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A lemon tree on Crete in full fruit in winter

A lemon tree on Crete in winter - in the right climate, they bear fruit throughout the year.

Among my earliest memories of travel is how fascinated I was with first seeing lemon trees richly bearing fruit while on a trip to Greece. For me, still a toddler at the time, the lemons themselves were a little frustrating: lovely to behold but not readily edible!

Certainly, those beautiful trees with their dark green leaves and bright yellow fruit, standing in their thousands in coastal plains lining the Mediterranean, are not just delivering a key ingredient of Mediterranean cooking, but have become a typical “southern” image, associated with warmth, light and bucolic landscapes. The association is perhaps even closer with Italy. Described as the land were lemon blossom grows by Goethe already in the 18th century, the country is home to a number of special varieties of the fruit and – needless to say – to various lemon-based specialities! No wonder: with its distinctive, zesty and refreshing but very tart flavour, the lemon is more suited to being an ingredient than to being eaten directly.

Sfusato lemons growing on a tree near Amalfi in Italy

The sfusato (or amalfitano) lemon, grown around Amalfi, is recognised as a designated regional product. (Image: Sabine Cretella)

The main harvest period of the fruit, which was introduced to the Mediterranean area by the Romans, but only became widespread in the Middle Ages, is beginning about now. It is a good time, so, to present a recipe for a very typical Italian lemon cake, a delicious treat that is simple to make.

Italian cuisine has, of course, become very famous the world over, and some of its dishes are now international standards, most famously pasta, pizza and speciality products like salami, prosciutto and so on. But it goes without saying that there is much to discover for the traveller, as each region has its own local dishes and styles to offer. One of those fields of discovery is the country's immense variety of artisanal sweets, lovingly created in time-honoured fashion, be it in a home kitchen or in a confectioner's workshop.

A whole Italian lemon cake on a plate

Delicious: the finished cake (decoration is optional).

Our cake is part of that tradition. A few years ago, while travelling on our Cruising the Amalfi Coast, our office manager, Julie, came across it, as the on-board chef had prepared it for the on-site picnic on an excursion to Pompeii. In her words “it disappeared so quickly that not even crumbs remained. In fact some slices never made it to Pompeii”. No wonder: the deliciously fluffy sponge cake is soaked with a lemony syrup, giving it a subtle balance between the sweetness and the tartness of its ingredients. At the time, Julie managed to convince the chef to share his recipe and has recently recreated it - here it is:

Italian Lemon Cake – recipe

A slice of Italian lemon cake on a plateMakes for about 8-12 slices


For the Cake

200g (7.5 oz) flour (sifted)

1½ teaspoons baking powder

A pinch of salt

80g (3 oz) unsalted butter, melted and left to cool down a little

70ml (2.5 fl oz) extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice – you can use more if you want a stronger lemon aroma

125g (4.5 oz) sugar

Zest from 2 lemons

4 eggs, room temperature

2 tablespoons milk, room temperature

For the lemon juice syrup

2 tablespoons water

2 tablespoons sugar

Juice of 1 large lemon

Icing sugar for dusting

Cutting Italian lemon cake on a plate


1. Preheat the oven to 180 °C (350 °F, gas mark 4). Wipe a 23cm (9") cake tin evenly with butter.

2. Mix together the flour, baking powder and salt.

3. In a small bowl, combine the melted butter, olive oil and lemon juice.

4. Combine the sugar with the lemon zest. Add the eggs and keep stirring until the mixture is smooth and pale yellow, about 4-5 minutes (by hand).

5. Continuously stirring (spoon works better than whisk, but both are ok), slowly add the milk, then the flour mixture and finally the butter and oil mixture. You should end up with a smooth and even texture.

6. Now pour the batter into the baking tin and bake for 30-40 minutes. Just in case, check the cake after 25 minutes. When it's done, the surface should be a light brown colour, and a fork inserted near the centre should come out clean.

7. Meanwhile, prepare the lemon juice syrup by heating 2 tablespoons of water, mixed with the sugar and lemon juice in small pan at a medium low temperature, stirring occasionally. Once the sugar has completely dissolved, leave it on the cooker for another few minutes, the set it aside, and cover with a lid to keep the syrup warm.

8. Having removed the cake from the oven, let it cool down a little - but not too much! Remove it from the pan, the gently drizzle and brush the lemon syrup over the top and sides. The cake must still be warm at this stage, otherwise the syrup will not soak in properly.

9. Allow the cake to cool further before sprinkling it with the icing sugar. Here you have a choice: if you add the icing sugar while the cake is still quite warm, it should form a slightly crisp glaze-like crust. If the cake has cooled down completely, the icing sugar will simply be dusted upon it. It's up to you!

A lemon tree with lots of lemons

The saying goes "if you have lemons, make lemonade" - but in Italy, they'd probably make limoncello instead!

Enjoy - maybe with a little glass of Limoncello, the delicious Italian lemon liqueur!


There are many variations of this classic lemon cake recipe in Italy and beyond, including the use of slightly altered ingredients or quantities, as well as the inclusion of other citrus fruit - and so on.

If you want to have your cake but not bake it yourself, you can enjoy it or similar delights on many of our tours in Italy, such as Exploring Sicily and - most pertinently - our  Gastronomic Tour of Sicily, where that island's rich culinary tradition takes centre stage!

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