If you love a real mouth-puckering punch of lemon, this Sunny Lemon Upside-Down Cake is for you. We’re talking buttery lemon cake topped with a sticky mosaic of sliced lemons—all the lemon flavor you could ever want. It’s sunny and happy-looking enough to drive any late-winter blues away, at least for the two minutes it takes to eat a slice!Upside-down cakes are very simple to make and this one is no different, although it does take some time. The lemons have to be sliced, seeded and trimmed of excess rind, lest your cake become incredibly bitter. If you happen to find thin-skinned lemons (Meyer lemons!), you can skip trimming off that outer layer, but I wouldn’t chance it otherwise. Heads up that while I find this process enjoyable, it almost always takes a half hour from beginning to end. Plan ahead.All my previous upside-down cakes have been made by tiling the fruit over a pool of butter and brown sugar that have been melted together, but that combination doesn’t work terribly well here if you’re hoping for your lemon slices to be tender and defined. I tried all sorts of adjustments to my usual topping before following the advice of Broma Bakery—arguably the queen of citrus upside-down cakes—and adding some water to form a syrup. This makes all the difference, keeping the lemon slices pretty, plump and tender, even after baking.
This syrup is made of sugar, honey, butter, salt and water that have been microwaved together. It’s divided so that there is a layer both under and over the lemons. The lemons themselves are tiled in whole at first, before being cut into tiny wedges to fill in gaps. The lemons will shrink while baking, so the only way to guarantee a beautiful upside-down cake is to leave as little space between pieces as possible.Once your lemon mosaic is assembled, bury it in thick lemon cake batter; this recipe is my go-to vanilla cake with some lemony flair. The cake will need nearly an hour to bake. Don’t be alarmed when when you pull it from the oven and it looks like a nightmare—there’s a reason this cake is served upside down!Another way this cake is different from my other upside-down cakes? It needs to cool for a long time in the pan. Between the juicy lemons and the syrupy topping, this cake needs to fully settle or it will look like a hot mess. For the best results, wait until the cake has cooled completely before inverting onto a plate. Your patience will be rewarded with a beautiful golden lemon top. All the peculiarities of assembly will have been worth it, I promise.Once your cake is on a plate, all that’s left to do is slice through the top with a serrated knife, grab a fork and enjoy this dessert which, like it’s name suggests, both looks and tastes like a ray of sunshine. I, for one, can’t see or taste it without smiling.
Sunny Lemon Upside-Down Cake
makes 1 9-inch round cake
5-6 small/medium lemons
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon mild honey or maple syrup
pinch of Kosher or sea salt
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4 cup water
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoons fresh lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (from ~1/2 lemon)
~1 cup milk (not skim or fat free), room temperature
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon Kosher or sea salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
For serving (optional):
vanilla ice cream
Preheat oven to 350F. Heavily grease a 9-inch round cake pan. Line with parchment and grease again. Set aside.
Make the topping. Wash and dry lemons. Zest 1 lemon, then set zest aside.
Slice lemons (including zested one) in 1/4-inch slices. Use a sharp knife to trim rind to no more than 1/4-inch. Remove seeds (they will become more pronounced during baking).
Combine sugar, honey, salt, butter and water in a microwave-safe bowl or liquid measuring cup. Stir together, then microwave 45 seconds. Stir again, just until sugar granules are dissolved. Pop back in the microwave for 15 seconds if necessary. This step may also be done in a small pot on the stove.
Pour half the liquid (~1/3 cup) in the prepared pan and swirl to coat. Arrange whole lemon slices tightly over the top. Cut some whole lemon slices into small wedges, then use them to fill in any gaps. There shouldn’t be much, if any, open space. Pour over the remainder of the liquid. Set aside.
Make the cake batter. Combine the sugar and lemon zest in a small bowl and use your fingertips to rub them together.
Pour lemon juice into a liquid measuring cup, then add milk up to the 1 cup mark. Stir together and set aside for at least 5 minutes, or until curdled.
In a small-medium mixing bowl, whisk together flour, cornstarch, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, beat butter with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Beat in lemony sugar. Add eggs one at a time, mixing completely after each addition. Add vanilla. With the mixer on low, alternate adding dry ingredients and the milk mixture in two installments. Mix just until combined.
Pour batter over the arranged lemon slices, and spread with a silicone spatula to even out the top. Tap pan on the counter two or three times to release any large air bubbles. Bake 50-55 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Let cake cool completely in the pan on a rack. Run a small, thin knife around the edge of the pan a couple of times before inverting onto a cake stand or large serving plate. Peel off and discard parchment.
Serve cake with ice cream of whipped cream, if desired. Cake is best the day it’s baked, but wrapped leftovers will keep in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.