For as long as I can remember, the Dunns have made this lemon cake for Easter dinner. It’s a family recipe from one of my mom’s cupboard-living cookbooks from the 1980s, “The Silver Palate Cookbook.”
My mom was the one who first made it in the family. She was the one who first made all of our cakes. But at an early age, I took over the cake-baking responsibilities. My mom taught me everything she knew, including how to make this lemon cake, and now I’m the official Easter lemon cake (and every other cake) baker. Now my mom asks me to give her advice on her cake baking.
Easter is always an excuse to get together with everyone and eat good food and lemon cake (for us, it’s extended family from both my mom’s side and my dad’s side). Not that I ever need an excuse for cake! I hope this becomes a tradition for you, too.
- Preheat oven to 325°. Grease 10-inch bundt pan.
Why a bundt cake? I can’t say, but for me, bundt cakes are always connected to aesthetics. Rather than traditional frosting (which is thoroughly difficult and awkward to use on a bundt cake) bundt cakes are always used to display a glaze—it's pretty as it runs down the sides. Bundt cakes are usually a little more dense and moist than a traditional cake; ready to soak up an icy glaze.
The bundt pan we use is non-stick, which means if you spray it with cooking spray, the cake will come out flawlessly. But if you don’t have a non-stick pan (or one that doesn't work very well), the best way to make sure the cake comes out cleanly is to grease it with cooking spray (or rub it with butter), and then also flour it. Really, this means dumping flour in the pan and tossing it around until the flour sticks to all the sides. Because the bundt pan has decorative ridges, glaze won't cover up mistakes like frosting can. You'll be able to see mistakes where the cake stuck to the pan, and flour is the best way to make sure it comes out looking as good as it tastes.
The fact that a bundt pan gives you more surface area for each slice means you’ll get more glaze with each slice, but if you don’t have a bundt pan, you can use a 9-inch round cake pan and adjust the baking time.
- Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
“Cream” just means to mix the butter and sugar quickly, until the color gets lighter and the consistency gets fluffy. I’m using a stand mixer, but you can use a hand mixer if that’s what you have. In theory, if one had the muscle one could mix this by hand. I don't! If you’ve got the muscle, you can do this by hand. I don’t!
- Beat in eggs, one at a time, blending well after each addition.
Baking is chemistry; it’s a science. Beating in the eggs one at a time versus beating them in all at once affects the structure of the cake.
The reason baking is done in steps is because each ingredient mixes with another ingredient in a specific way, and it has a chemical reaction. Any time a recipe calls for more than a single egg, it’s always best to add them one at a time. If you add them all at once, it can break up the unity of the butter, sugar and eggs, and they won’t blend together as one. Instead, you’ll get clumps. And who wants a clumpy cake?
- Sift together flour, baking soda, and salt.
You don’t always have to sift flour—you can cheat the system. The purpose of sifting is to put air into the flour and make it light. If you fill a measuring cup with air-filled sifted flour, it’s not actually as much flour as if you pack it in. One way to make sifting less necessary (and you have to feel it out recipe by recipe) is to whisk the flour, then gently shake the whisked flour into a measuring cup. The process of whisking and shaking it into the measuring cup makes the flour looser and less packed.
- Stir dry ingredients into egg mixture alternating with buttermilk, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients.
In other words, your dry ingredients will be in three parts, and your buttermilk in two parts: Start with about a third of the dry mixture, then half the buttermilk, another third of the dry mixture, half the buttermilk, then the rest of the dry mixture. You don’t have to measure it out; just eyeball it. Again, adding in stages just helps incorporate everything. The goal is always to incorporate everything well, without damaging the qualities of the batter that cause the cake to rise and be light and airy. That’s why there are so many specific details in baking.
- Add lemon zest and stir in.
The reason this cake tastes so amazing is that, counting both the cake and the glaze, there are about five fresh, zested, juiced lemons in it! The zesting and juicing are the most labor-intensive part of making this cake—it’s like making lemonade. There’s a ratio of lemon juice to water to sugar that goes into making the perfect syrup, in which you mix the tartness of the lemon with the sweetness of the sugar. As opposed to one cutting the other, it allows you to experience all of it. That’s why this cake is so delicious—it has that balance of tart and sweet. One isn’t overpowering the other; they’re working together.
- Pour batter into prepared bundt pan. Set on middle rack and bake for 65 minutes, until cake pulls away from sides of pan.
Because ovens vary, I always like to bake my cake for less time and then test it. The closer you can get to the moment the tester comes out clean, the better the cake will be. I’ve personally never owned a cake tester and have always just used a toothpick.
- While cake is baking, make icing.
Cream sugar and butter, then add in the lemon zest and juice. After you’re done creaming the butter and sugar, it might still look like just powdered sugar, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t worked.
1 lb. confectioners sugar
8 tbsp. butter, softened
3 tbsp. grated lemon zest
- ½ cup fresh lemon juice
- Prep coconut.
This is always part of our Easter decoration. Put shredded coconut in a Ziploc bag, add one drop each of green and yellow food coloring, then shake the bag back and forth until all the coconut is dyed. Every time I do it, I think there’s no way it’s going to work—you can’t just drop food coloring into a non-liquid substance and have it spread through the whole thing! But it always works.
- Cool cake in pan, then set on rack for 10 minutes. Remove cake from pan and pour over glaze.
The cookbook instructs you to pour over the glaze over the cake just out of the pan and while it's still hot, but the glaze is liquid and doesn’t need a hot cake to melt it, which is why I’ve always been confused by this step. I prefer to wait until the cake has cooled and has been removed from the pan because the glaze is runny anyway—you can pour it over and it will still run down the sides. But it really depends on how much glaze you want on top of the cake. I always say, the more the better!
I have no idea where it came from, but for as long as I can remember, every time my mom made this cake, she’d use the green-dyed coconut to form little birds nests, fill them with egg-shaped jelly beans, then put them around the base of the cake. This is kind of a knockoff of her idea—green-dyed coconut grass with Cadbury Creme Eggs instead of jelly beans (we like the way they look, and the way they taste!), just like Easter eggs hidden in the lawn.
Making this cake—especially with the coconut grass and egg decorations—is like walking in my mom’s footsteps, carrying on a tradition she started. Growing up, there was always something magical about this cake for me (probably because I thought the little nests were amazing). It was more special than the other cakes we’d make throughout the year, and I think a big part of it is that charm and sense of childhood wonder. There’s a whimsy about this cake that wasn’t there in the other cakes baked in my home, and it was such a quintessential part of my mom’s raising us. There’s something about this cake that is so indicative of what she passed on to us, and it’s something I want to pass onto my kids and share with other people. I hope you can create as many memories with this recipe as I have.