Southern Belle Lemon Layer Cake Recipe

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.

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 Christmas Peppermint Cake!

Southern Belle Lemon Layer Cake

“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 carefully selected 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.

Her reasoning was sound. She knew the girls’ cake would elicit ooohs and aaaahs on Mother’s Day. Afterward, she wanted them to be able to march into the kitchen and 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 which graciously shared its recipe with me but at its own request, shall remain anonymous.

I’ll tell you, when I learned that the recipe called for a cake mix and Jello, my heart nearly broke. But you know, some times these things have their place. This cake is so moist, so lemony and I love how it’s so easily adapted to other flavors. In a layer cake, it’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.

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. 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.)
Kitchen Parade is written by second-generation food columnist Alanna Kellogg and features fresh, seasonal dishes for every-day healthful eating and occasional indulgences. Do you have a favorite celebration cake recipe that other Kitchen Parade readers might like? Just send me a quick e-mail via How to print a Kitchen Parade recipe. Never miss a recipe! If you like this recipe, sign up for a free e-mail subscription. If you like Kitchen Parade, you're sure to like my food blog about vegetable recipes, too, A Veggie Venture. Follow Kitchen Parade on Facebook!


A show-stopper layer cake, lemon on lemon
Hands-on time: 30 minutes to mix, 30 minutes to ice for a layer cake, 5 minutes for a 9x13
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
  • Thin lemon slices
  • Strawberries, halved at an angle, keeping the stems intact

CAKE Preheat 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 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.

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 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.

NUTRITION ESTIMATE Keeping It Real: With high-calorie recipes like this one, I some times quake to publish the nutrition information. But 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.

Per 16 slices of Lemon Layer Cake, assuming 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; Weight Watchers Old Points 12/14, PointsPlus 14/17

Per 24 pieces of 9x13 cake which calls for half the frosting: 279 Calories; 10g Total Fat; 5g Sat Fat; 43mg Cholesterol; 243mg Sodium; 42g Carb; 0g Fiber; 33g Sugar; 3g Protein; Weight Watchers Old Points 6, PointsPlus 7
Adapted from “Mama’s recipe” for lemon layer cake from a fun neighborhood restaurant in the South which asked to remain anonymous. The restaurant serves lemon cake but also orange cake made with orange jello and orange extract and cherry cake with cherry jello and cherry extract. I found many different extract flavors at OliveNation – the possibilities suddenly explode! Cranberry? Blueberry? Lime? (NOT a sponsored link and just FYI, I’ve never ordered from OliveNation before myself.) My Disclosure Promise

Christmas Peppermint Cake

Christmas Peppermint Cake

This recipe is so adaptable! (See the recipe above.) 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.

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Alanna, why doesn't the sugar-free jell-o work? (It's been my salvation in recipes like this.)
Cyndi ~ The first time I made the cake, I made it in a 9x13 and yes, like you, have had good luck with sugar-free jello. People ate it (and asked for the recipe, always a good sign, but it didn't have the sweet lemon-y-ness that makes the cake special. The cake was also kind of wet and dense.

But you know, it would be worth another try, I was thinking that this morning myself as I was posting the recipe.
This looks delicious! Thanks for sharing!
Would it be possible to substitute applesauce or something for the oil in this recipe? Wondering how to make it lower in fat and sugar?
Hi, You know, it might be but I'm not experienced with the in's and out's of substituting applesauce. If you play around with it and have success (or not), I'd love to know ...
On this recipe, do you put 4 Tablespoons of lemon extract in cake and 2 Tablespoons of lemon extract in the icing or is it teaspoons?

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Thank you for taking a moment to write! I read each and every comment, for each and every recipe. If you have a specific question, it's nearly always answered quick-quick. But I also love hearing your reactions, your curiosity, even your concerns! When you've made a recipe, I especially love to know how it turned out, what variations you made, what you'll do differently the next time. ~ Alanna