Unlocking the secret to my grandmother’s lemon velvet sheet cake

And how it shaped my from-scratch gold standard

Published October 20, 2018 8:00PM (EDT)

 (Jenny Haung / Food52)
(Jenny Haung / Food52)

This story first appeared on Food52, an online community that gives you everything you need for a happier kitchen and home – that means tested recipes, a shop full of beautiful products, a cooking hotline, and everything in between!

Despite the fact that I develop and write about sweets for a living, I didn’t grow up eating from-scratch desserts. No one made me birthday cakes, Sunday morning sticky buns, or yeasted buttermilk dinner rolls. And I didn't have any interest in making them myself. Instead, my brother and I celebrated our birthdays with Baskin Robbin’s ice cream cakes, and snacked on Double Stuf Oreos after school. If I wanted something sweet, I asked my mom to buy it for me, or, once a weekly allowance kicked in, purchased it on my own. The urge to bake myself just never took hold.

A few times a year, however, we flew from our home near Boston to Cleveland to visit my paternal grandparents for the weekend. Dressed in a housedress and slippers, my grandmother greeted us in the hallway of her apartment building, standing in front of her door as we exited the elevator. With her hands on her hips and a smile from ear to ear, she ushered us into the apartment, where tiny, crispy Toll-House cookies, awaited.

My grandmother had seven grandchildren, but, between you and me, I was one of her favorites. She and I bonded over our love of mini Krackle bars (she always had a glass bowl filled with them in the TV room) and lobster. We both loved shopping, gossiping, and going out to eat. We always started our meals with a drink: she with her Manhattan, and under-aged me with my Coke in a can, no-ice. I can’t share much about her baking and cooking — like whether my great-grandmother taught her to cook, or even if she enjoyed doing it — because I never asked her. Despite the fact my strongest memories of weekends with her all involve the food she prepared for me.

She baked yeasty, egg-y challah, with a soft yellow crumb and a glossy dark brown crust, which we sliced and slathered with butter during dinner. And a flourless chocolate jellyroll cake filled with a Hershey’s Syrup and coffee-flavored whipped cream. And that was just Friday night’s menu. After Saturday’s lunch, we ate what I still consider to be my grandmother’s pièce de résistance: her lemon velvet cake.

She served this bright yellow beauty, topped with a sparkly, crackly lemon glaze, straight from a 13x9x2-inch metal pan. My slice was always tall and square. Each tender and light bite was both tart and sweet in equal measure. I enjoyed my cake with a tall frosty glass of milk. My grandparents, seated at each end of their long, plastic-covered table, drank mugs of black coffee fresh from the Mr. Coffee machine.

All weekend I feasted on slices of this cake. Yet I never once entered her slender galley kitchen to catch the master-baker in action. I was more likely in my grandfather’s office down the hall playing accountant with my brother, or sneaking into my grandparents’ bedroom to try on my grandmother’s jewelry and rose-scented perfume. Despite how fondly I remember hours spent as a wonderfully scented, bejeweled accountant, I can’t help but feel a twinge of remorse that I didn't join my grandmother making cake (and licking bowls). When I listen to a fellow-baker’s stories about a childhood at a relative’s apron strings, I envy they learned tricks of the trade from loved ones.

As I have said, we did not prepare cakes at home — not even cakes from mixes, which were just a tad too “from scratch” for our Devil-Dog-eating family. But, for some reason, a boxed cake mix cake has always been the gold standard to which I hold all other cakes. A slice of a cake made from a mix tastes more than just delicious, but profoundly familiar and comforting. Today, when developing cake recipes professionally, my goal is always to replicate the taste similar to Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines. If a slice of cake does not have the springy, moist crumb of a cake-mix cake, it just doesn’t taste right.

About a decade after my grandmother passed away, I began baking and developing recipes professionally. But I could not stop thinking about her lemon velvet cake. So, I turned to my cookbooks. I looked to Dorie Greenspan’s "Baking: From My Home to Yours" and learned her Perfect Party Cake benefited from rubbing lemon zest into sugar to activate the flavor. I read through Ina Garten’s "Barefoot Contessa Parties," and wondered if her lemon cake glaze might not be similar to my grandmother’s. I perused a few others, but nothing quite fit.

So I bit the bullet and wrote to my cousin Rachel (our family recipe keeper and my grandmother’s other favorite), asking if she could send the lemon velvet cake recipe my way. I was finally ready to develop my own version of the cake and eager to see what kind of magic my grandmother worked all those years ago.

I was shocked by the ingredients. My grandmother’s cake recipe called for oil, water, eggs, lemon Jell-O, and a “Lemon Velvet” cake mix. Suddenly, I understood why boxed cake mixes have always tasted so homey, intimate, and scrumptious. Although I’d been planning on twisting and tweaking my grandmother’s recipe to develop my own, the challenge of now doing it “from scratch” seemed more than appropriate and well-deserved.

My lemon velvet sheet cake tastes like a cake from a boxed mix, but in the best way. The lemon flavor is extra bright from copious amounts of zest and freshly squeezed juice. I use oil, rather than butter (a la Betty Crocker and my grandmother) for an extra moist cake, with a tender crumb. (It also helps that subbing oil for butter makes it easier.) I call for a couple of yolks for additional moisture and richness, and crème fraiche (or sour cream) for a little tang.

The glaze, however, is straight from my grandmother. I like to think this cake would make her happy. Of course, I still wish I’d been following her around the kitchen back in the day, rather than snooping in her bedroom. But making her cake — no matter the ingredients — is an auspicious start at making up for lost time.

Lemon Velvet Sheet Cake
Serves: 12

For the cake
1 1/2 cups cake flour, sifted
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup tightly-ish packed lemon zest (about 4 large lemons)
1 teaspoon lemon extract, optional
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup neutral olive oil – not extra virgin (i use filippo berio)
2 large eggs
2 yolks
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 cup crème fraiche (you can sub sour cream)

For the glaze
2 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
5 tablespoons lemon juice

Click here to read the full recipe.

By Jessie Sheehan

Jessie Sheehan is a cookbook author, food writer, and recipe developer. She is the author of "The Vintage Baker" and the co-author of "Icebox Cakes" (both published by Chronicle Books). She has developed recipes for many cookbooks, besides her own, and has contributed recipes and/or written for Epicurious, Food52, Fine Cooking, TASTE, Little Sous, and Main Street Magazine, among others. She blogs at and can be found on Instagram at @jessiesheehanbakes.

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