The Recipe: A bright, moist and extra-lemony cake. On its own, the cake is worthy of attention, three layers and extra lemon-y. It strikes me as a southern-style cake, lemon on lemon, plain but somehow elegant, understated in appearance, pretty on the plate, entirely appealing. But this is a flexible cake recipe, too. Make it in a 9x13 cake. Make one that's extra orange-y or cherry-y or more fruity flavors. In fact, modify the recipe only slightly for a Strawberry Cake or a Christmas Peppermint Cake!
The Conversation: How a festive layer cake helped me remember a mother's long-ago lesson about setting aside my own ideals for the benefit of another generation.
“I want to make my mom a cake for Mother’s Day,” announced Katherine, age nine. To keep the project a surprise, Katherine’s aunt conspired to whisk her away for a few hours. My job was to help Katherine and Stefanie, her two-year old cousin, bake a cake.
“Piece of cake!” I thought and proceeded to carefully select simple recipes for homemade chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. I phoned my mother, a retired home ec teacher, expecting praise. But no!
“Lon,” she started off, speaking with out-of-character gentleness. “Even simple recipes are too much. I think you should use a cake mix and canned frosting.” I gulped, knowing that even if Mom were right (and aren’t our mothers nearly always right?), it would take time for my brain to accept a boxed cake mix.
Her reasoning was sound though. She knew the girls’ cake would elicit ooohs and aaaahs on Mother’s Day. Afterward, she wanted them to be able to march into their own kitchens to duplicate their first cake, no help from me, no consideration of chocolate ratios or knowing how to measure flour or the difference between baking powder and baking soda.
So a cake mix it was and canned frosting too, though me being me, we made homemade frosting too and the girls did a taste test. (They liked the canned frosting better. Harumph.)
Today? Katherine is a junior at Northwestern and will graduate with a double major in History and International Studies. Stef moves to high school next fall. Will they become cake bakers? We’ll see! Only time will tell!
This story came back to me after New Year’s when I fell head-over-heels in love with a lemon cake from a restaurant in the South. When I called, the restaurant owner graciously shared his mother's recipe but asked to remain anonymous.
But oh my. That recipe. When I learned that it called for a cake mix and Jello, my heart nearly broke.
But I remembered my mom's advice many years before. And you know, even for a "real food" home cook like me, maybe there are times when a cake mix and jello have their place.
This cake is so moist, and so lemony. I love how it’s so easily adapts to other flavors. The restaurant is partial to lemon and orange, I've also tried peppermint and strawberry.
As a layer cake, this cake's a show stopper – so plain (in a good way, like the classic tailored lines of so many of the dresses at the royal wedding last week) and so pretty. I like to think that some of the world’s best pastry chefs got their starts early, with the confidence that comes from a cake mix.
LEMON LAYER CAKE
Time to table: 4 hours
Serves 16 for a layer cake, 24 for a 9x13
- 1 box lemon cake mix
- 1 small box lemon Jello (sorry, sugar-free Jello doesn’t work)
- Water, eggs and oil as specified by the cake mix
- 4 tablespoons lemon extract
LEMON CREAM CHEESE FROSTING (use half for a 9x13)
- 16 ounces low-fat Neufchatel cream cheese, room temperature
- 2 sticks (1/2 pound) salted butter, room temperature
- 1 small box lemon Jello (sorry, sugar-free doesn’t work)
- 2 tablespoons lemon extract
- 2 pounds powdered sugar
TO GARNISH, OPTIONAL
- Thin lemon slices
- Strawberries, halved at an angle, keeping the stems intact
LEMON CAKE Heat oven according to cake mix box. Spray three round cake pans or one 9x13 cake pan.
In a large bowl, mix together cake mix and Jello, smashing any lumps with the back of a spoon. Add the water, eggs, oil and lemon extract and use an electric mixer to mix according to package instructions. Turn into pans or pan and bake according to package instructions. Let cool on racks for at least 30 minutes until fully cool.
LEMON CREAM CHEESE FROSTING With an electric mixer, cream the cream cheese and butter until smooth. Add the Jello and lemon extract, mix until fully incorporated. In four batches, add the powdered sugar, mixing in completely after each addition.
TO ICE Frost the cake, there’s plenty of icing for spreading, enough that I end up with about a quarter leftover. For details, see How to Frost a Layer Cake, with step-by-step photos and tips. Next time, I think I'll use this "flower petal" design on the sides, see Petal Cake Tutorial from The Hungry Housewife.
REFRIGERATE Refrigerate the cake until an hour or so before serving, then bring out to come to room temperature. This cake can be made a day ahead, maybe even two although I’ve not done that.
GARNISH Just before serving, garnish with lemon slices and strawberry halves.
ALANNA’s TIPS I’ve made this recipe as a layer cake and a 9x13 cake. Both are great although the 9x13 is lots easier and has a higher proportion of cake:frosting. When the pans are sprayed well, the cake releases easily after baking. No need for parchment! Both the cake and the icing are really lemon-y, thanks to flavor boosts from the Jello and the lemon extract. Be sure to check your pantry before starting, 6 tablespoons of extract is nearly four ounces and supermarket bottles are smaller. I found a larger bottle at a lower per-ounce price at my local kitchenware store. For St. Louisans, that was Cornucopia in downtown Kirkwood. I found many different extract flavors at OliveNation – the possibilities suddenly explode! Cranberry? Blueberry? Lime? I've tried the strawberry extract and liked its natural strawberry flavor. FYI, this is NOT a sponsored link. My Disclosure Promise
Lemon Layer Cake, assumes 16 slices and use of 75%/100% of frosting: 519/625 Calories; 19/23g Tot Fat; 10/13g Sat Fat; 78/91mg Cholesterol; 417/474mg Sodium; 78/94g Carb; 0g Fiber; 64/80g Sugar; 5/6g Protein. Old Points 12/14 & PointsPlus 14/17 & SmartPoints 26/31
9x13 Cake, assumes 24 pieces and half the frosting: 279 Calories; 10g Total Fat; 5g Sat Fat; 43mg Cholesterol; 243mg Sodium; 42g Carb; 0g Fiber; 33g Sugar; 3g Protein. Old Points 6 & PointsPlus 7 & SmartPoints 13
Keeping It Real! Everyone knows that a piece of cake is a calorie bomb. But with high-calorie recipes like this one, I some times quake to publish the nutrition information. But I do it to keep it real, to face the reality. It's the ONLY way we'll understand our food choices. Most food magazines, most cookbooks, all the baking food blogs, publish one sweet temptation after another without nutrition information, making it too easy for us to believe (as if we're fooling ourselves) that a small piece "can't hurt". And it won't hurt, so long as we know what we're eating and decide if the enjoyment is worth it.
This recipe is so adaptable! (See the recipe above.) For a spring birthday, I made a strawberry layer cake. It was requested by one of the twinzz who were turning seven. He was most specific! "Strawberry cake. Whipped cream frosting. No real strawberries. Enough cake so everyone can have two slices." Out of the mouths of babes! Here's what I did and what I'd do next time.
CAKE I used a strawberry cake mix, strawberry jello and strawberry extract from Olive Nation. The color was pretty, the flavor quite strawberry-y.
For awhile now, I've started making layer cakes in two 8x8 or 9x9 squares. A square cake is much easier to slice and it's easier to get more servings aka smaller servings. I even found a special square cake plate!
CENTER LAYER I've also learned that I like it when the middle frosting layers has a different flavor and texture than the outer frosting. So here I made a half batch of the cream cheese frosting recipe that's above. Hoping to avoid the jello entirely, I used the food processor to grind a 1.2-ounce bag of freeze-dried strawberries from Trader Joe's into a fine powder. Unfortunately, the strawberries added some flavor but no sweetness so I ended up adding the strawberry jello too, a whole small box. It was very good, though next time I'd make it slightly softer, probably with the addition of a little milk.
FROSTING I'm working on a stabilized whipped cream frosting recipe but it's not quite ready to share. The flavor and texture are great but so far, it's best only within a couple of hours of making it, not great for a make-ahead or carry-along cake.
Here, for a Christmas party, I made a peppermint cake. It was really pepperminty – too pepperminty, truthfully. Here's what I did and what I'd do next time.
CAKE I used a white cake mix that called for just egg whites instead of whole eggs, cranberry jello and 4 tablespoons peppermint extract. The cake was very delicate and required patching, perhaps because of the use of egg whites, perhaps because of the addition of so much liquid; the color wasn't also that pretty. Next time, I would either make a very good white cake OR use a white or yellow cake mix that calls for whole eggs; cranberry jello; and use just a little peppermint, maybe 1 teaspoon.
FROSTING I loved the peppermint icing but again, it was just too strong so next time I would use 1 tablespoon peppermint extract. For part white/part pink frosting, I set aside about a third of the frosting to stay white, added cranberry jello to the remaining two-thirds. I also added some Wilton Icing Color (White-White) that makes things turn a very pretty bright white. In retrospect, I wish I'd added it only to the portion that was supposed to be white, I think the pink icing might have been brighter, maybe even the red I was hoping for.
CANDY CANES I intended to sprinkle peppermint sprinkles on top but read online that the colors would bleed. So instead I criss-crossed two candy canes, left wrapped to prevent bleeding.
This Week, Across the Years
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This Week, Elsewhere
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