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rejoice in spring

Recipe: lemon heaven cake

Happy first day of spring, northern hemispherers! Even though the past few days have felt rather springish to us – lots of sun, dust on crust, hardpack, mud, warmer temperatures, snowmelt – we have come to embrace the passing of the baton from winter to spring in Crested Butte. We had a most excellent winter, but I think I’m experiencing a little bit of spring fever. Crested Butte remains mostly covered in a blanket of white, but it’s a happy blanket under a sun that climbs higher in the sky each day. The tops of some trail signs are beginning to emerge, jogging our memories of summer hikes, rides, and trail runs. The little birds have returned to the mountains, filling the air with song and my heart with joy. I feel so energized!

skiing mount crested butte

nordic skiing from middle earth to mordor

kaweah likes the smells of springtime

the beautiful little town of crested butte

Ski-wise, I have only just made the transition to spring. Food-wise, I have been in spring mode for a couple of weeks. There was a bag of lemons demanding to be turned into something wonderful, so I obliged and made a four-layer lemon chiffon cake with lemon curd, lemon buttercream frosting, and limoncello soaking syrup. I’ve made it several times before, but never blogged it. I shared most of the cake with my neighbors and some friends, saving a few slices for Jeremy when he returned from work travel. Nichole dubbed it Lemon Heaven, which I thought was the perfect name.

lemon curd: lemons, eggs, sugar, salt, cream, butter

cream, lemon juice, lemon zest, sugar, salt, butter, eggs

pour the cream and lemon juice into the sugar, salt, and butter

I like this lemon curd recipe because it uses whole eggs. It’s always a bonus if you don’t have to separate yolks and whites. The recipe is pretty straightforward, but make sure the custard is on the thick side when you take it off the heat. You don’t want runny lemon curd in your cake, you want a curd with a little more stability. My advice is to make the lemon curd first to give it time to cool down. You can even make it days in advance and store it in the refrigerator until you are ready to assemble the cake.

whisk the hot liquid into the eggs

straining the curd (to get solid egg bits out)

stir in the lemon zest

The next step is to make the cake. Chiffon cake is a nice workhorse of a cake. It soaks up flavored syrups that render moist layers without disintegrating and it behaves well at altitude. The only adjustments I make for my elevation is to use all-purpose flour instead of cake flour, and to leave out the leavening. If you are at 5300 feet (Boulder and other places about a mile high), use cake flour and leave the leavening in. There is a little wiggle room to play with the amount of baking powder since whipped meringue is what really gives this cake an airy lift.

chiffon cake: powdered sugar, vanilla, canola oil, lemons, egg whites, eggs, milk, flour, sugar

adding wet ingredients to the dry ingredients

flavor the cake with lemon juice

whipped meringue

It’s important to gently fold the meringue into the cake batter. If you are overzealous about it or you just stir them together, then you will deflate the meringue and your cake will have less rise to it. Because the cake batter is more dense than the meringue, fold in a third of the meringue at a time. The batter will gradually become less dense and more manageable. After you pour the batter into the cake pans, don’t tap the cake pans on the counter or pop the bubbles you see rising to the top. Those bubbles are your friends – they will make your cake rise. Another note: the 9×3-inch pans work much better than the 9×2-inch pans. If you do use 9×2-inch pans, use three, not two, or you will have major overflow issues. The cakes rise a lot, which is why the 9×3-inch pans give you nice tall cakes for cutting good layers.

folding meringue with the batter

pour into the pans

baked (they will shrink some, it’s okay)

While the cakes are cooling, you can make the soaking syrup. Actually, you can make the cakes in advance. Once they are cooled, you can wrap them in plastic wrap and freeze them until you are ready to assemble the cake. I wouldn’t freeze them for more than a week or so in advance. I’m not sure how well the flavor keeps. I use limoncello in my soaking syrup for the whole lemon theme. You may not want booze in your cake, or you might be serving it to youngins. Maybe add lemon juice instead or just use the sugar syrup or skip the soaking syrup altogether (although it really makes the cake kinda dreamy).

water, sugar, limoncello

boil the sugar and water together

add the limoncello to the syrup

Every component can be made ahead, even the Swiss meringue buttercream frosting. I just prefer to make the buttercream right before assembling the cake so I don’t have to deal with thawing it. Buttercream can be frozen or refrigerated, but it turns solid and brittle. It’s REALLY hard (impossible) to frost a cake with brittle, cold buttercream. So you need to bring it to room temperature and whip it to achieve that creamy frosting consistency. Or, make it fresh and use it right away.

lemon juice, lemon oil, butter, egg whites, sugar, vanilla extract

whisk the egg whites and sugar over a simmering water bath until 140°F

whip the whites until stiff

When you whisk the egg whites and sugar over a simmering water bath, make sure the bottom of the bowl does not come into contact with the simmering water. We want to heat the egg whites, not cook them. Once temperature is reached, whip the whites with a stand mixer. If you want to do this by hand, I have great admiration for your determination, strength, and delusions. The target is stiff peaks and the meringue will be glossy and luscious. Lower the mixer speed and whip until the bowl is cool to your touch. This takes several (more than 10) minutes. Your mixer’s motor will probably get hot.

adding pats of butter

lemon oil for extra flavor (optional)

creamy buttercream

When the meringue is cool enough, swap the mixer attachment for the paddle and start beating in tablespoon pieces of butter. The reason the meringue needs to be cool is because the butter will melt if it’s still hot and then your buttercream might break or separate. There are several methods for saving a broken buttercream frosting. Google is your friend. I used a quarter teaspoon of Boyajian lemon oil in addition to lemon juice to flavor my frosting. Full disclosure: I received free samples of Boyajian flavored oils to try with no obligation on my part. It’s lovely and potent stuff. If you don’t have any, don’t fret, just beat in a teaspoon of lemon juice at a time until you are satisfied with the flavor.

Now that all of the components are ready, start cutting your cake layers. You can eyeball it if you like, but I prefer to use a ruler to get uniform height on all of my layers. I make small incisions every 90 degrees (total of four incisions – think north, east, south, west) on the side of the cake and connect the incisions on the outside surface with a nice, sharp serrated bread knife. With the outline as my guide, I carefully slice a few inches in from the perimeter all the way around the cake and then slice through the middle to get two clean layers.


drizzle the soaking syrup on the first layer

spread the buttercream

then lemon curd

A few more notes on assembly… There will be two cake layers with browned bottoms (from the bottoms of each cake pan) and two layers that will be cut on both sides (assuming you trim the domed tops). Always place a browned-bottom layer, brown-side down as your bottom layer and brown-side up as your top layer. It makes life and decorating easier for a variety of reasons. Also, spreading the buttercream across the cake can tear up the tender crumb. I like to pipe it in a loose spiral onto the cake and then spread it – it seems to do less damage to the cake. And finally, applying a crumb coat (a thin layer of frosting) to the sides helps to neat up the cake and makes frosting and decorating much easier and more attractive.

crumb coat

frosting the cake with the remaining buttercream

decorate as you like (i used edible flowers)

This is a party cake. It requires an investment of time and effort, but the rewards are huge. Not only is it beautiful, but it feeds a lot of people and it tastes like a dream. Sweet, tart, tender, creamy, a little boozy – it is wonderful. Everyone who received some of the Lemon Heaven cake knew they were on my list of extra special pals. Welcome to spring!

it cuts well and holds its shape nicely

a sweet, lemony delight

Lemon Heaven Cake
[print recipe]
based on class recipes from The Culinary School of the Rockies

2 9×3-inch round lemon chiffon cakes
1 1/2 cups limoncello soaking syrup
6+ cups lemon Swiss meringue buttercream frosting
2-3 cups lemon curd

lemon chiffon cake
14.5 oz. (about 3 cups) cake flour (I use all purpose flour at 8500 ft.)
8.75 oz. (about 2 cups + 2 tbsps) confectioner’s sugar
0.5 oz. (1 tbsp) baking powder (omitted at 8500 ft.)
6.75 oz. whole milk
6 oz. canola oil
3.25 oz. (2 large) eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 oz. lemon juice
13 oz. egg whites
9.5 oz. (1 cup + 3 tbsps) granulated sugar

Oven 375°F. Prep two 9×3-inch round pans or two 11×17-inch sheet pans by buttering bottom and sides. Place parchment in pan and butter the parchment. Sift flour, confectioner’s sugar, and (if using) baking powder together into a large bowl. Mix the milk, canola oil, eggs, vanilla extract, and lemon juice into the flour mixture until combined. Whip the egg whites and granulated sugar together to medium peaks. Gently fold the whipped whites into the batter in thirds and make sure the mixture is uniform or you may end up with separation during baking. Do not slam the cake pans on the counter to pop the air bubbles, you WANT the air bubbles in the batter. Bake until set, about 20-25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from oven and remove from pan. Let cool on a cooling rack. Makes two 11×17-inch sheets or two 9×3-inch rounds.

limoncello soaking syrup
4 oz. (0.57 cups) sugar
4 oz. water
2-4 oz. limoncello

Heat the sugar and water in a small saucepan over high heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Let it come to a boil. Turn off the heat and let the sugar syrup cool. Stir in the limoncello. Makes 1.5 cups.

lemon swiss meringue buttercream
8 oz. egg whites
16 oz. sugar
1 lb. unsalted butter, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp lemon oil, I used Boyajian brand*
grated zest of 1 lemon (preferably organic)
5-6 tbsps fresh lemon juice

Combine egg whites and sugar in a Kitchenaid mixing bowl. Whisk constantly over a simmering water bath (without letting the water touch the bottom of the mixing bowl) until 140°F is reached. Place the bowl on the mixer with whisk attachment and whip until stiff. Turn down whip speed to 3rd and whip until cool to the touch (this takes a while – should be cooler than your hand). Change to a paddle and gradually add soft butter by tablespoon pieces. Mix to emulsify. Once desired consistency has been reached, add vanilla, lemon oil, lemon zest, and lemon juice. Makes about 6 cups.

lemon curd
6 oz. fresh lemon juice, strained
9 oz. (1 cup + 1 1/2 tbsps) granulated sugar
3 oz. butter
3 oz. heavy cream
pinch of salt
6 eggs
1 tbsp finely grated lemon zest

Boil lemon juice, sugar, butter, heavy cream, and salt in a saucepan. Place eggs in a bowl and whisk to loosen up the whites and yolks. Temper hot lemon mixture into eggs. Add mixture back into saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly until thickened and nappé consistency. It should be quite thick or else it will be too runny in the final product. Strain through a mesh sieve. Stir in the lemon zest. Place plastic wrap directly on curd and cool over an ice bath. Refrigerate when chilled. Can be frozen for up to 4-6 months. Makes 3.5 cups.

Assemble the cake: Cut each cake horizontally into 2 layers of equal thickness so that you have four layers in total. Don’t be afraid to trim the domed tops (if you have domed tops) – you can save those for snacking on later. Fill a squeeze bottle with the limoncello syrup. For ease of spreading, I like to fill a pastry bag fitted with a large plain tip with the lemon buttercream frosting. It allows me to pipe the frosting onto the cake rather than smearing it and possibly damaging the chiffon cake.

Set first cake layer cut-side up (browned-side down) on serving plate with wax paper strips tucked partly under the edges of the cake. Reserve the other bottom half (browned on one side) for the top. Drizzle a quarter of the limoncello syrup evenly over the cake. Pipe a layer of about a fifth of the buttercream (concentric circles that don’t have to touch) over the cake, using an icing spatula to smooth it out and fill in the gaps. Spread a layer of lemon curd about 1/4-inch thick over the buttercream. Set the second cake layer on top of the lemon curd and repeat with soaking syrup, buttercream, and curd. For the fourth layer, place the cake layer brown-side down on an extra plate. Drizzle the rest of the soaking syrup on the cut-side of the cake. Carefully place the soaked cake layer, cut-side down (brown-side up!) on top of the main cake. The cake should be strong enough to handle this kind of manipulation, but you have to be gentle with it. Crumb coat the sides of the cake with buttercream then finish frosting the entire cake with remaining buttercream. Serve at room temperature. Will keep in refrigerator, covered, for up to five days. Serves 10-12.

more goodness from the use real butter archives

strawberry chiffon buttercream cake lemon mousseline torte lemon mousse bombes lemon tart

39 nibbles at “rejoice in spring”

  1. debbie says:

    We have had a ton of snow for this area and I am so ready for spring. Your cake is gorgeous!!! Would love a slice right now!

  2. Kristin says:

    Gorgeous! Thanks for the tips in doing it in parts. They make it sound so much more manageable. I especially love the tips for cutting the cakes in half. I’ve tried several methods that haven’t worked well, but this one sounds fairly fool (klutz?) proof!

  3. Katrina @ Warm Vanilla Sugar says:

    Lemon heaven cake indeed!! This looks lovely!

  4. Eva @ Eva Bakes says:

    I am SOOO ready for spring. I’ve literally been sick every day in 2014 except for maybe 5 days. This lemon cake looks like a wonderful way to start the new season.

  5. Allie says:

    That is quite a stunning one. I still have never made a layer cake and I’m more intimidated at the prospect of it being wonky and not perfectly straight than I am at the amount of work involved… I think I’m gonna add this to my “big projects/someday” list for someone’s birthday :)

  6. Andrea says:

    This cake is beautiful! Your cooking is always a work of art.

  7. Becky says:

    Wow, Jen. This cake is a work of art! Thanks for sharing!

  8. Robin says:

    That’s amazing!!!

  9. jill says:

    Everything you do, you do so well. This cake is beautiful, and just reading about it gets my salivary glands going. xo to kaweah. Sweet puppy.

    ps- these codes are getting almost impossible to read! Why don’t they use a chain of numbers like other blogs, and make it readable? Silly!

  10. Friday Five | Bubbly Meadow says:

    […] 1. One of my favourite food blogs: use real butter. I save her posts until I have time to enjoy them. How can you not want to make that cake? […]

  11. Rocky Mountain Woman says:

    lovely cake. spring is here too and i couldn’t be happier!

  12. sara says:

    Gorgeous! This looks AMAZING

  13. SallyBR says:

    Amazing cake! Every component is perfect! I could never attempt to make it, knowing my limitations too well, but I would LOVE a piece!


    Happy Spring!

  14. christina says:

    This cake looks wonderful. I love lighter citrus flavors for the winter-to-spring transition. Like you, I prefer making Swiss meringue buttercream right before I use it. It’s too much trouble to let it come to room temp and rewhip it.

  15. Sasha says:

    Hi there,
    I came for a visit to your blog after pinning a bunch of your recipes. I was surprised to see you’re in CB, I live in Gunnison. I recently had my wisdom teeth out and am dreaming (really, I can’t stop thinking about it!) of making one of your sushi burgers the minute eating becomes enjoyable again. I was curious to find out where you source your sushi grade fish around here? Much thanks, your recipes are inspired and I can’t wait to try them out.

  16. jenyu says:

    Thanks everyone. If I could, I would have shared the cake with you all :)

    jill – sorry about the captcha. It’s not intended to make commenters miserable, just to keep the spammers at bay.

    Sasha – thanks for dropping by! I am in CB part time, and sadly, I don’t know where to source good sushi-grade fish around these parts. All of the sushi recipes I post were made while I was on the Front Range. I get the fish in Boulder at Whole Foods. Sorry! Hope you recover from your surgery quickly and without issues!

  17. Sasha says:

    Thank you for your response. What a bummer! Lucky for me you have plenty of other recipes on here that I have been torturing myself with… I’m feeling better each day, so soon:)

  18. Ironic | La Pêche Fraîche says:

    […] this cake!  Lemon is top on my list of favorite, fresh flavors.  I love the edible flowers that Jen used to […]

  19. megan says:

    what a lovely cake! great use of flowers : ) 4 layers are the best. pretty pictures , as always!!

  20. Tori says:

    Curious if the 13oz of egg whites is by weight or liquid measure?

  21. jenyu says:

    Tori – it’s by weight.

  22. Tori says:

    Thanks Jen! You publishing this recipe made me finally break down and buy a scale for baking.

  23. Chichi says:

    This looks so beautiful and delicious as well

  24. maz says:

    Made this cake today for an engagement party tomorrow. My cakes rose nearly 2cm out of the pans but luckily kept a uniform shape :) They also took nearly 40mins to cook through. It may be because I struggled with converting accurately to metric. My first attempt with chiffon cake and swiss meringue buttercream – I usually avoid egg-separating dishes entirely – but your pics looked so beautiful I simply had to try it! Cannot wait to try it. Thank you for the inspiration!

  25. ec says:


  26. Jennifer says:

    Can this cake be frozen x few days and thawed ok (prior to decorating)? THANKS!

  27. jenyu says:

    Jennifer – yes, I know you can freeze chiffon cake without problem (just wrap it up tightly so no weird flavors leech into it), but don’t assemble and freeze because the lemon curd doesn’t freeze well, or rather, doesn’t come out of freezing well. Good luck!

  28. Jennifer says:

    I made this for an amazing co workers 80th…..(yes 80th!)….birthday party today! I ended up freezing it just under 24 hours which was no problem. I used 2-8″ rounds for bottom tier and 2-6″ rounds for top tier. Very fun project! You are so right about this cake requiring an investment of time an effort but you’re also right about it being Lemon Heaven! My co workers and husband raved! The birthday girl felt very special :). Thank you for sharing this amazing recipe!

  29. Mary says:

    I love love love chocolate cake but my all time favorite is lemon chiffon. This is the cake I’ve always requested for my birthday. It is a workhorse of a cake but so worth the time and trouble. Thank you for publishing this new version of my favorite on my birthday last year. I will make this for my own birthday in 2016!!!

  30. Lola says:

    Hello. Prepping to malke this vake this week. Are ALL of the oz. measurement by weight, or are some by volume.? I have scale, but I just want to make sure so that I don’t mess it up :) Thanks.

  31. jenyu says:

    Lola – go with weights! Hope the cake is a success!

  32. Lola says:

    Yikes, sorry for all the typo, typing on my phone. I meant to type:
    Hello. Prepping to make this cake this week. Are ALL of the oz. measurements by weight, or are some by volume.? I have a scale, but I just want to make sure so that I don’t mess it up :) Thanks!

  33. Lola says:

    Thanks for your quick response. I’ll use weights for all the measurements :)

  34. Lola says:

    Another question: you use both confectioners sugar and granulated sugar. Are the chiffon cake layers very sweet with this amount of sugar?

  35. jenyu says:

    Lola – not overly sweet, but they are sweet.

  36. Lola says:

    Hi Jen. I made the cake on Wednesday and served it to friends on Thursday. They really enjoyed it. The cake was a lot denser than I was expecting (for a chiffon cake), but it was still very good. The lemon curd was delicious! And smbc is always a hit. Thanks for the recipe and for answering my questions :)

  37. Chelsea says:

    Hi! I’ve never tried lemon chiffon before but this looks absolutely amazing! I am making for a lovely lady’s 70th birthday so will definitely be leaving out the limoncello ;) just wondering how fill the cake tins should be before baking? I am using 6 inch round tins- but sticking to the same quantities so there’s plenty left over for me to sample!

  38. jenyu says:

    Chelsea – Hi! I’m using 3-inch high cake rounds here, so I believe they were about half full (1.5 inches). I probably wouldn’t go much higher than that. Best of luck!!

  39. Juliane says:

    Hi Jen,
    Just pulled these two cakes from the oven.
    I am very experienced with other types of cake but not chiffon so I really curious to see how this recipe comes out when it is all together! :)
    I am only 600 above sea level, so I needed the baking powder.
    The batter, when all was said and done (egg whites etc) filled both of the pans, and raised quite a bit.
    It took about 45 minutes to test done and I had to cover the cakes with foil after 25 minutes.

    They both cracked on top before testing done, but both came out of the pans very easily and look great on the bottom. I guess the limoncello syrup will help with any pop up dryness.
    I made the lemon curd last night and it was quite tasty.
    For me, meringue butter creams are a little rich, so I’ll me blending my curd with slightly sweetened whipped cream to stabilize it and using that between the layers and on top- something I have done before.
    I’ll check back in when it’s all done, and share with you what my German club thought about it. :)

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