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The ‘Secret’ Behind a Grandmother’s Lemon Cake

The ‘Secret’ Behind a Grandmother’s Lemon Cake


Shared by Jessie Sheehan
Recipe roots: Shaker Heights, OH > Brooklyn, New York

For Jessie Sheehan, a professional baker and author of The Vintage Baker, visiting her grandparents in Shaker Heights, Ohio was a thrill as a child. They lived in a large apartment building where she could entertain herself riding up and down on the elevator. When she tired of that, there was a single, consolidated box of toys that was taken out for her to play with: “There was something so magical about that box,” she says.

Her visits were also marked with her grandmother Hyla Givelber’s lemon velvet cake. “It was always around...waiting for us when we got off the plane, or the next day,” Jessie recalls. The deeply lemon-y sheet cake was sweet and tart, moist, and topped with a thin layer of glaze that shattered as she bit into it.

The cake became an icon for Jessie. When she was older, on one visit, her grandmother packed up a slice to send home with her. She planned to share it with her then-boyfriend. But, as Jessie waited for him at the airport, she gave in to temptation, eating it before he arrived. As an adult, she writes on her blog, Jessie Sheehan Bakes, “my take-away from this memory (besides how amazing the cake was) is utter disbelief in my resolve: Now, I would have eaten that sucker on the plane.”

Jessie never made the cake with Hyla and only found her way back to it as an adult through serendipity. After a career as an actor and one she didn’t enjoy as a lawyer, she went on maternity leave and considered what she might do next. With a passion for baking, she got a job at Baked, a popular bakery in Brooklyn. “In the beginning I literally bagged granola for them,” she says. But it suited her. “I felt so completely at home and excited to be surrounded by the sweet paraphernalia.”

She slowly worked her way up the ladder at Baked and became the tester for the bakery’s cookbooks. In need of inspiration for Baked Occasions, Jessie reached out to her cousin who inherited her grandmother’s recipes, looking for the original, homemade lemon velvet cake. Her cousin read her a recipe over the phone that called for a box of lemon Jello-O and a package of “Lemon Velvet,” which Jessie explains was likely a box mix at the time made by Duncan Hines or Betty Crocker.

At first, she was disappointed. She was hoping for a secret weapon, a trick ingredient that would transform the cake recipe she was developing into the cake she remembered. “I knew I wasn’t going to go to the store and buy the cake and a box of Jell-O,” she says. In the years since, she’s worked to recreate Hyla’s cake using natural ingredients.

But, seeing her grandmother’s original recipe also helped Jessie clarify her style of baking. If someone tells her a cake she baked tastes like it came from a box, it’s a compliment, she says. “I have that old school Americana taste for dessert.”

For the lemon cake to be made with a box of cake mix and another of Jell-O, she says, “There’s some poetic justice there.”

Her final version does in fact taste like it came from a box — only better.

Photos by Nitzan Rubin

Photos by Nitzan Rubin

"Lemon Velvet" Sheet Cake

Makes: 1 - 13x9 inch cake
Time: 45 minutes + 30 minutes for baking

For the cake:
1 ½ cups cake flour, sifted
1 ½ cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
2 cups granulated sugar
¼ cup lightly packed lemon zest (about 4 large lemons)
1 teaspoon lemon extract, optional
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¾ cup neutral olive oil – not extra virgin
2 large eggs
2 egg yolks
¼ cup lemon juice (about one lemon)
1 cup crème fraiche or sour cream

For the glaze:
2 ½ cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
5 tablespoons lemon juice (about one lemon)

1. Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease a 13x9 inch pan with cooking spray and line the bottom with parchment paper.

2. In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt and set aside.

3. In a large mixing bowl, combine the sugar and the zest and using your fingers, rub the zest into the sugar until fully incorporated. Add the lemon extract, vanilla extract and oil and whisk. Add the eggs and yolks, one at a time, whisking between each addition. Add the lemon juice and whisk again; and then the crème fraiche or sour cream, whisking a final time to incorporate – don’t be afraid to whisk relatively vigorously throughout all of this.

4. Add the dry ingredients all at once, and using a rubber spatula, very gently fold the dry into the wet.

5. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and bake for 30 to 33 minutes, rotating at the halfway point, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean or with a moist crumb or two.

6. Set the pan on a cooling rack and let the cake cool for 10 to 15 minutes. Invert the cake right side up directly onto the cooling rack, then place the cooling rack inside a baking sheet with sides.

7. To make the glaze: Place the confectioners’ sugar and the lemon juice in a large bowl. Whisk vigorously until smooth.

8. Gently pour the glaze over the cake, using an offset spatula to spread the glaze if it pools. Let the cake cool to room temperature. Enjoy immediately or cover tightly until ready to serve. This cake is super moist and will keep at room temperature for 3 to 5 days.

Chef’s note: My grandmother's recipe recommends poking the cake all over with a toothpick, so that the glaze seeps into the cake. I have done this, but it results in a pock-marked cake (the choice is yours).

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