I made this cake last year for Jossy's second birthday and ever since it's become our family's favorite – and my favorite cake to decorate.
Before I give the real recipe, I'll just say – it's totally okay to use boxed lemon cake and a jar of cream cheese frosting. If you're short on time, that's a great solution – sine the decorations are the real "wow" factor.
3 cups all-purpose flour – sifted & leveled
2 and 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted soft butter
1 and 3/4 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon zest (about 2 medium lemons)
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice (about 2 medium lemons)
Cream Cheese Frosting
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
8 ounces full-fat cream cheese – softened/room temperature
4 and 1/2 cups confectioners (powdered) sugar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3-4 lemons depending on how much of the cake you want covered
Fresh thyme leaves (you'll need fresh to make the "lemon stem
Preheat oven to 350°F (177°C).
Grease three 8-inch cake pans generously, then dust with flour, tapping out the excess.
In a large bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together. Set aside.
Using a handheld or stand mixer, beat the butter and sugar together on high speed until smooth and creamy (2-3 minutes). Beat in the eggs, one at a time, and vanilla extract on medium speed until combined (2 minutes). Scrape down the sides of the bowl as with a spatula. On low speed, add the dry ingredients, about 1 cup at a time, until combined (don't over mix!). With the mixer still on, add milk, lemon juice, and zest – until combined.
Pour batter into cake pans, making sure batter is distributed evenly.
Bake on middle rack for 22-26 minutes or until a toothpick in the center comes out clean.
Let cakes cool in their pans on a wire rack (or on top of your stove-top burners if you don't have wire racks).
Using whichever mixer you prefer, beat the butter on medium speed with the whisk attachment, until creamy (2 minutes). Add the cream cheese and beat until completely smooth. With the mixer on low, add powdered sugar, lemon juice, and vanilla extract. For 3 minutes mix on high speed until light and fluffy.
*Make sure that your cake is completely cool before frosting – if it's warm at all, the frosting will run and the cake will be crooked :)
Using a large serrated knife, slice a thin layer off the tops of each cake so that they are all evenly flat. Place 1 cake layer on a plate or serving stand (I like using a flat plate because I transfer it to a clean cake platter after I'm done.) Spread the top with about 1 cup of frosting, making sure frosting is evenly and flatly distributed. Add the 2nd cake layer and repeat. Add the third cake layer and spread the remaining frosting all over the top and sides.
I like the "rustic look" with the cake sides peeking through – but you can always add a second layer of cake to the sides if you want it all white.
Make sure your lemons and thyme are washed and dry. Safely using a knife, slice small thin circles from the top layer of lemon rind. For this cake I typically slice about 15-20 circles. They can be all different sizes.
Peck about 20 pieces of thyme from the stem, making sure to keep some bunched together.
Begin creating your lemon decorations by placing one lemon circle and one time bunch as the stem. Evenly distribute around the cake, gently pressing into the frosting so they stick.
*Do not refrigerate frosting cake before decorating with lemon, otherwise the frosting will be too cold and hard, and lemons won't stick well. You can refrigerate after decorating.
Remove from fridge 30 minutes before serving, and ENJOY!
Serves 10–12 adults, 15+ kids