We’re taking it old-school today with a recipe for my Grandma Dorothy’s Lemon Poke Cake. It bursts with sunshine-bright citrus flavor and will leave you lingering over its tender, melt-in-your-mouth crumb (poke cakes are notable for their moistness, and this one smashes expectations). It’s also so outrageously easy that even if you’ve never baked a cake before in your life, you can nail this particular lemon poke cake recipe.
This Lemon Poke Cake and I have spent sweet quality time together over the years. Since I was tall enough to hover over the counter, I have the fondest memories of standing in my grandma’s kitchen, using a butter knife to cut sliver after sliver of this lemon burst poke cake right out of the pan. I’d pop each directly into my mouth and go back for another, until she’d finally make me sit down with a proper slice (which she would insist on pairing with Ovaltine, because nutrients!).
Every time I eat this Lemon Poke Cake, it surprises me anew with how moist and lively it tastes. With bleak winter not budging anytime soon, I thought it would be just the recipe to wake us all up and bring a ray of brightness into our routines.
As a bonus, if you are looking for a dessert to impress a lemon lover but aren’t the most experienced in the kitchen, I cannot overstate how dead simple this Lemon Poke Cake is to prepare—you hardly even need to measure (this will make sense when you see the list of ingredients).
How to Make Lemon Poke Cake
OK, we need to get something out of the way right now—this lemon poke cake uses boxed cake mix and Jell-O. I know that’s not my usual from-scratch recipe approach, but this is how my grandma made it (and her famous butter Bundt Coffee Cake), and despite several from-scratch attempts, I’ve never been able to reproduce the results without using both of these items.
If, however, you want a moist lemon cake and you want it now, or you are feeling nostalgic, or you need a lemon sheet cake, this Lemon Poke Cake does not disappoint. I didn’t know until recent years that my grandma even used a mix, but she (one of the best from-scratch cooks I’ve ever met) did, so in this special case, we can too.
My grandma’s Lemon Poke Cake recipe lives in a little spiral-bound family cookbook she spent her last few years battling Parkinson’s to type up. This cookbook is such a gift. I can’t say enough how much it means to me to have these recipes, and now to share them with you!
The ingredients you’ll need to make this easy Lemon Poke Cake are:
- Yellow Cake Mix. Her recipe specifically lists Duncan Hines brand; my store didn’t carry it, so I opted for a Betty Crocker lemon poke cake, and it was still divine. If you wanted to make a triple lemon poke cake, you could use a lemon cake mix instead of yellow, but I honestly don’t think you need it thanks to…
- Lemon Gelatin. Yes, good ol’ Jell-O. While some poke cakes call for you to pour the liquid Jell-O over the top of the baked cake, my grandma’s lemon Jello cake will have you stir the liquified Jell-O directly into the cake mix.
- Oil. I used a blend of half canola oil and half unsweetened applesauce for a tiny bit of healthy recipe redemption. The results were excellent. My Lemon Poke Cake was every bit as moist and decadent as it should be.
- Eggs. To bind the batter.
- Lemon Glaze (FRESH Lemon Juice + Powdered Sugar). The hallmark of a poke cake is that once it is baked, you use a fork to “poke” holes all over the top, then smother the warm cake in something delicious to make it outrageously moist. In our case, that’s a lemon glaze. Do not use bottled lemon juice here. Freshly squeezed is critical for the loveliest lemon flavor.
The lemon glaze drips down into the poke cake’s holes, and the already moist cake magically manages absorb it, giving you more tenderness and extra bursts of lemony sweetness in every bite.
If you’d like to play around with this recipe, you could try swapping the lemon Jell-O for other flavors (lemon poke cake with strawberry Jello is a version I remember a friend’s mom making growing up), but I do hope you’ll start with the original, all-lemon version at least once. For a gluten free lemon poke cake, you can seek out a gluten free yellow cake mix, though I haven’t tested any with this recipe specifically.
How to Serve Lemon Poke Cake
- My favorite way to eat this cake is cold out of the refrigerator. The Jell-O firms up a little, and it makes the cake incredibly refreshing. Grandma suggests this in the cookbook too.
- For an extra flourish, you can dust it with powdered sugar, but it’s sweet enough that you don’t really need it. My family usually serves it it without.
- Fresh berries are never remiss.
- Vanilla ice cream—grandma’s favorite accompaniment.
Recommended Tools to Make Lemon Poke Cake
- Favorite baking pan, Option 1
- Favorite baking pan, Option 2 (this one comes with a handy lid)
- Extra-large measuring cup (fantastic for mixing liquid ingredients)
Lemon Poke Cake
- 1 (3-ounce) package lemon gelatin
- 1 cup boiling water
- 1/2 cup canola oil
- 1/3 cup unsweetened applesauce
- 4 large eggs
- 1 (15.25-ounce) package yellow cake mix Grandma says Duncan Hines
- 2 cups powdered sugar
- 1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice from about 2 medium lemons
- Fresh berries
- Whipped cream
- Place a rack in the center of your oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Coat a 9x13-inch pan with nonstick spray.
- Dissolve the gelatin in the boiling water. (I measured the water into a large measuring cup, then stirred the gelatin right in. You could also do this in a heatproof bowl.) Let cool to room temperature.
- In a medium mixing bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the oil, applesauce, and eggs until combined. Beat in the cooled gelatin. Reduce the speed to low, then slowly add in the cake mix, stopping as soon as the dry ingredients disappear.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the top springs back lightly when touched and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean with just a few moist crumbs clinging to it.
- While the cake bakes, in a medium bowl, whisk together the powdered sugar and lemon juice until smooth.
- While the cake is still warm, use the tines of a fork to poke holes all over the top. Pour the glaze slowly and evenly over the top, allowing it to drip down into the holes. Let cool to room temperature. Enjoy warm or hot with plenty of fresh berries and whipped cream.
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