This is, by itself, one of the best lemon cakes I ever made, one of those recipes to keep close by. The addition of poppy seeds makes it even better. Crunchy and moist, it can also be made in a sheet pan or two loaves. Worth making again and again.
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Originally published in 2012, the text and images in this post have been updated to serve you better. The recipe remains the same.
I have been baking for a long time, more than 30 years. And have been mentored through cookbooks by several bakers.
At the top of my list will forever be Maida Heatter, who wrote the most detailed recipes ever and whose books were my companions until the internet craze began. She passed away not long ago at the age of 102, so this post is dedicated to her.
This is a slightly adapted version of her famous East 62nd Street Lemon Cake, a recipe so wonderful it deserves to live forever.
I remember the first time I made it for brunch, and how my friends raved about it! They even took leftovers home with them.
It might even win over the popular Lemon Pound Cake, which says a lot because I consider the latter one of the best cakes on this blog.
What makes this recipe great
- Flavor: for starters, it is just freaking delicious! The lemon flavor comes from three different places - batter, syrup, and glaze.
- Simple recipe: it's a pretty straightforward butter cake. So follow the recipe and pay attention to the details, as most baking recipes are.
- Lemon syrup: the butter and sugar have to be creamed enough to become light and airy, the dry ingredients sifted and the cake bathed in a sugar-lemon juice mix just as it comes out of the oven. That final touch adds a lot of moisture to the tight crumb. And sets it apart from other lemon cakes.
- Flavors: I have made it with orange, a mix of citrus, and tangerine, in a bundt pan, as a sheet cake, and as a loaf cake. It always turned out amazing!
- Versatile: you can use different pans, like a sheet (rectangular) or loaf pan.
- Lemon juice.
- Lemon zest.
- Poppy seeds.
- All-purpose or cake flour.
- Unsalted butter.
- White granulates sugar.
- Eggs: fresh, large.
- Whole milk.
- Vanilla: I use pure vanilla extract or pure vanilla paste when available, but a good vanilla essence (artificially flavored) also works and is infinitely cheaper.
- Salt: I like to use kosher salt when baking. But regular table salt works just fine.
- Baking powder: make sure it isn't expired.
- Powdered sugar: also called confectioners or icing sugar, you can easily buy it online. Domino powdered sugar is a very popular one.
See the recipe card towards the end of this post for quantities.
How to make lemon poppy seed cake
I recommend a hand-held electric mixer or a stand mixer with the paddle attachment for this recipe.
You can make it by hand, but it will take a lot of arm muscle and you might not get the fluffy consistency needed for the cake to be tender and rise well in the oven.
Creaming of butter and sugar: this will take several minutes until the mixture is lighter in color and texture, and the sugar is almost dissolved. This step incorporates air into the batter and helps the cake grow in the oven.
The flavorings are added: lemon zest and a little amount of vanilla extract.
Eggs: they are added one at a time because it helps the batter incorporate better. It might look curdled at some point but it will be smooth enough in the end when the dry ingredients are added.
Dry ingredients: also known as the flour mixture (they include the flour, baking powder, and salt), are added alternating with the milk.
Make sure they are sifted so they are easier to incorporate into the final batter.
I have them measured and sift them directly over the butter part, but you can use a medium bowl to sift them separately if that makes it simpler.
The poppy seeds are added at the end and folded with a rubber spatula or at low speed if using an electric beater. It's important not to overbeat a cake batter after adding the flour.
Vintage Kitchen tip: poppy seeds have a high oil content and can go bad. Store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator or the freezer. Always smell them at room temperature before using them to make sure they're not rancid.
Baking and adding syrup
This lemon poppy seed cake batter is dense and you have to make sure you have at least a 10-cup bundt pan, otherwise, it will take too long to bake and the outer edge of the cake will dry out too much before the center is done.
- When is the cake done? Always use the baking time given in a recipe as a guide, because all ovens are different and it might take you a little more or even a little less time. A cake tester or toothpick should come out clean, but don't overbake it, as it will dry it out.
- Right out of the oven a simple lemon syrup is added. The cake will absorb it and add both flavor and moistness. It's a key step for the flavor and texture of this cake. There are two ways you can do it: while the cake is still hot in the pan, or after you removed it but it's still very hot. Both are explained in the recipe card.
Preparing the bundt pan
If you love making bundt cakes you probably know the pain of not being able to remove it from the pan in one piece. Fat chance it never happened to you.
I have three ways of dealing with this:
- Butter: I use soft butter (NOT melted) to patiently cover the whole pan, every nook and cranny, every sharp angle, and every single space available. I use a brush or my fingers. I then flour the pan and REFRIGERATE IT while putting together the batter. I take it out at the last moment when I need to fill it and it goes like that into the oven. It will remove like a dream!
- Baking spray: I use a spray that is marked as having flour in it, or being specifically made for baking. It has to have flour in it, otherwise, you have a high chance of the cake sticking when removing it. That is my experience, at least. Remember that this is different than a cooking spray, which is just oil.
- Recipe: whenever I find a great recipe that can be easily removed from an intricate bundt pan, even though I didn't follow step 1 above, I cling to it! A case in point is the fabulous cardamom bundt cake.
The result will be amazing and, as a bonus, you can have the prepared pan in the fridge for a few days.
After a great bundt cake recipe comes the glaze to crown all that gorgeousness. This is my favorite one, and the easiest by a landslide:
I used it with fresh lemon juice, of course, because it is a lemon cake; a no-brainer. Lemon cakes do very well with a lemon glaze to enhance their flavor.
And added some fresh lemon zest on top for color. Do so before the glaze sets so that the zest sticks. Otherwise, it would be loose and fall off the top of the cake.
Simple yet delicious and a perfect complement to this lemon poppy seed bundt cake.
- Organization: read the recipe first and ensure you have ingredients at the correct temperature, equipment, and enough workspace. This will make the process so much easier.
- Baking time: keep in mind that all ovens and pans are different, even if they look the same or very similar. The baking time in my recipes is as accurate as it can be, but it might take you more or less time. You can use a thermometer(like the OXO oven thermometer) to check that your oven is at the right temperature. I recommend you keep track of how your oven works and what tiny details you might need to adjust.
- Pan: use soft butter (NOT melted) to patiently cover the whole pan, every nook and cranny, every sharp angle, and every single bit of space available. I use a brush or my fingers. I then flour the pan and REFRIGERATE IT while putting together the batter. I take it out at the last moment when I need to fill it and it goes like that into the oven. Or use a baking spray with flour in it.
- Poppy seeds: don't overdo it with the amount of seeds. You can use less of course (2 tablespoons) and have a cake that is more like this Vanilla Poppy Seed Bundt Cake.
- Syrup: make sure you add the cold simple syrup to the hot cake as it comes out of the oven. It adds great moisture and flavor. Go carefully to make sure and cover the whole cake.
- Keeping: this cake keeps very well at room temperature for a few days, well wrapped, and freezes wonderfully for a month (I recommend doing it before the glaze). Once cool, cover tightly in plastic wrap and a layer of aluminum foil. Defrost at room temperature before glazing.
- Flavorings: you can use a mix of citrus zest and juice. I recommend using at least one strong flavor, such as lemon, lime, or grapefruit. If you use only orange, for example, the cake will be sweeter. Your choice.
- Lemon glaze: Pour the glaze while your cake is on a wire rack over parchment paper. This will catch all the drippings for easy cleanup and you won't have puddles on your cake plate. If you want a less sweet option, you can always dust the cake with confectioners' sugar instead. Do this right before serving so it doesn't soak in.
- Variations: this recipe can be made as loaf cakes (yields 2 medium), muffins (about 24 regular-sized) which will have a tighter crumb than these lemon poppy seed muffins, and as a sheet cake. I have served it as part of a brunch table with friends and at parties, as part of the coffee service, made in a sheet pan and with a thick layer of glaze. It is fabulous.
- Serving it: this is a delicious cake to eat plain, but you can serve it with a dollop of whipped cream and fresh berries for a more dessert-like presentation for a gathering like a baby shower or Easter Sunday.
Do you have to soak poppy seeds before baking?
For this recipe, we don't soak them. But you can do it to soften them. Simply put the seeds in a small bowl and cover them with hot milk, using some from the amount given in the recipe. Let cool completely to room temperature before using.
Do poppy seeds go bad?
Yes, they can turn rancid. That is because of the oil in the seeds.
How do you store poppy seeds for baking?
In the fridge or the freezer. For best results, store them in an airtight container or glass jar.
How do you keep a bundt cake moist?
Make sure you don't overbake it and keep leftovers covered. It's important to use the right pan size and oven temperature. Also, the type of recipe you use will influence how moist a cake is. Cakes with oil tend to have a moist texture.
Related recipes you might like:
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For the cake:
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 ½ cups sugar
- 4 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1 cup whole milk
- ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
- Zest of 2 lemons
- 3 tablespoons poppy seeds
For the syrup:
- ⅓ cup fresh lemon juice
- ½ cup sugar
Powdered sugar glaze:
- 1 cup powdered sugar
- 3 to 4 tablespoons lemon juice (or limoncello, a lemon liquor)
Making the cake:
- Preheat oven to 350°F /180°C.
- Butter and flour 10-cup (26cm) bundt pan (see notes below) or spray with a baking spray containing flour. Refrigerate while preparing the batter.
- In a large bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment), cream the soft butter and gradually add sugar.
- Beat for 3 minutes until it is creamy and light.
- Add lemon zest, vanilla extract, and mix well.
- Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
- Add sifted flour with salt and baking powder in 3 parts, alternating with the milk in 2 parts. That means you begin and end with flour.
- Beat at low speed until it is well mixed but don’t overbeat.
- Add poppy seeds and mix with a spatula, making sure you scrape the bottom of the bowl and the batter is uniform.
- Pour batter into the prepared bundt pan (that is cold from the refrigerator) and even it out.
- Lift the pan and bang it lightly against the counter so that any air bubbles rise to the top and you can pop them. This will prevent (as much as you can) the batter from baking with holes inside.
- Bake for 1 hour or so, until a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. It might take 5-10 more minutes or sometimes less, depending on the pan you use and the material it is made of.
- Remove from the oven and place on a wire rack.
- Prepare the syrup mixture. Brush the top with half of the syrup. Please read step 17, below.
- Let cool 15-20 minutes, making sure the syrup didn’t stick to the sides. Grab the pan with both hands (and a kitchen towel) and shake it a little, up and down and left to right. You will feel that it loosens. At some point, you will be certain that the whole cake is loose and you will re able to remove it whole.
- If some parts are sticking, carefully use a smooth-bladed knife to separate the cake from the sides and the center.
- IMPORTANT: if you prefer to wait 15-20 minutes while the cake cools on a wire rack after you remove it from the oven, do so. Remove it first and then add the syrup. The cake will still be hot enough to absorb it but not as much as if you do it while pipping hot. It will leave a thin layer of sugar. BUT, you will remove the cake more easily from the pan.
- Brush the rest of the syrup on the rest of the cake (the bottom that will become the top when you serve it) right after you remove it from the pan, before flipping it over. You will now have the whole cake brushed with syrup.
- Put the cake on a cooling rack and let cool completely.
- Place the cooled cake in the cooling rack over a large piece of parchment paper. Pour the glaze over and let it run down the sides.
- If it’s too thin add a second layer of glaze, scooping it from the paper or making a new batch.
Making the syrup:
- Mix the sugar with the room temperature juice right before you brush it. See Notes, below.
- The sugar will not dissolve completely and that is fine.
Making the glaze:
- Mix the powdered sugar with half the juice and mix.
- Add the rest by half teaspoons until you have a smooth mixture as thick or as thin as you like. You might not use the whole amount of liquid.
Pan: use soft butter (NOT melted) to patiently cover the whole pan, every nook and cranny, every sharp angle, every single bit of space available. I use a brush or my fingers. I then flour the pan and REFRIGERATE IT while putting together the batter. I take it out at the last moment when I need to fill it and it goes like that into the oven. Or use a baking spray with flour in it.
Poppy seeds: don't overdo it with the amount of seeds. You can use less of course (2 tablespoons) and have a cake that is more like this Vanilla Poppy Seed Bundt Cake.
Syrup: make sure you add the cold simple syrup to the hot cake as it comes out of the oven. It adds great moisture and flavor. Go carefully to make sure and cover the whole cake.
Keeping: this cake keeps very well at room temperature for a few days, well wrapped, and freezes wonderfully for a month (I recommend doing it before the glaze). Once cool, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and then a layer of aluminum foil. Defrost at room temperature before glazing.
Flavorings: you can use a mix of citrus zest and juice. I recommend using at least one that is strong, such as lemon, lime, or grapefruit. If you use only orange for example, the cake will be too sweet. Your choice.
Topping: Pour the glaze while your cake is on a wire rack over parchment paper. This will catch all the drippings for easy cleanup and you won't have puddles on your cake plate. If you want a less sweet option, you can always dust the cake with confectioners' sugar instead. Do this right before serving so it doesn't soak in.
Variations: this recipe can be made as loaf cakes (yields 2 medium), muffins (24 or so), round 8 or 9-inch layers, and as a sheet cake. I have served it as part of a brunch table with friends and at parties, as part of the coffee service, made in a sheet pan and with a thick layer of glaze. It is fabulous.
Serving it: this is a delicious cake to eat plain, but you can serve it with a dollop of whipped cream and fresh berries for a more dessert-like presentation for a gathering like a baby shower or Easter Sunday.
- Prep Time: 30 minutes
- Cooling time: 120 minutes
- Cook Time: 60 minutes
- Category: Cakes
- Method: Baking
- Cuisine: American
- Serving Size: 1/10
- Calories: 554
- Sugar: 51.7 g
- Sodium: 162.8 mg
- Fat: 22.3 g
- Carbohydrates: 82.9 g
- Fiber: 1.7 g
- Protein: 7.9 g
- Cholesterol: 125.2 mg
Keywords: lemon poppy seed cake