This incredibly easy zesty lemon cake is bursting with fresh and fragrant citrus flavours! Soft and airy sponge infused with fresh lemon juice and lemon zest is topped with simple lemon icing and decorated with candied lemon peel.
The cake comes together in no time, making it great everyday teatime treat or a snack, and simple but very pretty and effective decoration makes it equally suitable for bigger occasions or gatherings.
It's not a secret that citrus bakes and treats are among my all time favourite recipes, and this lemon sponge cake is no exception. The recipe is similar to my Small Batch Lemon Drizzle Cake, but it's texture is not as dense and is much lighter in comparison (somewhere between the lemon pound cake and lemon sponge).
Unlike the mentioned drizzle cake, this easy lemon cake is topped with thick, lemon-flavoured icing, rather than a thin drizzle. There is also an addition of candied lemon peel, which not only enhances flavour and texture, but it also creates a unique and eye-catching decoration.
You only need a handful of the basic ingredients to make this lemon cake recipe. Here's what to gather:
- Dry ingredients - self-raising flour, caster sugar, icing sugar (for the glaze), baking powder, salt.
- Wet ingredients - butter, eggs, lemons (5 lemons in total- we are using lemon juice, lemon zest and lemon peel in this recipe), Greek yogurt.
Scroll to the bottom of this post for the recipe card and the full list of the ingredients.
Watch the video in the recipe card to see how I made this cake.
Start by creaming the butter and sugar until the mixture is pale and fluffy. Next, add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Don't worry if the mixture curdles a little bit after the eggs are added.
Tip in the lemon zest and vanilla, and mix again to combine. Scrape the bottom and the sides of the bowl as and when needed. Lastly, fold in the flour mixture and yogurt. Mix until the ingredients are just combined, and transfer to the baking tin. Use the back of the spoon or a spatula to smooth out the top.
Bake the cake until it is golden brown, and the toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. It should take about 50 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool it completely.
Making the candied lemon peel
While the cake is cooling down, prepare the candied lemon peel. Use the vegetable peeler to peel the strips of the lemon skin. Remove any white pith from the back of the skin, and slice the peel into thin strips (julienne-style cut).
Place the peel into sugar syrup over the low heat and simmer for about 15 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon and place on kitchen paper towel, allowing it to dry.
Make the icing simply by mixing the icing/ powdered sugar and about 5 tablespoons of lemon juice. It should be quite thick, but still drip of the spoon. Pour the icing over the cooled cake, and allow it to dry for about 20 minutes, before decorating the top of the cake with candied citrus peel. Now the cake looks perfect!
Hint: Allow the cake to cool completely before decorating it. Pour the icing right in the middle of the cake. You may want to gently tilt the cake a bit backwards and forwards and to the sides, to distribute the icing in an even layer. Allow the icing to drip from the sides of the cake, for a fun and eye-catching drip.
- Self-raising flour - Use the same amount of plain flour, but increase the amount of baking powder to 2 teaspoons.
- Caster sugar - You can use white or golden caster sugar, or granulated sugar instead.
- Butter - Salted or unsalted butter is fine to use. If using salted butter, skip the salt in the dry ingredients.
- Eggs - Use 3 large or 4 medium eggs.
- Greek yogurt - This can be substituted with buttermilk or sour cream.
Layer it up - To make a layered cake from this recipe, divide the cake batter between two 20 cm sandwich tins and bake for 20 minutes at 160°C (fan) or until the sponges are golden and toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. You can use lemon curd (be sure to check out my Homemade Lemon Curd recipe), whipped cream or flavoured buttercream to spread between the sponges for a delicious layer cake.
Use different citrus - If you'd like, you can use oranges or limes in this recipe instead of lemons, or even a mixture of different citrus fruit!
Make a different topping - If you prefer something a bit lighter and less sweet, try swapping the lemon icing sugar topping for yogurt, just like in my Lemon Semolina Cake recipe. A cream cheese frosting could also work well here.
Gluten free lemon cake - Swap the flour for self-raising gluten free flour (make sure the baking powder is also gluten free) to turn this bake into a gluten free version.
Vegan lemon cake - Looking for similar, but vegan lemon cake? Check out this recipe for Easy Vegan Lemon Cake from Veggie Desserts blog.
Bundt cake - Check out this Lemon Bundt Cake recipe.
There are only few basic pieces of equipment needed to create this recipe:
- Electric mixer (hand-held or freestanding).
- 18 cm deep, loose-bottom cake tin (alternatively, you can also use a loaf tin and turn this into lemon loaf cake/ zesty lemon loaf cake).
- Baking paper.
Storage and freezing
Store any leftovers of this zesty lemon cake at room temperature, in the airtight container for up to 2 days. It will dry out with time, so it is always best eaten fresh.
You can freeze this cake, plain, without the icing and candied lemon peel decoration for up to 3 months. Thaw it at room temperature overnight, and decorate with the icing and citrus peel before serving.
Candied lemon peel can be stored in the fridge for up to 5 days. Keep it in the airtight container, to stop it absorbing any of the fridge smells.
You can use any type and variety of lemons. I recommend sticking to unwaxed lemons, as we are using the zest and the peel. If you can only get waxed lemons, make sure to lightly scrub the peel under running warm water to remove the wax.
Typically, this is due to changes in the oven temperature. Once you place the cake in the oven, do not open the oven doors until the cake is at least set. If the cake has risen and split/ cracked on top, simply level it with serrated knife. Cut off the 'dome', flip the cake upside down and pour the icing over it. Nobody will ever know!
The oven temperature was probably too hot or the cake was baked for too long. I use fan-assisted oven and this cake takes exactly X minutes at 170°C to be ready. Different ovens may require different baking times and temperatures. I recommend using an additional oven thermometer, and keeping an eye on the cake from 40 minutes onwards.
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Zesty Lemon Cake
- 18 cm round, deep cake tin loose-bottom or springform
- hand-held electric mixer or freestanding mixer with the paddle attachment
- baking paper
- slotted spoon optional
- 175 g unsalted butter (softened)
- 175 g golden caster sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 3 large unwaxed lemons (zested, plus additional 5 tablespoon juice)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 250 g self-raising flour (see recipe notes for the alternatives)
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 100 g Greek yogurt
- 400 g icing sugar
For the candied lemon peel:
- 2 large lemons (peel only)
- 200 g granulated sugar
- 200 ml water
- Heat the oven to 170°C (150°C fan). Grease a deep, loose-bottomed or springform 18 cm cake tin and line the base of it with baking parchment.
- Beat the butter and caster sugar together with an electric whisk until pale and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Add eggs, one at the time, beating well after each addition, then stir in the lemon zest and vanilla. Fold in the 250g of flour, ½ teaspoon baking powder, ½ teaspoon of salt and 100g Greek yogurt. Mix until the ingredients are JUST combined.
- Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and smooth the top with a spatula. Bake in the centre of the oven for 50-55 minutes, until golden brown on top and firm to the touch. Cool the cake in the tin for 10 minutes, then remove from the tin and cool on a wire rack completely.
For the icing:
- Sieve 400g of icing sugar into a bowl and beat in enough of the lemon juice to create a thick icing. Set the cake on a cake stand or a plate and spoon over the icing, allowing it to drip down the sides a little.
For the candied lemon peel:
- Peel large, wide strips from 2 large lemons using a vegetable peeler. Remove any white pith with a sharp knife, then julienne the peel into very thin matchsticks. In a small saucepan, add the granulated sugar and water and set it over a medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. Add the lemon peel and simmer gently for 15 minutes then scoop the peel with slotted spoon and set on a paper towel to cool. Use to decorate the cake with it.
Please note that all my recipes are developed and tested in metric grams. I recommend that you use digital scales for a more accurate results. I have provided a conversion to US customary in the recipe but please note that I haven’t tested using this method.
- If no self-raising flour is available, use the same amount of plain flour / all purpose flour, but increase the amount of baking powder to 2 teaspoons.
This recipe was originally published in April 2019. It has been updated with the new photos, video, revised recipe and tips in March 2022.