This sweet and tangy lemon cake is the easiest bake you can make

In the 1950s, my great-grandmother, Mama Jessie, moved to Mexico Beach to be closer to her family. I came into the world nearly two decades later, and this spectacular Florida beach was the first beach I ever visited.

Growing up, I believed that Mexico Beach was the most beautiful place on Earth. Its unspoiled shoreline was beautiful, with only sand and waves as far as the eye could see in either direction.

The drive to Mama Jessie’s house was about four hours by car. As soon as we arrived, my sister and I were greeted with big hugs. Soon big slices of our favorite homemade cakes followed.

When I was a kid, my favorite was Mama Jessie’s angel food cake. My sister’s favorite was her Lemon Jell-O Cake. I don’t always like to admit when my sister is right, but I’m willing to admit that this one was the best cake.

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Lemon Jell-O Cake tastes like it’s had a lot of trouble in the kitchen, but it’s actually one of the easiest recipes you’ll ever make. That’s why it’s likely to become one of your favorite spring pastries. The acidity of the lemon is perfectly balanced by the sweetness, both in the cake itself and the icing that accompanies it. It is moist and a little dense like a pound cake, but its texture is particularly light.

Every time I bake this cake, I’m transported back in time to Mexico Beach. Mom Jessie’s sister, Estelle “aunt sister”, lived next door to her. As kids, my sister and I ran back and forth and in and out of their homes, spoiled not only by the adorable attention but also by the homemade treats.

By sharing this cake, I share Mama Jessie and Aunt Sister. They were something else! These two women ran the general store, the post office, and later The Sands, which was the only hotel in Mexico Beach at the time. I was told that they were both shrewd businesswomen who “run a tight ship” and “don’t take fools willingly.” I’m pretty sure that’s Southern parlance for “they were hell on wheels”.

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Throughout my childhood, Mexico Beach was virtually unknown. It’s certainly no longer a hidden gem, in part due to media coverage of Hurricane Michael, the devastating near Category 5 storm that hit in October 2018. Once a community of around 1,250 people, Mexico Beach now has about 500.

Luckily, Mom Jessie’s house was one of the few left standing after the storm. This cake brings Mama Jessie, Mexico Beach, and the smell of her house to life when we walked inside. It makes me grateful for the power of family recipes, which can help us remember and relive the past. In this sense, food is magical.

Spring has arrived where I live today. My azaleas are in bloom and I just poured the frosting on my first lemon Jell-O cake of the season. Outside, a family of ospreys encourage a youngster in what appears to be his first flight. What a wonderful day! I hope spring has come to you too. If not, baking this cake might help make it stand out. . .


Before you start cooking, here is an overview of some of the ingredients:

boxed cake mix

This recipe, like so many of my recipes, comes from a simpler time. The choices at the grocery store were simpler, at least. As for Mama Jessie, Duncan Hines was the best – that’s why his name is checked in the recipe. The key here is to choose a simple vanilla cake mix.

“Lemon Flavor”

Back then, people called this ingredient “lemon flavor,” my mom says. “Lemon flavor” is handwritten on the recipe, but I’m not sure if those words were actually on the label – or if they were shorthand for lemon extract. (For more, see the cook’s notes.)


Recipe: Mama Jessie’s Lemon Jell-O Cake


Lemon jelly cake

Lemon glaze

  • 1/2 pound powdered sugar
  • Juice of 3 lemons


  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Combine all cake ingredients in a bowl. Beat with an electric mixer for 5 minutes or until completely smooth.
  3. Pour the batter into a buttered and floured cake tin. Bake at 350 for 55 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
  4. Meanwhile, prepare the frosting. Put the powdered sugar in a bowl and gradually add the juice of 3 lemons. Mix well.
  5. Remove from the oven and pour the glaze over the warm cake. Let the cake cool completely before removing it from the pan. (Tip: loosen the sides of the cake from the pan before pouring the icing on it.)

Cook’s Notes

1. Feel free to experiment with different boxed cake mixes, as long as you choose a vanilla mix that comes in a 15.25 ounce box. I’ve experimented with gluten-free versions, like King Arthur, Krusteaz, and Pamela’s. Even good old Duncan Hines has a gluten-free yellow cake mix these days.

2. “Salad oil” shows up in so many of my old recipes. (In these traditional recipes, it’s either lard, salad oil, or shortening.) You can use butter or a mixture of butter and oil of your choice. I looked for cold pressed sunflower seed oil the last time I made this cake, but often used a combination of oil and butter.

3. “Lemon Flavor”: This ingredient has sparked a lot of conversations at home. Do not use lemon juice as a substitute. Lemon extract, lemon flavoring and lemon zest are all good to use. If you opt for the latter, simply measure out the same amount of zest as aroma. In other words, it’s a 1:1 ratio.

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