This apple tea cake is made with layers of apples and cinnamon encased in sweet cake and topped with a tart lemon drizzle. We’re happily indulging at any time of the day.
My favorite school roommate used to get regular care packages from home containing a rich lemon pound cake that was drizzled with tart glaze. It was incredible (she was good at sharing). Twenty years later, that cake inspired this variation, in which a buttermilk pound cake is layered with very thin slices of apple and topped with tangy lemon glaze. When you slice the cake, you see the pretty layers—a lovely presentation.–Amy Traverso
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Tea Cake FAQs
What’s the best type of apple to use?
Firm and sweet apples with pronounced lemon flavors are particularly good here in this subtly flavored, not-quite-as-heavy-as-a-pound-cake tea cake. Try a Ginger Gold or Gravenstein if you can find one. Otherwise, a nice Pink Lady or Jazz would be great, too. [Editor’s Note: Gala also works quite well!]
What’s a tea cake?
A tea cake can refer to a small cake, as in this recipe, or a type of cookie commonly found in the South. Regardless, it is a sweet treat meant to be enjoyed with tea.
Apple Tea Cake
For the spiced apple cake
- 1 stick (4 oz) unsalted butter at room temperature, plus more for the pan
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour plus more for the pan
- 1 teaspoon table salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk at room temperature
- 1/2 cup buttermilk
- 4 to 6 ounces (1 small or 1/2 large) sweet apple such as Honeycrisp, unpeeled, cored, halved lengthwise, and very thinly sliced (about 1/8 inch | 3 mm), preferably on a mandoline
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
For the glaze
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice plus more if needed
- 1 cup confectioners’ sugar
Make the spiced apple tea cake
- Preheat the oven to 350ºF (177°C). Adjust a rack to the middle position. Line a 8 1/2-by-4 1/2-inch (22-by-11-cm) loaf pan with parchment paper so there is some overhanging all sides.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the butter and sugar on high speed, scraping down the sides of the bowl occasionally, until pale, very fluffy, and, in the final moments, mousse-like, 8 to 12 minutes. (Alternatively, you can use a hand-held mixer and a large bowl.)
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda.
- Gradually add the eggs and egg yolk to the batter, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition.
- Switch to your stand mixer’s paddle attachment. With the mixer on low speed, add 1/3 of the flour mixture and mix until just incorporated. Add half the buttermilk and briefly mix until combined. Repeat with another 1/3 of the flour mixture, then the remaining buttermilk, then the last of the flour mixture. Mix just until smooth—do not overmix.
- Pour 1/3 of the batter into the prepared bread pan and smooth with an offset spatula or knife. Top the batter with half the apples, overlapping the slices if necessary. Sprinkle the apples with half the cinnamon. Repeat with an additional third of the batter and the remaining apples. Top with the remaining batter and smooth with a spatula.
- Bake until the cake is golden brown, starting to pull away from the edges of the pan, and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 45 to 65 minutes.
Prepare the glaze
- In a medium bowl, stir the lemon juice into the confectioners’ sugar until smooth. If the glaze seems exceptionally thick, add more lemon juice, about 1 teaspoon at a time, until it reaches a pourable consistency.
- Remove the cake from the oven and let it rest for 5 minutes in the pan. While the cake is still warm, poke the top all over with a toothpick inserted all the way. Slowly pour half the glaze on the cake and spread evenly with a spatula.
- Let sit for 10 minutes to soak up the glaze, then use the parchment overhang to remove from the pan and cool completely on a wire rack, 45 to 60 minutes more.
- When the cake is completely cool, drizzle generously with the remaining glaze, letting it run down the sides. Let the glaze dry before serving, about 30 minutes.
Recipe Testers’ Reviews
What a nice fall cake. The lemon icing combines really well with the cake batter as well as the apple. The cake batter itself was good but the addition of the lemon and apple took it to the next level.
At first I was wondering how much apple you would taste with such a small ratio of apple to cake but it carried through just enough to have a nice crisp apple flavor. The tang of the icing is the perfect finish—even though the cake on it’s own would be nice as well.
The only issues I had were the outer part of the cake (the ends) was a little dry and the icing didn’t really absorb into the cake but mine might not have been liquidy enough.
I worried there wouldn’t be enough apple but it worked out just fine. I think instead of 1/3 on the bottom maybe 1/4 would be better? I felt like I ran out of batter at the top. It covered it ok but I was worried.
This is a great apple cake. Perfect as a simple fall dessert or with a cup of tea in the afternoon. It has a great apple flavor despite pretty minimal apple and the texture was on point (sometimes fruit heavy cakes can be pretty stodgy).
I was a little skeptical of the butter and sugar reaching a “mousse-like” texture, even with the whisk attachment (but was excited to find out what the final baked good would be like IF that happened!). Incredibly, at 9 1/2 minutes, poof, mousselike.
I used a Koru apple.
When I checked the cake at 45 minutes, the top was getting very dark but the inside was still underdone. I tented it with foil and baked another 13 minutes before it was cooked through.
Took close to an hour on the counter for the cake to cool completely but the final product was worth the wait! The bake was great all the way around and had that nice dark crust with a bright, white interior. I love that.
It’s moist, has a soft crumb, and good apple and cinnamon flavor. The lemon glaze gave it a nice crunch on the exterior and was a great sharp contrast with the sweet and delicate flavor of the cake.
This will definitely be going into my rotation for the fall! I think there is a lot of room to play with the amount and size of apples going in or even adding another layer of slices in the cake or on top. This is a fun twist on classic flavors.
This apple tea cake is delicious! It’s moist. It’s not too sweet. It’s great for tea, dessert, or a slightly sweet breakfast.
I’m not a big lemon lover. I know that’s sacrilege to you lemon lovers. But I found the lemon in this recipe to be just right. Not overly lemon. Just the right amount of lemon to provide a slightly tart taste.
I used a Honey Crisp apple and found it to be the perfect apple for this cake. My only adjustment to the recipe was that I found 2 tablespoons of lemon juice in the confectioners’ sugar wasn’t enough to make a glaze. I added 1 tablespoon of water and the glaze was just the right consistency. I will make this cake again and again.
I used Honey Crisp apples and found that there were plenty of apple slices to completely cover the 2 cake layers.
I’m an apple enthusiast. When searching out brunch or dessert recipes, I go to apples above all other fruit. This recipe offers a hint of apple and cinnamon, a tease of flavor with delicate layers that complement but don’t overwhelm the tender buttery crumb of the cake and fresh sparkle of lemon glaze.
The ingredients are easy to find and were already in my refrigerator. Easy to make, bake, and glaze. Beating the sugar and butter to a “mousse-like” fluffy texture takes time but is easy using a stand mixer as suggested and still very doable with a hand mixer with whisk or standard beaters if your mixer didn’t come with a whisk attachment.
This will be a new go-to recipe in my kitchen. Great for brunch, snacking, or a light after-dinner treat.
I used Honeycrisp apples—sweet, crisp, and great for baking or eating out of hand. I would mix a tablespoon of sugar with the teaspoon of cinnamon to smooth out the transition between cake and the bite of cinnamon and apple. The cake separated at the junction with cinnamon and apple. Perhaps the cinnamon sugar mixture would adhere the layers to one another.
It seems a shame to use fresh lemon for the glaze and not utilize the lemon rind. It would be tasty to zest the lemon and incorporate it into either the batter or the glaze. Maybe both?!
My cake looks just like the photo. I misjudged the amount of divided batter to obtain equal layers. I think it looks quite charming!
Easy recipe. Delicious finished product. Beautiful presentation. What more can I say?
I loved this apple tea cake recipe because it was quick and easy to put together. I decided to try it because I had all of the ingredients on hand. It’s a very easy, straightforward preparation.
The end result is a tender cake with delicious apples layered in it so that each slice looks beautiful. The lemon glaze adds just the right compliment to the sweetness of the cake. Nice for dessert or breakfast or an afternoon snack! It kept well and was delicious and moist the next day.
I used a Jazz apple and I would use more cinnamon—but I always use more cinnamon than called for!
This is a delicious little tea cake with the texture and crumb of a pound cake but none of the heaviness (and far less butter!). Though not a quick one to make, it’s worth the wait. I was intrigued by the instructions to layer the apples in the batter, as opposed to chopping and mixing them in, but it makes for a nice presentation.
Be aware that the apple flavor will be on the light side. The lemon glaze is essential—it balances the sweetness of the cake very nicely. And don’t be discouraged by the time required to cream the butter and sugar, as your end results will be well worth it.
I used Greening’s Rhode Island. I sliced the apple so that two sides were sliced in rounds, with the remaining parts sliced in rectangles. The round slices were more than enough and I didn’t use the remaining pieces.
When I make this again, I’ll probably do more layers of apple in the batter. My finished cake absolutely looked like the photo. This is a nice little cake! It did not last long in our house.
This understated tea cake was an easy winner in my household, just the thing when you want a little something sweet. The apple flavor was warm but subtle, with a terrific lemon glaze to add a bit of zing.
I used a little under half a Honeycrisp, and toned down the cinnamon to just a sprinkle over each apple layer. At 40 minutes my cake was well browned and a tester came out clean. However, it sank in the middle after the glaze was added and was a bit wet when cut, so I would bake it an additional 5 to 10 minutes as directed.
This apple tea cake took a little bit of care to put together, but I think the results were worth the effort. It reminded me of a layered cinnamon quick bread my mom used to make (from a box! But I loved it) and I loved the addition of apple slices tucked throughout.
The loaf is structurally sound but not tough thanks to buttermilk and a lemony glaze that enrobes, then soaks into, the outer crust. It makes such a pretty cake that demands to be shared with friends.
I beat the butter and sugar for 6 minutes with my hand mixer—1 minute on low, 3 minutes on medium, 2 minutes on high. It became very fluffy and white and looked like ricotta. I beat in the eggs on medium-high for about 1 minute each to get them emulsified and maintain the fluffiness of the batter.
I beat in the flour and buttermilk for only about 10 to 15 seconds after each addition, then scraped down the sides each time. I finished by folding a couple times by hand until all the dry flour was gone.
I used a Pink Lady apple. I sliced the apple quite thin, about 1/8 inch thick, and used half for each layer, overlapping as needed.
I baked the cake for 1 hour, 10 minutes. The outer portion was done after about 1 hour, but the middle was still soft.
In the first glaze-drizzling, I focused my efforts on the outer edge of the cake, where it is more done than the moist center. I liked that the cake stayed in the pan for this part, both for avoiding messes and to force the glaze to stay in contact with the cake as it dripped down. I hate when I drizzle a cake with glaze and half of it runs right off!
My pan was pretty warm and I didn’t want to force it out of the pan after 10 minutes, so I let it cool overnight before removing it and drizzling on the rest of the glaze. I used a small offset spatula to pick up fallen glaze and spread it back on the sides of the loaf. I even spread some on the bottom for the loaf to sit in since it was drier than the top.
This cake cut beautifully into perfectly straight-sided slices using a serrated knife. It was a close crumb, almost like a lighter pound cake. The absence of crumbliness made cutting thin slices very easy without tearing apart the loaf. The look of a clean cross-section of the cake was also attractive with the thin apple layers stacked inside. I love that it had two layers of apples rather than just one in the middle.
In addition to structural layers, the cake had several layers of flavors: first the tart lemon, then the soft buttery sponge, then the tender baked apples and cinnamon. I liked the mix of subtle flavors which were each distinct but none overpowering. This made the cake feel delicate and dainty, the exact type of food to be called a “tea cake.”
My loaf had a flat top compared the rounded one in the photo, but I don’t think this detracted from the taste.
With all apologies to Bob Ross, this is a happy little cake. The bites with apple, cinnamon, and lemon glaze are, of course, the best bites, but the buttermilk pound cake on its own is pretty darn good. Don’t be worried about keeping the peels on the apple, they soften nicely and give the cake a nice, almost swirled, appearance. I wouldn’t be opposed to nixing the apple, mixing in the cinnamon, and going from there.
It took me a while to put this cake together, and it wasn’t because I decided to slice the apple with a knife rather than a mandoline (it can be done, just take a deep breath). I found that whipping the butter and sugar was more effective using a paddle attachment on medium speed on my stand mixer than the whisk on high. It still took upwards of 8 minutes to whip it real good. Once all the eggs were added, I also cranked the mixer to high for a few seconds to dissolve any remaining sugar and incorporate a bit more air.
I bought a standard-sized grocery store Jazz apple for the cake. Half of those apple slices made a single layer for each of the 2 layers in the cake. The apple softened nicely and sliced cleanly, no matter how the slices were arranged in the cake.
I baked the cake for a full 55 minutes and I felt it could have used another few minutes. I pulled the cake out when the corners were deeply golden and the edges began to pull away from the sides of the glass pan. A few cracks were beginning to form on the top as well. My cake didn’t have the rise like the one in the photo.
I liked the cake more the first day, but the cake is perfectly fine on the second day, thanks to the glaze. The glaze is a bit thick so it sits on top rather than really soaks in. A soaking glaze would probably stretch the freshness another day or 2. But if you’re like me, you’ll find reasons to snag a slice before the cake dries out.
The batter for the cake was easy enough to make. I found that layering of the apples a little slow and I found it was quite easy to disturb the apple layers when smoothing out the next layer of batter. The top was a little domed in the middle as it is in the picture.
Sometimes I find that lemon drizzle does not really set, but this set quite well and it was quite hard to spread the second batch of icing because it had set a bit in the bowl. The cake is moist, soft, and quite tasty. It looks like it does in the picture. However, I found that the layers of apple had a tendency to cause the cake to break at that point.
I used a Pink Lady apple.
This is the perfect little treat to serve to friends, family, or yourself along with a strong cup of coffee or tea. The cake itself is soft and fluffy and not too sweet. The method used to add the lemon glaze allows it to really infiltrate the cake and carries a lovely sweet but tart lemon flavor through the cake instead of sitting on top in a sickly sweet blanket like as happens with some other recipes.
While I do adore this cake, the apple just doesn’t work as is. Layering the batter with the super thin apple slices is pretty fussy and results in an apple flavor that is subtle (read: almost non-existent). I think this cake would be just as excellent without the apple entirely.
The recipe could be improved upon with more apple that was chopped into chunks and folded in to the batter, or, if having layers is necessary, perhaps with layers of apple butter.
I used Gala apples.
This is a perfect cake for a cup of coffee or tea on a fall afternoon. The cake itself was moist and tender, likely resulting from the non-standard creaming method that is used (does anyone cream with a whisk attachment for 8 minutes?). It’s the type of cake that could be made on a moment’s notice as I stock all of the ingredients!
I used a Honeycrisp apple sliced on my mandoline. The creaming technique took a full 8 minutes to get to a mousse-like consistency. The directions were clean and concise and there was an appropriate amount of apple to make two layers in the cake. The use of the offset spatula made the layers neat and even. Definitely a technique that I will use again.
Perhaps I made the glaze too early, but by the time the cake was out of the oven and I poked the holes, my glaze was too thick to actually get into the tiny holes and seemed to sit on top rather than seep in. It was more icing than liquid and more spreadable than pourable. Not sure too much got soaked in.
I had no problem removing the cake from the pan but question whether parchment would be a better technique than butter and flour. I always find that tea cakes get a bit too crusty with butter and flour.
When the cake was completely cool, I actually had to add more lemon juice to the glaze on order for it to have the runny consistency that was indicated.
I imagine it would keep well but it went to work with my husband this morning and disappeared in a flash.
I chose to try this recipe because, though I love to cook, I don’t regularly make a lot of sweet recipes—cakes, candy, cookies, etc. Unlike my husband, who would eat cake as a meal, a small bite of anything dessert-like is enough for me.
However, the tartness of both the apples and lemons convinced me that this might be a “cake” I would enjoy. I wasn’t disappointed—it turned out delicious! The cake wasn’t too sweet at all—tart apples paired with the lemon glaze finish resulted in a savory moist cake with just the right amount of “tang.”
I’ve used buttermilk in other cakes I’ve made over the years and I think it really helps keep the cake moist without making it dense and heavy—the same is true with this cake.
The recipe directions were straightforward and easy to follow and the ingredients (minus the buttermilk) were all things that I had on hand—a bonus that made whipping up this cake quick and easy!
I used Honeycrisp. My apple was on the larger side so I had no trouble making 2 nice apple layers in the cake.
This recipe really surprised me. I made the tea cake and it turned out perfectly. So perfectly, in fact, that I made another one the very next day and gave it away as a gift.
Both times I made this, I was amazed at how pretty the cake was coming out of the oven. It’s so pretty, you don’t even need to glaze it—which I guess is an option—but I wouldn’t recommend it. The glaze adds another layer of beauty and tastes amazing. It’s sweet and tart and really complements the apple.
The cake is moist, dense (in a good way), really tastes of apple, and looks amazing with the layers. We stored our tea cake in the refrigerator, well wrapped, and it stayed moist.
The first time I made the tea cake, I used 4 ounces apple per the recipe. The second time I made the recipe, I used the entire apple. The extra apple in the second bake didn’t impact the baking time or alter the final product – other than the apple layers were a bit thicker, which I thought was pretty.
I tried both methods of creaming (Step 2) and found the stand mixer to be much easier. Eight minutes with a hand-held mixer is long, so be prepared for that.
Finally, the glaze. The first time I made the tea cake I followed the recipe as written. I poured half of the glaze over the cake after 5 minutes of cooling. My cake was still quite warm and most of the glaze ran off the cake. The second time around I made a few changes. After 5 minutes, I slowly poured a bit of glaze on the cake and allowed it to absorb in, then I poured a bit more and allowed that to absorb in. I worked quickly and repeated this until I had half of the glaze on the cake. This worked much better. More of the glaze soaked into the cake using this method.
It’s not every day that I enjoy both the process and the final product when it comes to baking. In this case, I did. This tea cake is super flavorful and pretty enough to give away. I will be baking this recipe for years to come.
I used Pink Lady
Apple amount: 4 ounces first bake, 6.3 ounces second bake (both were super)
Mixing the sugar and the butter took me 12 minutes, in order to get the consistency required. After that, everything went quickly. I sliced the apple with a mandoline, poured the cake mix in a loaf pan, and put it in the oven. My only concern was it didn’t rise as I thought it would. Maybe it was my oven. However, the flavor was very enjoyable. Perfect balance of flavors and the lemon glaze gave that acid contrast.
I used Golden Delicious apples.
Using apples in thin layers was really unexpected and helped elevate this cake with its delicate flavor. The ingredients are modest and comforting, taking what one would think of as a pound cake into a dressed up yet supremely satisfying direction given the contrast of the cake and apple with the sparkle of lemon.
Taking the time to apply the glaze in two steps worked perfectly.
Although the recipe gives you perfect timing to make and serve on the same day, for me, the gift of a pound cake (or tea cake) is taking slices each subsequent day, doling it out and I always feel like it is even better the second day as the flavors and moisture seem to equilibrate. I also choose to refrigerate my cake, for me that makes the flavours pop. Even 3 or 4 days on, it may taste better.
Even better, for a small household, I take half the cake and carefully double wrap it, and freeze it for a future day—maybe a busy week where baking a cake is not practical but the desire for a treat is real.
Tool note: I am not always confident of my safe mandoline skills, but my modern box grater has a super slicing panel which easily and safely yields a slice about 1/8 inch (3 mm) or even slightly thinner. After peeling the apple and slicing it lengthwise, I found a melon ball tool was perfect to core it, then sliced each half, reserving in separate bowls to add to the batter (the apple core tool might have been another safety hazard for me).
I do recommend that you use a sharp, thin knife to slice as the cooked apple layers still have a bit more resistance than the cake, and you want your slices to be pristine, especially with the rustic drizzles that the second glaze adds.
I checked the cake at 40 minute, as it was developing a nice golden brown, but the cake tester confirmed my suspicion that the center needed more cooking even as it began to crack a little. At 45 minutes it was done. The timing for cooling and glazing worked perfectly and the cake turned out well. I did stir the remaining glaze to break up any cooling skin and it all drizzled and dripped perfectly.
I think the contrast of the crust to interior was improved on subsequent days, whereas on the day it was baked I almost worried the crust was overbaked although it matched the images and I needed to ensure the interior was baked.
I stored it in the refrigerator and I put the cake in a sealed container (not cling wrapping the surface). I do use two layers of plastic wrap and then foil or a freezer bag for freezing the “bonus half.”
This is company-worthy cake.
This was really a confidence-booster cake. I think I can take this recipe, add matcha and replace the apples with red (adzuki) beans and replicate an entirely addictive cake I had at a favorite coffeehouse, Brix in Seattle. That cake was so good I returned on my way to the airport for more cake and coffee.
As I sliced the first piece of cake, I felt a slight jolt of pride upon seeing the distinct layers of icing, cake, and apples. The thinly sliced apples were tender and the cake was moist and light. The flavors are well balanced and harmonious: the cinnamon plays up the sweetness in the cake and apples, while the lemon enhances the tartness of the apples and tangy background notes in the buttermilk-based cake batter.
Home cooks of every skill level will appreciate that everything in the recipe was timed, described, and measured perfectly. This cake looks beautiful and impressive, but it is very approachable. It would be a lovely cake to serve at a party or simply for afternoon tea at home.
I used almost an entire medium Fuji apple.
Originally published December 4, 2020