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  1. To make the cake: Preheat the oven to 350°F with a rack in the middle. Lightly grease a 9" x 13" pan.

  2. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the sugar, flour, salt, and baking powder.

  3. Add the butter and zest to the dry ingredients and mix at medium speed, until the mixture is uniform in texture.

  4. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing until each is fully incorporated before adding the next.

  5. With the mixer on low, add the buttermilk slowly. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl halfway through; then scrape again once all of the buttermilk is added. Mix at medium-high speed until any scrapings are fully combined, about 20 to 30 seconds. The batter may appear slightly curdled; that’s OK.

  6. Scoop the batter into the prepared pan, and level the top with a spatula. Bake the cake for 30 minutes; it should be golden brown at the edges, beginning to pull away from the sides of the pan, and feel set all across the top. A toothpick inserted into the center should come out free of crumbs.

  7. Remove the cake from the oven, and place it on a cooling rack. Let the cake rest for 15 minutes.

  8. While the cake is resting, make the syrup: Combine the juice and sugar in a microwave-safe bowl or measuring cup, or in a saucepan set over medium heat. If you’re using a microwave, heat the syrup on high power for 40 seconds. Stir the syrup; if the sugar isn’t fully dissolved, microwave in 10-second bursts, stirring in between, until the syrup is no longer grainy.

  9. Immediately brush the syrup all over the lukewarm cake. Let it soak in, then continue brushing and dabbing it on until all of the syrup is used.

  10. Serve the cake in squares, topped with whipped cream, if desired.

  11. Store leftover cake, covered, for several days at room temperature. Freeze for longer storage.

Tips from our Bakers

  • Don’t want to use buttermilk? Cake made with buttermilk will have superior texture and flavor, but you can substitute yogurt. Whisk together 3/4 cup plain Greek yogurt (full-fat or reduced-fat; not nonfat) with 1/2 cup cold water before stirring into the cake batter.
  • The grated rind (zest) of 3 medium lemons makes a full-flavored lemon cake. For a milder-flavored cake, use the zest of 2 lemons.
  • How many fresh lemons will you need for the juice in the recipe? One medium lemon should yield 1 1/2 to 2 ounces (3 to 4 tablespoons) juice.
  • Can you substitute lemon extract or lemon oil for the zest? Not with good results; neither will give the cake its desired true, fresh lemon flavor.