Lemon zucchini cake has big citrus flavor and a moist, tender texture. We're topping this sweet lemon cake with a tangy homemade cream cheese frosting.
This is arguably the best way to use up that summer garden zucchini! If you love a good lemon cake, you'll want to give this lemon zucchini cake a try.
It's easy to make from scratch with simple baking ingredients, plus some garden zucchini and a few fresh lemons. We're topping this lemon layer cake with a tangy homemade cream cheese frosting - you're going to love it!
Serve lemon zucchini cake this spring or summer for your next party or holiday, like Easter or the 4th of July.
Ingredients and substitutions
- Unsalted butter - Unsalted butter and the listed salt can be substituted with salted butter if needed.
- Granulated sugar - Adds sweetness and moisture to your cake. I do not recommend reducing the amount of sugar listed because it can cause your cake to turn out dry.
- Vanilla extract - Enhances the flavor of your cake.
- Lemon zest - Adds the majority of the lemon flavor to your cake. I do not recommend omitting the zest.
- Eggs - Adds structure and moisture to your cake.
- All-purpose flour - Adds structure and balances with the wet ingredients in the recipe. I've only tested this recipe with all-purpose (plain) flour, so I do not recommend substituting with other types of flour. If you have a different type of flour on hand, I recommend searching for a recipe that was developed with that type of flour in mind.
- Baking powder - Adds lift to your cake as it bakes.
- Salt - Enhances the flavor of your cake.
- Lemon juice - Adds moisture and lemon flavor to your cake.
- Zucchini - I highly recommend using finely grated zucchini for best texture in your cake. Do not squeeze the liquid from your shredded zucchini before adding to the batter.
Why is zucchini used in baking?
Since it has a mild, neutral flavor, zucchini makes an excellent addition to baked goods. Not only does it add a bit of nutrition, it replaces higher calorie ingredients (whole milk in this particular recipe) without sacrificing moisture or texture.
For more information, read my post: benefits of zucchini
Preparing zucchini for cake
There's no need to peel your zucchini before grating, unless you're using a very large zucchini with thick, hard skin. Small to medium zucchini has soft skin that bakes easily into your cake batter, so there's no need to peel it off. The peel of the zucchini also contains a higher concentration of nutrients that you'd be missing out on by peeling it off.
If you'd like to hide the zucchini in your cake, feel free to peel the skin off beforehand. The skin is what creates those tiny green flecks throughout your cake.
To grate your zucchini, I highly recommend using the small side of a box grater. A larger grate can leave a bit of texture in your cake after baking.
Do not squeeze the liquid from your zucchini before adding it to the batter. We're utilizing that liquid to thin the cake batter and add moisture.
Cake tips and tricks
- The butter and eggs need to be room temperature before beginning (not melted, not cold). Room temperature ingredients emulsify when mixed to create a creamy, even batter that bakes up fluffy in the oven.
- Sift or whisk your dry ingredients together. This removes clumps and helps make a smooth, even batter.
- Mix your dry ingredients just enough to incorporate them into the batter. Overmixing can overwork the gluten, causing your cake to turn out tough.
- I recommend using a hand mixer on medium speed to cream together your butter, sugar, and eggs. Then, switch to low speed to add the dry ingredients, lemon juice, and zucchini.
- Do not squeeze the liquid from your zucchini before adding it to the batter. We're utilizing that liquid to add moisture to the cake.
Frosting for lemon cake
Cream cheese frosting, buttercream frosting or lemon frosting are great choices for a lemon cake. I've included my recipe for cream cheese frosting below.
- Do not frost a warm cake! Many frostings, including the cream cheese frosting below, include butter. Butter begins to melt around 90 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit, and will melt when spread onto a warm cake.
- The frosting recipe below makes enough to fill the middle of your cake and frost the top, leaving the sides bare. To frost the sides, make another half batch of frosting, or add a filling like lemon curd to the middle.
- According to the FDA, cream cheese frosting needs to be refrigerated after two hours. If you don't plan to serve your lemon zucchini cake immediately, it should be refrigerated until ready to serve. Pull your cake out of the refrigerator 30 minutes before serving to allow to warm up slightly.
Homemade cake (no matter the flavor) is always best served within 24 hours of preparing.
If you'd like to make your cake more than 24 hours in advance, I highly recommend freezing the baked cake layers. Cake freezes very well and retains its moisture and texture after freezing and thawing. Wrap completely cooled cake tightly in plastic wrap, then freeze until solid.
The night before an event, transfer cake from the freezer to the refrigerator to thaw overnight.
Or, transfer from the freezer to the countertop to thaw for 2-3 hours. Remove cake from any plastic wrap or containers while thawing to prevent condensation from making your cake soggy.
Once cake has thawed, it can be frosted and decorated as normal.
Lemon Zucchini Cake
Lemon zucchini cake
- 1 cup (227 g) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1 ¾ cups (346 g) granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons lemon zest
- 4 large eggs, room temperature
- 3 cups (360 g) all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- ¼ cup lemon juice
- 2 cups (270 g) finely grated zucchini, do not squeeze liquid out
Cream cheese frosting
- 8 ounces (227 g) block-style cream cheese, room temperature
- ½ cup (113 g) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 3 ½ cups (400 g) confectioner's sugar
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line the bottoms of two 9-inch cake pans with parchment paper circles and grease the sides (or well grease and flour the bottoms and sides) and set aside.
- In a large bowl, add butter and sugar. Cream together until light and fluffy, about a minute. Add vanilla extract, lemon zest, and eggs, beating until incorporated and smooth, about a minute.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt to remove clumps.
- Add half of flour mixture to batter, stirring gently until just incorporated. Add lemon juice, stirring until just incorporated. Add remaining flour and stir until just incorporated (do not overmix). Last, add shredded zucchini and stir until incorporated.
- Pour cake batter evenly between two prepared cake pans and tap a few times on the countertop to remove excess air bubbles. Bake for about 26-29 minutes, or until cake is baked through and pops back when gently pressed in the center.
- Remove cakes from oven and allow to cool completely in the pans on a wire cooling rack.
- In a bowl, add block of cream cheese and butter. Using a hand mixer or stand mixer, beat until creamy. Add vanilla, salt, and confectioner's sugar. Starting on low speed, blend until combined. Increase to medium-high speed and beat until light and fluffy, about 1-2 minutes.
- Gently flip and remove cakes from their pans. Trim the rounded tops with a serrated knife to make flat layers. Place one layer, cut side down, onto a cake stand or serving plate.
- Gently dollop half of prepared frosting onto cake and spread to the edges in an even layer. Place remaining cake layer, cut side down, on top of your frosted layer.
- Dollop remaining frosting on top of second layer and spread to the edges in an even layer. Optionally add lemon zest or sprinkles. Slice and serve!
- Nutrition estimate is calculated for 16 slices of cake.
- To make a single layer sheet cake: this recipe can be baked in a 9x13 baking pan for about 30-35 minutes, or a 13x18 half sheet pan for about 17-20 minutes.
- To frost the sides of the cake, make an additional half batch of frosting, or replace middle frosted layer with a filling, like lemon curd. Or, spread frosting into very thin layers instead of the thicker frosting layers shown.
- Cream cheese frosting must be refrigerated after two hours at room temperature. If you are not serving your cake immediately, store in the refrigerator until ready to serve. Bring to room temperature for 30 minutes on the countertop before serving.
- Homemade cake is best served the same day for best moisture and texture. Leftovers will keep for 2-3 days in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed container, but will begin to dry out over time.