What’s the saying—when life gives you lemons, bake a multi-layered lemon cake?! Ten years ago, Ryan gave Adam an adorable baby lemon bush as a gift for his birthday, and over the past decade we’ve watched it flourish into a full grown tree. Now it produces plump, juicy fruit throughout the year, and this month it is filled with tangy yellow ovals of sunshine just waiting to be turned into something spectacular. Waking up to Vegan Lemon Waffles for breakfast is quite the treat on a Sunday morning, and our Creamy Cavatappi with Artichoke and Lemon is a perfect cozy weeknight dinner—especially now at the peak of artichoke season. Since our kitchen currently resembles an overstocked lemon farm with brightly-colored fruit covering every inch of counter space, we wanted to make use of our abundance of gold, so over the past week we’ve been working on something magical: a light and fluffy lemon cake, layered with silky ribbons of vanilla whipped cream, and topped with a striking green ombré matcha frosting. Get comfy, fix yourself a Ginger Tea with Lemon and Honey, and let’s bake a cake!
We have to admit, this testing process was not easy. Our goal was to make a soft yellow cake with a distinct lemon flavor, and after five times testing this recipe (yes, five!), the cake of our dreams finally made its grand appearance. We can’t continue this story without acknowledging the invaluable help of our great friend, Rebecca Firth—superstar baking blogger of Displaced Housewife and author of The Cookie Book (2019) and The Cake Book (October 2021). We called and texted with her multiple times after our initial cake attempts kept collapsing in the oven, resembling deflated wet sponges. So, thank you Rebecca for your expertise, for spending your precious time with us, and for your help transforming our sad wet sponge into a gorgeous show-stopping masterpiece.
This cake is perfect for spring. It’s tart and lemony, layered with light vanilla whipped cream, and decorated in a stunning green ombré matcha frosting. We have a few tricks up our sleeves that make this dessert special. First, we massage freshly grated lemon zest into the sugar by hand, infusing it with aromatic flavor. The second secret is that every layer of cake is brushed with a tangy lemon syrup, giving each bite an extra boost of citrus. And finally, we are proud to say that the vibrant yellow color of this cake is completely natural. Tinted with freshly squeezed lemons and a pinch of turmeric, this cake is so bright, you may need sunglasses when cutting into it.
How pretty is this emerald-green frosting? Thankfully, the ombré decoration is easy to make. You quickly whip up some butter, powdered sugar, and vanilla—and that’s it. This simple buttercream frosting is naturally colored with a dash of green matcha powder, bringing a delicious, earthy green tea flavor that complements the lustrous layers of citrusy lemon cake. It’s a combination made in heaven, and if you happen to be reading this post in the summer, winter, or fall, not to worry: this cake is truly a winner any time of year.
Lemon Layer Cake with Matcha Frosting
Makes one 4-layer, 8-inch cake
For the lemon cake:
3 cups (360 g) all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 ground turmeric
1 1/2 cups (297 g) granulated sugar
grated zest from two lemons
1/2 cup (118 ml) milk of your choice, at room temperature
1/2 cup (116 g) greek yogurt, at room temperature
1 cup (226 g / two sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup (70 ml) freshly-squeezed lemon juice
For the lemon syrup:
1/2 cup (99 g) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (118 ml) freshly-squeezed lemon juice
For the whipped cream filling:
2 cups (473 ml) whipping cream, chilled
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon (40 g) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch of salt
For the matcha frosting:
1 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (426 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
6 cups (600 g) powdered sugar
1/4 plus 1/8 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
a few teaspoons milk of your choice, as needed to thin
2 1/2 teaspoons matcha powder, divided (see note)
To make the lemon cakes:
Preheat oven to 350°F/177°C. Grease the bottom and sides of two 8-inch cake pans, and line the bottoms of the pans with circles of parchment.
Place a fine-mesh strainer over a medium mixing bowl, and pour in the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and turmeric. Sift the dry ingredients into the bowl to remove any lumps. Set aside.
In a small bowl, combine the sugar and lemon zest, and use your fingers to massage the zest into the sugar until it is well-combined and fragrant. Set aside.
In a measuring cup, combine the milk and greek yogurt and stir until smooth. Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the room-temperature butter and the sugar-zest mixture. Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the eggs and vanilla extract and beat until smooth, an additional 2 minutes, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the flour mixture and beat on low speed just until combined and no dry streaks of flour remain. Pour in the milk-yogurt mixture and the lemon juice and beat on low speed just until combined without over-mixing. Remove the beaters and stir briefly by hand, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl to ensure that the batter is evenly mixed.
Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared cake pans, spreading each one into an even layer. Bake on the center rack of the oven until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean with just a few crumbs sticking to it, about 30 to 35 minutes. Let cool in the pans for 10 minutes, then run a dull knife around the edges of the cakes to release them from the sides of the pan, and invert the cakes onto wire racks. Remove the parchment paper and allow the cakes to cool completely to room temperature, about one hour.
To make the lemon syrup:
In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and lemon juice. Set over medium-low heat, stir until the sugar is completely dissolved, then remove from heat and set aside.
To make the whipped cream filling:
First, place the mixing bowl and beaters in the freezer for 5 minutes to chill.
Pour the cream into the chilled bowl and beat on medium speed until beginning to thicken. With the mixer running, slowly add the sugar and continue to beat until soft peaks form when you lift the beaters. Add the vanilla and salt, and continue to beat until stiff peaks form. Transfer the bowl to the fridge to keep cold while you prepare the frosting.
To make the matcha frosting:
In a large bowl, beat the room temperature butter on medium speed until soft and fluffy. Place a fine-mesh strainer over the bowl and pour in the powdered sugar and salt, sifting into the bowl to remove any lumps. Add the vanilla extract, and blend until smooth and silky. If the frosting is too thick, add milk a few teaspoons at a time as needed, blending the frosting to a spreadable consistency.
Set out two small bowls, and scoop about 1/2 cup of frosting into each bowl. To the first bowl, add 2 teaspoons of matcha powder and stir until evenly blended to create a dark green frosting. To the second bowl, add 1/2 teaspoon of matcha powder and stir until evenly blended to create a light green frosting. Leave the remaining white frosting in the mixing bowl.
To assemble and decorate:
Fill a pastry piping bag (or a zip-top plastic bag) with a few cups of white frosting, and cut the corner to create an opening about 1/2-inch wide. Set aside.
Place one of the cooled cake layers on a cutting board. Using a long serrated knife or a cake leveler, cut the cake horizontally into two layers. Repeat with the second cake.
Select your serving plate, and place a small dollop (less than a tablespoon) of white frosting in the center of the plate, smoothing it out to a thin smear—this thin layer of frosting acts like glue, holding the cake in place as you decorate, so it doesn’t slide around the plate.
Place the first layer of cake in the center of the plate, cut-side-up. Use a pastry brush to brush the lemon syrup lightly over the entire top surface of the cake—it should be evenly moist, but not overly wet. Use the piping bag to pipe a ring of frosting around the top edge of the cake, which creates a barrier that will prevent the whipped cream filling from leaking out. Scoop about 1/2 cup of the whipped cream filling in the middle of the cake, and use an offset spatula to spread the whipped cream into an even layer, spreading the filling all the way to the ring of frosting without overlapping or mixing with it.
Repeat this process with the next two layers of cake: Place each layer cut-side-up, brush it with lemon syrup, pipe a frosting ring around the top, and fill the middle with whipped cream filling.
After placing the fourth and final layer on top, brush it with lemon syrup—note that you may have lemon syrup left over; you do not have to use it all.
Frost the side and top of the cake in a very thin coating of the white frosting, smoothing the surfaces evenly—you will still be able to see the cake showing through the thin layer of frosting, as pictured above. Place the cake in the fridge for 10 to 15 minutes for the frosting to set. This creates a firm “crumb coat” of frosting that holds all the cake crumbs in place, so the final layer of frosting is smooth and free from lumps.
Now it’s time to frost the cake and create the ombré effect. First, spread a generous layer of the white frosting over the top of the cake. Spread the frosting all the way to the edge of the cake so it overhangs the edge just slightly, by about 1/4 inch.
To create the ombré effect, first start with the dark green frosting: using a small spatula, spread a generous stripe of frosting around the base of the cake, about 1/3 of the way up the side. Next, using the light green frosting, spread a stripe around the side of the cake, just above the dark green stripe, about 2/3 of the way up the side of the cake. Finally, using the white frosting, spread a stripe around the side of the cake, just above the light green stripe and all the way to the top of the cake. Using a long straight spatula, smooth the side of the cake all the way around, creating a smooth finish and a watercolor ombré color fade effect. The top of the cake can be left in a rustic swirled pattern as pictured here, or the top can be smoothed if desired.
Serve immediately, or keep in a covered container in the fridge for up to 3 days. If refrigerating, allow the cake to come to room temperature before serving as cakes become more dense and less flavorful when cold.
— It is important to have the ingredients for the cake batter at room temperature, as cold ingredients do not blend as well and will negatively affect the texture of the cake.
— The cake layers can be baked, cooled completely, then wrapped tightly in plastic and kept refrigerated for up to 3 days before decorating and assembling the dessert.
— Matcha powder is available in grocery stores and online. Look for matcha labeled as “culinary grade” which is extra finely ground, resulting in a smooth texture for the frosting.