Lemon poppy seed cake with cream cheese frosting is a from-scratch dessert that combines tart lemons, crunchy poppy seeds, and sweet, buttery cake layers. It’s the perfect dessert for spring or any time of year!
Isn’t this the perfect cake for spring? Light and fluffy lemon poppy seed cake layers, lemon curd filling, cream cheese frosting. . .it’s pretty much all I’m planning to eat between now and June. (I’m only sort of joking.)
This was actually going to be my Halloween cake last year but it took me months to perfect the recipe so it’s coming at you in time for Easter.
(Why Halloween? Because poppy seeds are said to ward off vampires. Vampires are notorious counters and lore says that if you sprinkle poppy seeds on the grave of a suspected vampire it won’t attack because he or she will spend all night counting them. I’m serious.)
Believe me when I say that I’ll be enjoying this one for Easter, then Mother’s Day, and again in October. (And probably five or six other times in between. It’s hard to beat.)
Why you’ll love this lemon poppy seed cake:
- You don’t need a stand mixer to make it!
- You can use store-bought lemon curd to fill your cake if you want
- You probably have most (or all!) of the ingredients on hand to make it right now
How to make your cake layers
- Beat room temperature unsalted butter until smooth and creamy
- Add sugar, lemon zest, and eggs and a few other ingredients
- Beat until very light and fluffy
- Alternate beating in the dry ingredients and the buttermilk and poppy seeds
- Once the ingredients are mixed in, stir a few times with a rubber spatula to ensure everything is mixed together
- Divide batter between 8-inch round cake pans and bake for about 45 minutes
Then you’ll cool your cake layers completely before filling and frosting them. If you want to fill and frost your cake the next day, tightly wrap the cooled cake layers in plastic wrap and store them at room temp overnight.
- You’ll need to soak your poppy seeds in the buttermilk for 2 hours before you add them to your cake batter
- Be sure your butter is at room temperature before you use it; 20 to 30 minutes on the counter should be plenty to bring up to the proper temp
- If you don’t have buttermilk, you can use whole milk mixed with lemon juice or white vinegar (see the recipe card for exact proportions)
- Be sure to cool your cake layers completely before you frost them! If they’re still warm from the oven, the frosting will melt
How to make cream cheese frosting
Cream cheese frosting is super simple to make and its tang really complements the cake’s lemon flavors.
- Beat together room temperature butter and cream cheese until they’re smooth
- Mix in powdered sugar, vanilla, and salt, beating until very smooth
And that’s it!
- Be sure your cream cheese and butter are both at room temperature or they won’t mix together properly
- You can use low-fat cream cheese in the frosting if you really want to but don’t use fat-free; the texture won’t be right
- If you want, you can add some finely grated lemon zest or a little lemon curd to the frosting when you mix in the vanilla and powdered sugar
- You can also mix in a tablespoon or two of poppy seeds
How to assemble your cake
- Spread a layer of frosting over one of the cake layers
- Spread 1/4 cup of lemon curd over the frosting, leaving a margin around the edge of the curd (this prevents the curd from seeping into the final layer of frosting)
Then you’ll just top with the second cake layer, frost, decorate, and serve! I like to garnish the cake with some thinly sliced lemons and a little sprinkle of poppy seeds.
How to store your cake
Uneaten cake can be stored, covered, in the fridge for up to 3 days or in the freezer, tightly wrapped, for up to 2 months.
Bring refrigerated cake to room temperature before serving—I think this cake tastes better at room temp because the cake is much softer that way.
What can I use instead of buttermilk?
If you don’t have buttermilk, you can substitute an equal amount of whole milk mixed with fresh lemon juice or white vinegar. (I recommend lemon juice here since it’s a lemon cake.)
Let the mixture sit for about 5 minutes before you use it. This is my favorite sub for buttermilk and it works like a charm!
What are poppy seeds?
In case you’re unfamiliar, poppy seeds are tiny black seeds harvested from the dried seeds pods of opium poppies.
They’re a very popular bagel topping, and quite clearly a necessary addition to lemon poppy seed cake, to which they add a nice crunch and very subtle spicy flavor.
Poppy seeds have been used worldwide for centuries both in food and in medicine; ancient Egyptians actually used poppy seeds as a sedative. But don’t think this cake will cause sedation—all the delicious, delicious sugar is more likely to keep you awake than put you to sleep.
- This microplane is really helpful anytime you need citrus zest. It grates the zest really finely so it kind of just melts into your baked goods. It’s also a lot easier to use than a lemon zester.
- A cake turntable is helpful any time you frost a cake; the turntable allows you to rotate the cake so you don’t have to move around to get all the sides.
- This is the offset spatula I use when I frost cakes.
- This is the piping tip I used to pipe the frosting on top of the cake.
Did you make this lemon poppy seed cake? Hooray! Let me know what you think with a comment and a rating below. Then post a pic on IG–tag @theitsybitsykitchen so I can see your delicious creations!
This lemon poppy seed cake features soft, buttery cake layers and lots of cream cheese frosting. It's a delicious dessert for spring or any time of year!
- 1 1/2 cups buttermilk*
- 1/2 cup poppy seeds
- 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- Finely grated zest of 1 or 2 large lemons**
- 3 large eggs
- 3/4 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
- 8 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 4 to 4 1/2 cups powdered sugar
- 1 to 2 tablespoons milk or heavy cream if necessary
- 1/4 cup lemon curd
- Stir together the buttermilk and poppy seeds in a glass measuring cup or small glass bowl. Let sit for 2 hours.
- Once your poppy seeds have soaked, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray 2 8-inch round cake pans with cooking spray. Line the bottoms of the pans with parchment, spray the parchment with cooking spray, and set pans aside.
- Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.
- In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter with with an electric mixer until smooth.
- Add the sugar, vanilla, lemon zest, and eggs and beat on medium until very light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. (Stop the mixer a few times to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl.)
- With mixer on low, beat in half of the dry ingredients until just combined. Beat in half of the buttermilk mixture.
- Beat in the remaining flour, then the remaining butter milk until just incorporated. Use a rubber spatula to stir a few times to ensure everything is well mixed.
- Divide batter between the prepared cake pans and bake for 42 to 50 minutes, until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean.
- Cool the cake layers in the pans for 20 minutes, then run a knife around the edge of each cake layer to loosen. Gently turn the cakes out onto a wire rack to cool completely before frosting your cake.
- Beat the butter and cream cheese in a medium mixing bowl until smooth.
- Beat in the vanilla and salt. With mixer on low, gradually beat in 4 cups of powdered sugar.
- Once all the sugar is incorporated, turn mixer to medium and beat until the frosting is smooth. If frosting is too thick, beat in a little milk. If it’s too thin, beat in more powdered sugar.
- Use a long serrated knife to trim the cake layers if they’ve domed.
- Place one cake layer on a cake stand or cardboard cake circle and spread a thin layer of frosting over it. Spread the lemon curd over that, leaving a slight perimeter all around the edge so it doesn’t leak into your final frosting layer.
- Top with the second cake layer, then frost and decorate as desired.
- Frost cake with the remaining frosting and decorate as desired. Serve.
- Uneaten cake can be stored, covered, in the fridge for up to 3 days or in the freezer, tightly wrapped, for up to 2 months.
- (If you refrigerate your cake, let the slices come to room temp before you serve them so the cake layers are nice and soft.)
- *You can substitute 1 1/2 cups whole milk mixed with 2 1/2 teaspoons of fresh lemon juice or white vinegar. Stir them together and let the mixture sit for 5 minutes, then you’re ready to use it. If you use lemon juice, you'll want to zest your lemons first because they’re hard to zest after you’ve squeezed the juice out.
- **Use less zest for a subtle lemon flavor and more zest for a more pronounced flavor.
- Use store-bought lemon curd between the cake layers or use your favorite homemade recipe.
- You can add some lemon zest and/or a couple tablespoons of lemon curd if you want the frosting to be lemon-flavored. Add it when you add the vanilla and salt.
- You can also mix a tablespoon or two of poppy seeds into the frosting if you want.