Lemon Pull-Apart Coffee Cake

This lemon pull-apart coffee cake is made of yeasted layers of eggy dough sandwiched together between a sweet, buttery filling made with fragrant lemon and orange zest. Once out of the oven, the warm soft coffee cake is brushed with a tangy lemon cream cheese icing. A perfect breakfast or brunch treat.

A glazed lemon pull apart coffee cake on a wooden cutting board with a striped napkin in the background

Lemon and cream cheese have long been classic companions in American baking, and this fun-to-assemble, sweet-tart filled coffee cake makes it easy to see why. Showcasing the lively flavors of fresh citrus, the sweet, buttery filling is made with fluffy, fragrant lemon and orange zest. The warm loaf is brushed with a zippy cream cheese icing, whose tangy flavor marries marvelously with the sunny taste of citrus. Enjoy a slice of this pull-apart coffee cake whenever you need a pick-me-up.–Flo Braker

LC Huzzahs! Note

Still not convinced? Here’s what folks are saying about this sweetly tart, citrusy cake: “It was absolutely the best thing I’ve put in my mouth in a long time.” “Incredible.” “Perfect.” “Huzzahs!”

Lemon Pull-Apart Coffee Cake

  • Quick Glance
  • 1 H
  • 3 H, 45 M
  • Makes one 9-by-5-inch cake; 14 servings
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  • For the pull-apart sweet dough
  • About 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast (1 envelope)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup whole milk
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter (2 oz)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • For the lemon filling
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest (from 2 to 3 lemons, preferably organic)
  • 1 tablespoons finely grated orange zest, preferably organic
  • 2 ounces unsalted butter, melted
  • For the cream cheese icing
  • 3 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 1/3 cup confectioners' sugar
  • 1 tablespoon whole milk
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice


  • Make the pull-apart sweet dough
  • 1. Mix the dry ingredients: Stir together 2 cups (9 ounces) of the flour, sugar, yeast, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer.
  • 2. Mix the wet ingredients: In a small saucepan, heat the milk and butter over low heat just until the butter is melted. Remove from the heat, add the water, and set aside until warm (120 to 130°F [49 to 54°C]), about 1 minute. Add the vanilla extract.
  • 3. Mix the dry and wet ingredients together: Pour the milk mixture over the flour-yeast mixture and, using a rubber spatula, mix until the dry ingredients are evenly moistened. Attach the bowl to the mixer, and fit the mixer with the paddle attachment. With the mixer on low speed, add the eggs, 1 at a time, mixing jjust until incorporated after each addition. Stop the mixer, add 1/2 cup (2 1/4 ounces) flour, and resume mixing on low speed until the dough is smooth, 30 to 45 seconds. Add 2 more tablespoons flour and mix on medium speed until the dough is smooth, soft, and slightly sticky, about 45 seconds.
  • 4. Knead the pull-apart dough: Sprinkle a work surface with 1 tablespoon flour and turn the dough onto the flour. Knead gently until the dough is smooth and no longer sticky, about 1 minute, adding an additional 1 to 2 tablespoons flour only if the dough is unworkably sticky. Place the dough in a large bowl, cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap, and let the dough rise in a warm place (about 70°F [21°C]) until doubled in size, 45 to 60 minutes. Press the dough gently with a fingertip. If the indentation remains, the dough is ready for the next step.
  • Make the lemon filling
  • 5. Make the citrus sugar: While the dough is rising, in a small bowl, mix together the sugar, lemon zest, and orange zest. Set aside. (The sugar draws out moisture from the zests to create a sandy-wet consistency, so don’t be alarmed when you see this.)
  • Assemble the coffee cake
  • 6. Ready the oven: Adjust the oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Lightly butter a 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan.
  • 7. Shape and cut the dough: Gently deflate the dough. On a lightly floured work surface, roll the dough into a 20-by-12-inch rectangle with a short edge facing you. Using a pastry brush, spread the melted butter generously over the dough. Cut the dough crosswise into 5 strips, each about 12 by 4 inches. (A pizza cutter is helpful here.) Sprinkle 1 1/2 tablespoons of the zest-sugar mixture over 1 of these buttered strips. Top with a second strip and sprinkle it with 1 1/2 tablespoons of the zest-sugar mixture. Repeat with the remaining strips and zest-sugar mixture, ending with a stack of 5 rectangles. Work carefully when adding the crumbly zest filling, or it will fall off when you have to lift the stacked pastry later.
  • 8. Fit the dough into the pan: Slice the stack crosswise through the 5 layers to create 6 equal strips, each about 4 by 2 inches. Fit these layered strips into the prepared loaf pan, cut edges up and side by side. (While there is plenty of space on either side of the 6 strips widthwise in the pan, fitting the strips lengthwise is tight. But that’s fine because the spaces between the dough and the sides of the pan fill in during baking.) Loosely cover the pan with plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm place (70 °F [21°C]) until puffy and almost doubled in size, 30 to 50 minutes. Press the dough gently with a fingertip. If the indentation remains, the dough is ready for baking.
  • 9. Bake the cake: Bake the coffee cake until the top is golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool in the pan for 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Make the cream cheese icing
  • 10. Make the lemon icing: In a medium bowl with a rubber spatula, vigorously mix the cream cheese and sugar until smooth. Beat in the milk and lemon juice until the mixture is creamy and smooth.
  • 11. Remove the coffee cake from the pan: Tilt and rotate the pan while gently tapping it on a counter to release the cake sides. Invert a wire rack on top of the coffee cake, invert the cake onto the rack, and carefully lift off the pan. Invert another rack on top, invert the cake so it is right side up, and remove the original rack.
  • 12. Ice the cake: Slip a sheet of waxed paper under the rack to catch any drips from the icing. Using a pastry brush, coat the top of the warm cake with the icing to glaze it. (Cover and refrigerate the leftover icing for another use. It will keep for up to 2 days.)
  • 13. Serve the coffee cake warm or at room temperature: To serve, you can pull apart the layers, or you can cut the cake into 1-inch-thick slices on a slight diagonal with a long, serrated knife. If you decide to cut the cake, don’t attempt to cut it until it is almost completely cool.

Recipe Testers Reviews

This is an advanced recipe in terms of construction. Is it worth it? Yes. Because the bread dough is made with milk and butter, it retains a very soft, beautiful texture. The pull-apart aspect is a lot of fun and the resulting bread, with and without the cream cheese glaze, is lovely. The smell throughout my house was fantastic. I love the citrus tones. I might skip the cream cheese frosting in the future in favor of a lighter one.

In spite of how good the bread is, I do have a few baking notes:

1. Read the recipe all the way through so that you understand all the steps before starting. (Mise en place helps, too.) The construction phase is a bit more complicated than a simple monkey bread or even a simple cinnamon roll.

2. Make sure you have really fresh yeast, otherwise you may have trouble. The recipe does not contain a proofing period before adding all the other ingredients.

3. I used more flour because the texture was too sticky. So, you may need more flour (or you may need only what’s in the recipe). If you don’t include enough flour, though, there won’t be enough structure for later.

4. I had to draw a diagram of the cutting in order to have it make sense. You may want to draw a rectangle with the cutting in order to see the dimensions more clearly. The resulting smaller rectangles (4-by-2 inches) are delicate, especially with the filling. I turned my loaf pan on its side (short side down) and stacked gently.

5. When I repeat this recipe, I’ll likely line the pan with parchment. The bread took a bit of coaxing to remove from the pan. (I ran a knife around the sides and then used a spatula to coax it.)

6. The recipe asks you to remove the cake/bread when it is golden. This does not necessarily mean that the inside has completed cooking. The minimum internal temperature for breads is 185°F but 190°F for this bread would be better. (The maximum would be around 199°F to 200°F.)

Baking with citrus can be delicious. This Lemon-Scented Pull-Apart Coffee Cake is a must-have for Easter, or any springtime breakfast or brunch. It has all the elements of a prized sweet bread, with drizzles of cream-cheese frosting over a buttery rich interior. Who can resist? Each bite has flecks of fragrant lemon and orange zest in it, uniting all the flavors of the bread perfectly. Be patient with this recipe, though. Cutting and stacking layers of dough is a technique that departs from forming it into a traditional loaf. But the look is unique, and the taste…simply lemonlicious!

This yeast-based coffee cake reminds me of some specialty rolls I made–using a recipe from a Betty Crocker cookbook–called Butter Fluffs (aka Fan Tans), which are made in much the same way this coffee cake is created and assembled. In this recipe, however, the yeast is proofed directly with the dry ingredients. This is a technique that works very well and allows the yeast to thrive in the warm (120°F) liquid and carbohydrate-rich batter.

The lemon-paste filling helps liven up the bread with its fresh flavors, the zest in particular picking up the sweet tang in the cream-cheese frosting and bringing all the flavors of the bread into harmony. The amount of sugar in the recipe also creates a comforting balance of sweetness. Much of the sweetness comes from the sugar in the dough, which helps produce a striking golden-colored loaf. However, added sugar from the paste also melts into the bread as it bakes.

As the recipe states, the dough had a slightly sticky, tacky feel after I first made it, and even after it doubled in size. Therefore, I added 6 extra tablespoons of flour to help compensate for the extra moisture lingering in the dough.

Once I relearned the technique of cutting and stacking dough into layers (as instructed in the Fan Tan recipe), the assembly process went together rather smoothly. Within 30 minutes of proofing, the layers of dough had squeezed together and rose above the rim of the pan to produce staggered peaks and valleys. When baked, the bread turned an eye-fetching golden color and set off the white-colored frosting so well.

When I ran a knife around the bread to loosen it, it slid right out of the pan without struggle. It pulled apart easily and made for an unforgettable treat.

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