This single layer lemon cake with lemon cream cheese frosting is a bite of sunshine: a light and bright lemon cake, infused with lemon syrup and topped with a smooth lemon cream cheese frosting.
On my birthday this year, which feels like a lifetime ago but really was only 3 months back, Brian and I sat in an actual restaurant (RPM Italian) and had dinner to celebrate. The best part of the meal, shockingly, was not the amazing pasta or wine, but the small lemon cake they brought out at the end. The cake’s diminutive size belied its intense, unbelievable lemon flavor. I literally gasped when I tasted it. It was like sunshine.
I think we all need a dose of sunshine right now.
I’m not going to lie, these days have been difficult. I feel bad even saying that because I know how lucky I am to be healthy and able to work from home, but there’s no denying the mental and physical toll this time is taking on us all.
Living in a one bedroom apartment in a downtown high rise building was my ideal life just a few months ago, yet now it feels like a prison. Sometimes I run in place in front of the open window for 20 minutes, trying to get the right angle so the sun is on my face and I can pretend I’m outside running by the lake when a breeze comes in.
Yeah, that’s the level I’m at.
Even though I am so grateful for how lucky we are, feelings simmer underneath. Worrying who of my family or friends might be sick and exhaustion at the prospect of suiting up to leave the apartment. Wondering who was breathing in the elevator right before me when I bring once-weekly groceries upstairs. Trying to avoid other people in the hallway, picking up mail, on the street, in the grocery store. Even though we’re on the 9th floor of our building, we take the stairs most of the time because there’s less chance of others.
Here’s the part where I should talk about how I made this single layer lemon cake with lemon cream cheese frosting to combat the darkness and the doldrums, but the truth is I made it months ago, right after that dinner at RPM, before we knew any of this was headed our way. I brought it to work and shared it with my coworkers, in the same room, sharing the same knife to cut it, likely less than 6 feet apart. It feels like another life.
I feel like I’m in a time warp and I’m not entirely sure where the days go, but I did finally manage to get these photos edited and the recipe written up at the request of one of those coworkers, and I think it’s an appropriate one for this moment.
Lemon always tastes like Italy and summer to me, like the summer I spent studying in Rome in college. The lemon gelato was the best and I’d meander down the cobblestone streets trying to lick it all before it melted in little rivers down my hand.
I hope this cake will similarly usher in brighter, happier days ahead.
Notes on this one layer lemon cake:
Once again, research via google didn’t turn up many single layer lemon cakes, other than giant sheet cakes which nobody has a need for right now. I continue to be surprised by the lack of one layer cake recipes out there, but I’m glad I can provide something that’s missing.
See the rest of my single layer cake recipes here.
I wanted a lemon cake positively bursting with lemon flavor, like the one I had at RPM. A couple experiments with this cake led to flavorless results at first, which no one wants. After some tinkering, I found that using the juice of the lemon as a syrup to pour over the baked cake, rather than including it in the batter, produced the brightest flavor.
And of course, topping the whole thing with a thick layer of smooth lemon cream cheese frosting never hurt anyone. I added a couple tablespoons of store-bought lemon curd to the frosting to really bring out that brightness, but it’s totally optional and will be just fine without it if you don’t have any lying around.
So, here are my tips for single layer lemon cake success:
- Rub the lemon zest and sugar together before creaming with the butter. This releases the oils in the lemon zest and really brings out the lemon flavor.
- Use buttermilk for best flavor in the cake, but if you don’t have it I include substitution notes below the recipe. You can use yogurt or sour cream instead.
- Make sure you turn the baked cake out onto your serving platter BEFORE you pour the lemon syrup over it. I made the mistake of pouring the syrup over while the warm cake was still in the pan, and when I tried to release it onto a rack it completely fell apart and stuck to everything. No bueno. Turning the cake out onto the serving platter first, then poking holes and pouring the syrup over, ensures we don’t have a sad cake mess on our hands.
- Make sure the syrup-soaked cake is completely cooled before you frost. If it’s still warm, the frosting will melt as it’s spread and the syrupy cake will stick to it.
- This is a soft, sort of fragile cake, particularly once the syrup is poured over. Make sure to handle with care!
I hope you enjoy baking this recipe, for yourself and those you love, to bring a little sunshine and brightness when we really need it. Thank you, as always, for your support and constant feedback! Stay well.
Single Layer Lemon Cake with Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting
For the Lemon Cake
- 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour (187g; measured via spoon and level method)
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¾ cup granulated sugar (149g)
- 1 ½ Tablespoons lemon zest (from about 1 large lemon)
- ½ cup unsalted butter (113g)
- 2 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ½ cup buttermilk (113g)*
For the Lemon Syrup:
- 1/4 cup lemon juice (56g; from about 2 lemons)
- 1 Tablespoon granulated sugar
For the Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting:
- ¼ cup unsalted butter (56g; 1/2 stick), softened to room temperature
- 4 ounces cream cheese (113g), cold
- 1 cup powdered sugar (113g)
- 1-2 Tablespoons lemon juice (to taste)
- Pinch salt
- 1-2 Tablespoons lemon curd (optional; for brightest lemon flavor)
- Lemon zest and lemon slices, for garnish (optional)
For the Lemon Cake:
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9-inch round cake pan. Trace the bottom of the cake pan on a piece of parchment paper and cut it to match. Line bottom of cake pan with the parchment.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or a large bowl if using a hand mixer, rub the sugar and lemon zest together with your fingertips until fragrant. Cream together the butter and lemon sugar on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, 2-3 minutes.
- Add the eggs one at a time, beating on medium speed until fully incorporated after each addition. Add the vanilla extract and beat briefly to combine.
- Add a third of the flour mixture and beat on low speed until combined, then add half the buttermilk and beat on low speed again. Repeat with remaining third of flour mixture, the rest of the buttermilk, and end with the last third of the flour mixture. Beat on low speed until the batter is smooth, but do not overmix.
- Scrape batter into the prepared pan and smooth it out with a spatula. Bake for 30-32 minutes, until lightly browned and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cake cool in pan on a rack for 10-15 minutes, then invert the pan onto the rack to release the cake, remove the parchment from the bottom, and flip back right side up onto a cake plate. Let cake cool while you prepare the frosting.
For the Lemon Syrup:
- In a small microwave-safe bowl, microwave the lemon juice and sugar on high until bubbling and sugar has melted, about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Whisk together and set aside.
- Once the cake is on the cake plate, poke holes all over the top with a toothpick. Slowly pour the lemon syrup over the cake, letting it soak in fully. Let cake cool completely before frosting.
For the Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting:
- In a large bowl using a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, or a hand mixer, beat cream cheese and butter at high speed until pale and very fluffy – this should take 2-3 minutes. You want to incorporate as much air as possible into the mixture to make it light and fluffy. Add the powdered sugar, lemon juice, lemon curd (if using), and salt, and beat at medium to high speed until fully combined and light.
- Spread cooled cake with cream cheese frosting. It should make a thick layer, and can be swirled in patterns if desired.
- Decorate the outer edges of cake with additional lemon zest and lemon slices if desired. Serve!
Like this recipe? Please rate it and leave a comment or tag me on Instagram @katiebirdbakes, and sign up for my email list to receive my recipes straight to your inbox every time I post!
The best lemon cake ever! The zest in the cake, the lemon syrup and the lemon curd in the frosting all combine to create fresh lemony layers in each bite. I love the single layer cakes Katie offers. They’re great for intimate gatherings. I’m gluten free and substitute 1-1 gf flour, works perfectly every time. Thanks, Katie!
So amazing! Thank you for the review, Sheila!
I made this today using two 6 inch cake pans. I baked it for 24 minutes. It’s very dry! Maybe I baked it too long. I checked it for doneness every two minutes from 18 minutes on. I followed the recipe exactly. Nice flavor and the frosting is good but I was hoping for a texture closer to your carrot cake. I’ve used your carrot cake recipe to make a 6 inch layer cake and it was excellent. I wish the lemon cake was moist.
Hi Mary – sorry, I haven’t tested this as a 6 inch cake but I think you’d have to significantly reduce the bake time. This cake is definitely not dry at its full size!
My husband recently picked ALL the lemons from our tree so I tried my first ever attempt at a lemon cake. This one! It was absolutely delicious and the cream cheese frosting topped it off nicely. I wish I didn’t have to store it in the fridge as I am worried it won’t be as soft and fluffy but I’m sure it will still be nice 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing this yummy recipe!
So jealous that you have a lemon tree…glad you loved this cake, Lisa!
Hi, would this cake be ok for stacking in 2 layers for a 9×13 cake? Or do you think it might crumble, as lemon cakes are usually very soft! Thanks!!
Hi Smriti – I think you could double the recipe and bake in a 9×13 pan as a sheet cake, but you’d have to adjust the bake time. I recommend around 32-35 minutes but start checking doneness at 28 minutes. To test for doneness, insert a toothpick into the center of the cake. If it comes out clean, it’s done. I don’t think this would work well as a layer cake since it is quite delicate!
Very lemony fresh tasting cake! I made it today in London UK for Fathers day and the boys and dad enjoyed it very much! I usually do a single layer round lemon cake without the frosting but it’s fabulous with your cream cheese frosting recipe. I didn’t change much at all just taste tested the frosting as I went along and it was great with a extra squeeze of fresh organic unwaxed lemons.
Wonderful! So glad you enjoyed this Wendy!
I’ve now made this three different times. Each time I get better at making it. Today I added lemon extract to the batter. Syrup. And frosting just to add a smidgen more lemon. I also add 4oz extra of cream cheese. I do a double layer of my 4in pans just because. Maybe next time I’ll do single layer. I wish I could add a photo. Everyone I’ve made this for has loved it! Thank you!!
I love this review! Thank you so much, Aimee. So glad you love this recipe too!
At 64 my first ever attempt to bake a Cake! The base looks fine, I don’t have a whisk so had to use a fork for the frosting… Looked good when the Cream Cheese and butter were mixed (though a little reduced) together but once I added the Powdered Sugar and Lemon Juice it became all runny and off yellow : (
I’ll need to buy myself a whisk and practice some basic baking skills, this baking is harder than it looks..But thank you for sharing your recipes
Hi Tony – I highly recommend using a mixer for the frosting to get the best texture!
Wow, this was fantastic!! Thank you♥️
I was very hopeful for this recipe..the frosting was delicious but sadly the cake was dry and I cannot figure
Out why? Did not overbake and added the lemon syrup…it should been super moist.
Hi Barbara – I’m sorry to hear that, I’ve never had an issue with this cake being dry! Is it possible you left out one of the ingredients?
I made this in the middle of Midwestern winter for a bright, flavorful pick-me-up. The cake was wonderfully moist and easy to make. I love the single layer because it doesn’t yield too much for a small household. My favorite part was the cream cheese icing. Make sure you do whip air into it (as Katie recommends) with either a hand mixer or Kitchen aid…it’s critical for it to be fluffy and light. I admit to cutting corners last spring and using a spoon to mix the carrot cake icing on this blog and it was a little stodgier. User error!
Great recipe, have made twice and I’m sure that will continue!
Thank you so much for the amazing review, Sara! I agree, the fluffy frosting is the best.
This cake is absolutely fantastic! It took about 37 minutes of baking time. I opted for the full two tablespoons of lemon juice and lemon curd for the frosting. We brought this to a dinner party and it was a huge hit. I’m making it again this weekend for another dinner party! 🙂 Thank you for sharing such a lovely recipe!
YAY! Thank you so much, Sonya!
Hello Katie! My husband’s birthday was yesterday and we invited 2 friends over for dinner. For dessert I baked this cake for the first time and it was a hit; the cake finished! My husband actually doesn’t eat cake so his birthday cakes are usually cakes I like (haha!!) but he had two helpings of this cake!! I couldn’t believe it! This recipe was super easy to follow and the cake is delicious! I’ve never had lemon cake before so I wanted to try something new and I really love it! Thank you so much for this recipe and for introducing me to lemon cake. this one is definitely here to stay.
Thank you SO much for this amazing review!
So glad I found this! I made mini cup cakes for my office mates. Used pastry bag to fill them, baked for ~18 minutes, used your lemon syrup and frosting recipe. so good!!! Garnished with lemon zest. A bit of a messy thing because of the syrup but so so worth it! Lemony deliciousness! I will definitely make it again! Thanks!
P.S. lemon curd makes a big difference. 🙂
YUM! What a great idea! So glad this worked for you and thank you for the kind review!
The cake was delicious. A tiny but dry, maybe because I used Greek yoghurt in lieu of buttermilk? Or perhaps I needed more syrup?
The frosting was wonderful too. I had just made lemon curd so I sacrificed a tablespoon to add to the frosting.
So glad you enjoyed it! Yes, I did find the cake a bit drier when I used Greek yogurt in place of buttermilk, but both work!
This cake recipe is the real lemon deal! I followed recipe exactly & used the suggested sour cream substitute for the buttermilk. The texture, taste & simple beauty of the single layer was just perfection. The cream cheese frosting a perfect compliment to the home made rich flavored cake. No need for the lemon curd if you don’t have in your pantry. I drizzled the lemon syrup over cooling cake & then refrigerated for an hour- then frosted & refrigerated again to set it up perfectly. I brought it to a small family dinner party..it was a highlight! I give this cake BEST cake of summer award! Thank you ❤️
I love this review. Thank you SO much Michelle! Seriously made my week with this one. So glad you enjoyed it <3
WOW–light, lemony and luscious! Loved the texture and the crumb of this cake. Would make a wonderful dessert for a dinner party or just a gloomy day. Great addition to your one layer cake collection!
Thank you Phoebe! So glad you enjoyed this one!
This recipe is really awesome…i was look for its video on yt but couldnt find it..you should continue your youtube channel..cause this was freakin delicious!
So glad you enjoyed it! I will work on doing more videos 🙂
Can I substitute a rectangular pan for this recipe? If so, what size?
An 8 or 9 inch square pan would work, or you could double the recipe to make in a 9×13 pan. You could also try a single recipe on a 7×11 pan but I think the cake would be really thin. Make sure to adjust the baking time and check frequently for doneness. It’ll bake much more quickly when spread out in a rectangular pan. Good luck!
Made this today , without the cream cheese frosting . Was so good 🙂
Thank you so much for the recipe , single layer cakes are so difficult to come by 🙂 looking forward to more such recipes .
Yay! Thank you Meenu, so glad you enjoyed it. If you’re looking for more, you can check out the rest of my single layer cake recipes!
My husband is a lemon freak – so there’s no such thing as too much lemon for him. This hit the mark, esp the frosting! I like how you rub the sugar and zest together, I couldn’t get enough of the smell! A lot of lemons were harmed in making this cake, but totally worth it. I’ll keep this in a rotation for sure. Thanks!
Yay! Thank you Nancy – so glad you enjoyed!
This cake looks totally scrumptious and I’m planning to make this for my good friend’s birthday on Thursday. I wondered if it’s possible to bake this as cupcakes instead. Just to keep it a little more safe and socially distanced among my co-workers. Do you think it would work? If so, how much less time do I need to bake them?
Hi Deborah – great idea! I’d say to bake 18-22 minutes and check with a toothpick inserted in the center for doneness starting at 18. When it comes out clean or just a couple crumbs attached they’re done.
Thank you, fingers crossed, I hope this works. 🙂