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I had been thinking about this cake for weeks. I don’t make cake very often; it’s a treat for birthdays in most cases. I don’t care for frosting, as a general rule, (which mostly means that I don’t like making it) and think it is used with too heavy a hand in so many recipes. I like gingerbread with whipped cream, bundt cakes with powdered sugar or glaze, spice cake with cream cheese frosting… but just a little. I like the cake part of layer cakes, and I don’t like the delicate flavor of the cake to be overwhelmed by sugary, buttery plaster. I understand the allure of frosting: a well-made frosting, applied in moderation, is a beautiful thing. That was my goal with this cake. I think I did a good job.

My inspiration for the combination of flavors was spring, glorious spring! For the past few weeks, Seattle has been waking up. There is light (natural light!) when I walk the dog at 6:30 am, and it’s still around when we walk at 6:30 pm. Lovely. The trees are budding and flowering– magnolia, dogwood, plum, cherry and more on my street– and daffodils are out, almost done actually, making way for the tulips and hyacinths and forsythia. It is getting WARM. My windows are open. I want to clean and air out the stale house and eat greens and bake cakes with lemon and herbs in them.


Everyone loves a good lemon cake, I think, so my idea is not revolutionary, just cobbled together from a few recipes I like very much. I took a recipe from Baked Explorations for a milk sponge cake (part of the Boston Cream Pie Cake in the book) and added basil and lemon zest to get the flavor I wanted. The addition of basil was another one of my bee-in-the-bonnet ideas I get and can not let go of– I have wanted to make a lemon-basil cake for some time now, and it seemed like a good day for it. The texture of this cake is spongy, with a large crumb, just the kind of cake I like. For the center, I used a jar of lemon curd acquired in a barter a few months back; you can make your own (there are recipes like this one from Joy of Baking all over the internet) or use a store-bought jar. The frosting is my new favorite thing, a light, airy, butter-based, multi-purpose recipe from Stay For Dinner. It was easy to make and tastes delicious! I might try it next time with a touch less sugar, but my husband loves it, and it tastes better this morning, having mellowed out and made friends with the other elements of the cake. A keeper recipe for sure.

I started baking at 3 pm and had this cake assembled by 7 pm– it was easy to make and put together. You could smooth out the frosting (I was attempting airy whorls) and dress up the top with some candied basil leaves and/or lemon peel to make a real show-stopper. I ended up with about 1 c. extra frosting, so consider cutting the frosting recipe in half, though it was nice to have plenty to work with when frosting the sides. Lemon-basil layer cake is a taste of spring– sunny, with a little bit of green, sweet and sure to make you smile. There is nothing sad about this cake.*

lemon cake

Lemon-Basil Layer Cake with Lemon Curd & Vanilla Frosting

For the cake: (adapted from Baked Explorations)

  • 6 T. unsalted butter, cut in small pieces
  • 1/2 c. milk
  • 1/4 c. cream (replace with milk if you like)
  • zest of 1 large lemon
  • 1/4 c. packed fresh basil leaves, minced
  • 4 eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 1/4 c. sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 1/2 c. flour
  • 1/4 c. cornstarch
  • 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt

To assemble:

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease 2 9″ cake pans, then line with parchment paper and lightly grease the top of the paper. Set aside.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter; remove from the heat as soon as it has melted and stir in the milk and cream (if using), lemon zest and basil. Set aside.

In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the eggs, sugar and vanilla until light, airy and tripled in size. This will take at least 5 mins. While the mixer is going, sift together the flour, cornstarch, baking powder and salt. When the egg mixture is ready, remove the bowl from the mixer and use a large rubber spatula to fold 1/3 of the flour mixture in by hand, then fold in the remaining flour, just until combined. Add the still-warm (reheat for a minute if necessary) butter mixture to the batter and fold in, just until combined.

Divide the cake batter evenly between your two prepared pans and bake for 20-25 mins.; rotate the pans midway through the baking time to ensure even baking/browning. When the cakes are done, cool on a rack for 15-20 mins., until they can be handled, then run a knife around each pan and invert the cakes onto sheets of plastic wrap. Remove the parchment paper and wrap each cake in plastic wrap to help keep it moist. Cool completely.

When you are ready to assemble the cake, make your frosting according to the directions in the Stay for Dinner link. Unwrap one layer and place it on a plate; cover it evenly with lemon curd. You can warm the curd gently in a bowl over hot water if it is especially thick and challenging to spread. Place the second cake on the lemon curd and dollop frosting generously on top; you will have enough to frost the top and sides of your cake, probably with some left over. Decorate, if you like, with candied basil and/or lemon peel. The cake is ready to eat immediately but does taste better after the flavors meld for several hours or overnight; it should keep at room temperature for about 3 days or refrigerated for about 5. If you refrigerate the cake, bring it to room temperature before serving.

*I wanted badly to call this Aimee Bender Cake, a nod to my favorite author and reference to her most recent book, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. But, I was worried that no one would get the reference… and, as I said, there is nothing at all sad about this cake.