The Genius, Foolproof Lemon Cake Dorie Greenspan Swears By. —The Editors

What You'll Need
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Maida Heatter's Lemon Buttermilk Cake
  • Fine, dry bread crumbs, for dusting pan
  • Finely grated rind of 3 large lemons (juice will be used below for Glaze)
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 2/3 cups (354 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 pound (226 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing pan
  • 2 cups (400 grams) granulated sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • Glaze
  • 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  1. Adjust a rack one-third up from the bottom of the oven and preheat oven to 350°F. You will need a tube pan with a 10-cup capacity (that is generally 9 inches in diameter); it can be a pan with a design or a 9 x 3 1/2–inch tube pan without a design. If you use a pan with a design, butter it (even if it is nonstick) and then dust it all over with fine, dry bread crumbs. If you use the plain 9 x 3 1/2–inch tube pan, butter it, line the bottom with parchment paper cut to fit, butter the paper, and dust all over with crumbs. With either pan, tap to shake out excess crumbs over a piece of paper. Set aside.
  2. Place the lemon rind and juice in a small cup and set aside.
  3. Sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt, and set aside.
  4. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter until soft. Add the sugar and beat until well mixed. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. On low speed, add the sifted dry ingredients in three additions and the buttermilk in two, beginning and ending with the dry. Scrape the bowl with a rubber spatula, and beat only until smooth after each addition.
  5. Remove from the mixer and stir in the lemon rind and juice.
  6. Turn into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake for 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes or until a cake tester gently inserted into the middle comes out clean and dry. The cake will be deeply golden brown and will have begun to pull away from the sides of the pan.
  7. While the cake is baking, make the glaze: Mix the juice and sugar and let stand, stirring occasionally.
  8. Remove the cake from the oven and let it stand in the pan for 5 minutes. Then cover it with a rack and very carefully turn over the pan and the rack and place it over a large piece of foil. Remove the pan. If you have used a paper lining, peel it off now.
  9. With a pastry brush, brush the glaze over the top, sides and tube of the hot cake.
  10. Let stand until completely cool.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Smaug
  • Alek Meyer
    Alek Meyer
  • Nicki Dugan Pogue
    Nicki Dugan Pogue
  • RavensFeast
  • Carina D.
    Carina D.
Genius Recipes

Recipe by: Genius Recipes

115 Reviews

B99 January 21, 2024
Excellent recipe. I followed advice of reviews and reduced sugar to 1.5 cups since I usually like things less sweet. I used baking spray to grease pan and think I missed a few spots. It overall turned out of the pan easily but a few spots stuck. Glazing took longer than anticipated, but flavor was worth it. Perfect lemon flavor, great crumb and color.
Smaug January 11, 2024
The differences from the original; 1/3 c. less flour. Original calls for "zest of 2 or 3 lemons"-Ms. Heatter was in citrus growing territory; homegrown lemons are frequently much larger than storebought. She lines her pan with parchment or wax paper- I generally use wax paper; modern writers throw parchment around as if it were free.
She generally recommends bread crumbs for lining pans; I long ago started substituting flour most of the time, and it's never been a problem.
SittingDuck July 10, 2023
Way too sweet!
Shirley W. February 5, 2023
Made this for my brother's birthday as he had requested a lemon cake. Based on other review comments I only did 1 1/2 cups sugar in the batter. I also dusted the pan with sugar instead of bread crumbs. Everyone loved this cake!! The lemon flavor was perfect!! This will be made again and again.
JJGood April 21, 2022
This cake was absolutely perfect—not puckery like a lemon poppyseed poundcake maybe, but deeply lemony nevertheless with a wonderful caramel aroma when it came out of the oven. Using breadcrumbs to coat the inside of the pan created a really pleasing textural contrast with the interior, which was delicate and moist. I added a pinch of ground ginger to the batter and a couple tablespoons of limoncello to the glaze (I was short of lemon juice!) but not sure how much of a difference either made. Overall, I could not have been happier.
Alek M. March 14, 2022
Not as lemony as I would've hoped, and the glaze left it a bit soggy rather than moist. When I tried to get the cake out of the bundt, a big section tore off, but that one could've been user error!
suzanne January 22, 2022
Made this last night exactly, with 3 large Eureka lemons from my tree. Easy and good so why 3 stars? BC it's not that lemony and not at all puckery. The cake itself has just a hint of lemon (even with all that zest!). The only lemony part is the edge that is soaked with the syrup - and that's delicious. Overall a nice cake but not genius or wow. Reframe the description and i'd rate it higher.
Nicki D. January 14, 2022
This was a HUGE hit with my people. I don't know if it's blasphemous, but I added a tablespoon of poppy seeds for a bit of splash. I baked mine for an hour and now wonder if I could've pulled it out a smidge sooner - it's fairly dark. I also think I might use confectioner's sugar for the glaze next time so that it has a bit more of a "crust" when it sets. Delicious, light, puckery!
nv114 December 13, 2020
Definitely use half a cup less sugar for the cake. For the lemon glaze heat the lemon juice with 1 star anise and add granulated sugar honey to taste
Deterding July 4, 2020
This cake was phenomenal. Very moist and buttery inside, and the outside was tart and lemony!! My family loved its!
annunziata June 19, 2020
I made it and I know I must have screwed up. It is after all Maida Heatter's recipe with Dorie Greenspan's blessing as well as all the other rave reviews ... it was the Worst cake I have ever made. I rechecked the recipe to see what I did wrong but I couldn't find anything. Mia colpa, mia massimma colpa! I'm going back to bed.
Lin June 19, 2020
Annunziata I was not that pleased with my cake either, but figured it had to be something I did with all the rave reviews. It was good but a little dry to me and not what I was expecting. As we say in the South.."Bless your Heart"! I know how you feel.
MacGuffin July 16, 2020
It's worth another try. Mine was phenomenally yummy. I was, however, careful not to riff--I followed the recipe to the letter.
cosmiccook May 27, 2021
Oh no! mine's in the oven--but I f'd up the recipe. I put the 1/2 lemon juice in the mix! Fingers crossed its not TOO moist and falls apart when I unmold it. I also used almond meal as I didn't have bread crumbs. I added Lemon Myrtle to buttermilk but only 1/2 teaspoon --don't think I added enough.
RavensFeast June 15, 2020
What a great recipe! Put our 13 year old in charge of this one and (without much help), she nailed it. We did use 1/2 cup less sugar in the batter after reading the suggestions from other reviewers. I think it would have been fine with the original amount, but it was also delicious with a bit less. Our cake tested done at the 1 hr. mark (skewer tested clean & dry, cake was golden brown and split). It wasn't nearly as deeply golden as the image or video above, and indeed I think it could have baked another 5+ min. Nonetheless, that's all just perfectionism, because is was absolutely delightful as it was! This is a prefect picnic cake.
Carina D. May 9, 2020
I just baked this cake for Mother’s Day (tomorrow.) It turned out amazingly beautiful! I followed each step to the T and made sure to add all of the glaze. It seems like so much glaze but trust me, the cake soaks it right up! I used a classic Bundt pan, with a dark nonstick coating (similar to the Nordic Ware one in the video.) However, I took the cake out at 50 mins (followed advice of another reviewer.) The top of the cake was split and golden brown, that’s how I could tell. It slipped out of the pan with great ease! It’s a gorgeous cake and am sure it will be a hit!
Justine K. April 27, 2020
This cake is one of my favourites. I baked in a heavy metal bundt tin, so I reduced to baking time to 50 minutes. I noticed that this recipe is different to the one printed in the Genius cookbook. Is that on purpose?
annunziata April 11, 2020
Can you substitute panko bread crumbs for the dried bread crumbs?
Isa April 11, 2020
I did, since that is what I had. But! The second time I used granulated sugar and it was SO much better! And you can still see where there isn’t enough butter. This cake is wonderful, but the entire family preferred it with the sugar coating ;)
Smaug April 11, 2020
Too coarse, flour actually works perfectly well. Fine bread crumbs for coating cake pans was kind of a favorite of Mme. Heatter, but you don't really want a coating; they should be fine enough (and flavorless enough) to incorporate into the cake without being noticeable. Flour works just fine.
Nicki D. January 14, 2022
I used panko, but gave them a spin in the food processor first to give a finer grain. Turned out great!
hillary June 18, 2022
Just wondering what type of pan you used with the sugar coating? I did a mix of sugar and breadcrumbs (blasted in the food processor), and a silicone version of the pan used in the recipe and found that with an hour in the oven, the sugar caught and burned slightly in some places :( haven’t cut into yet, and I’m sure it’ll be fine, but at the moment, I’m regretting my choice to use it!
Isa June 18, 2022
I have used a metal Bundt pan. I’m sorry it burnt in the silicone pan! I hope that the cake is still delicious!
Isa March 29, 2020
This is delish. Our second one is cooling now. Like others, I used a fair bit less sugar (1.25 cups), though kept the same amount as recipe calls for in the glaze. I buttered and sugared the cake pan and both cakes have come out beautifully.
Re: timing, in my dark Bundt pan it takes anywhere from 35-45” never any longer...thank you for a new addition to my lemon cake recipes!
Elias H. February 17, 2020
Great cake, friends and family love it and I really enjoy the zing from the exterior glaze. However is anyone having any issues with bake times. The first time I made this cake I trusted my instincts and took it out at the 35 minute mark. Came out slightly dark but still great color. The second time I baked it for the full hour, the color was way too dark teetering I’m burnt. Anyone else having this issue?
Ellie January 28, 2020
I made a mistake, My copy is not the 1974 edition . It is the reprint. I gave the original to a friend.
You are great to respond so fast. Love Food 52!
Smaug January 28, 2020
I nearly lived in those books much of my adult life, so your comment sort of jumped out at me. The "Book of Great Desserts" was from 1974; the "New Book of Great Desserts" is a completely different book, published in 1982.
Ellie January 28, 2020
I found my original Maida Heatter cook book and the recipe called for whole not buttermilk .
Smaug January 28, 2020
I think you're looking at the "Best Damn Lemon Cake"- turn the page for "Lemon Buttermilk Cake #2".
Kathleen D. January 21, 2020
This cake is simply marvelous. I followed the recipe exactly, with one slight variation; I used the zest from 3 very large Texas Meyer lemons. That is probably more zest than the average 3 lemons. Everyone that tasted this cake wanted more!
Elias H. February 17, 2020
It’s way more zest but the cake turns out great every time! Source: I’m a Houstonian with a huge Meyer lemon tree in my yard, and they are massive!