Tender Orange Poppy Seed Cake layers with a delicious mascarpone frosting. The perfect combination of three unique flavors.
Every time I make a cheese based frosting, I swear it will be my last. They are SO difficult to work with. I know I could make them more stable, but I’d have to either add more cheese or more sugar — neither of which I want to do. So I’m stuck with a delicious tasting but less stable frosting. It is what it is.
Honestly, the only reason I keep making them is because they taste so good. Not too cheesy, not too sweet, and they complement certain cakes just perfectly. Like this Orange Poppy Seed Cake!
I’ve had a lemon poppy seed cake on my radar for a while now. I have a Lemon Poppy Seed Bundt (which was delicious), but I’d been meaning to make it into a layer cake for some time. Alas, it got pushed off yet again because I thought orange poppy seed would be a more interesting and unique flavor to try. If you’d rather do lemon, you can swap it in easily enough.
What kind of oranges should I use?
I am not an expert on oranges. I’ve currently been eating my way through bags of flavorful mandarins, but otherwise oranges are never a staple around here. If you’re an orange expert and have a favorite, go with what you love. Otherwise, good old navel oranges will work. Blood orange would work well too! I used Cava Cava Navel.
How to Make this Orange Poppy Seed Cake
This cake uses my favorite Vanilla Cake recipe as a base. I simply replaced some of the milk with orange juice and added orange zest and poppy seeds.
It’s a bit harder to get orange flavor to come through than lemon — it’s less potent overall. You could use an extract, but if you know me at all you know I prefer to use natural flavors when possible, and only use an extract when there’s really no other option. The key to getting that orange flavor to shine through is in the zest. Never skip the zest!
Never Skip the Zest!
There is so much flavor packed in the zest. My favorite tip is to beat the zest with the butter and sugar. Processing it this way helps to extract the oils from the zest and get that flavor to really come through. Don’t just toss the zest in at the end!
By the way, if you’re looking for a good zester, the ones from Microplane are the absolute best. You get a superfine zest without any of the pith. Works like a charm every time.
Another way to add flavour is to use a simple syrup. Brushing the cake layers with an orange flavored simple syrup will add flavor and also moisture to you cake.
For the poppy seeds, I toss them with my flour mixture. I find this is easiest, and there is less risk of over-mixing the batter rather than if you were to add them at the end.
How to Make Mascarpone Frosting
This mascarpone frosting goes so well with this orange poppy seed cake! It’s subtle and not overpowering like a cream cheese frosting can be, but it gives it a unique and delicious flavor.
I won’t bore you with the details about how annoying the frosting was to work with — the naked cake I ended up going with should be an indication of how things went (lol).
I intended to fully frost this cake and do something rustic with the sides, but that was a total fail. The frosting was both soft and full of air bubbles, and all attempts to make an “easy” rustic swirl were futile. I ended up scraping the whole thing off and letting the pretty poppy seed studded sides shine through.
The frosting recipe makes enough to cover the whole cake though, and I’d recommend doing that because it’s so delicious. Maybe you’ll have better luck decorating than I did?
Styling inspo for this cake came from the lovely MaryAnne over at Little Epicurean. Can I just say how happy I was to find mandarin oranges with the leaves still attached?! Non-shriveled leaves at that.
This cake did not last long around here. I had to stop myself from inhaling an entire slice as I was cleaning the kitchen afterwards. Have I mentioned I have a weakness for citrus desserts?? I hope you love this cake recipe as much as I do!
Looking for more Citrus Cakes?
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I convert this recipe?
- The recipe as-is will also work in three 6″ pans. For three 8″ pans, 1.5x the recipe. Baking time may need to be adjusted.
- To make cupcakes, all you need to do is reduce the baking time — start checking at 15mins or so. The recipe will make 18-24 cupcakes depending on size.
- For other conversions go here. Bake time may vary depending on pan size.
Can I make it in advance?
- The cooled cake layers can be baked ahead of time, double wrapped in plastic wrap, and frozen for up to 3 months. Take out 2-3 hours before assembly.
- The frosting can be placed in an airtight container and refrigerated for 1 week or frozen for 3 months. Bring to room temp and rewhip before using.
- The finished cake (whole or sliced, stored airtight) can be frozen for up to 3 months.
Can I get the measurements by weight/grams?
- There is a Metric option in the recipe card. If you click it it will convert everything to grams.
- This conversion is done automatically and I cannot guarantee the accuracy but many readers have had success using the metric option on my recipes.
Tips for making this Orange Poppy Seed Cake
- The frosting recipe makes enough to fully frost the whole cake.
- Do NOT overmix the frosting once the mascarpone is added. It could split.
- To make a lemon poppy seed cake instead, just swap orange for lemon in the same amounts.
- If you prefer, you can use a cream cheese frosting instead.
- I prepare my cake pans using Homemade Cake Release and line with parchment paper.
- Learn how to keep your cakes moist using Simple Syrup.
- To help ensure your cake layers bake up nice and flat, check out my How to Bake Flat Cakes post!
Orange Poppy Seed Cake with Mascarpone Buttercream
Orange Poppy Seed Cake:
- 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 1/4 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 Tbsp poppy seeds
- 3/4 cup unsalted butter room temperature
- 1 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 Tbsp orange zest from 1-2 large oranges
- 3 large eggs room temperature
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 3/4 cup milk room temperature
- 1/4 cup orange juice fresh squeezed, from 1/2 a large orange
Orange Simple Syrup:
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup orange juice fresh squeezed, from one large orange
- orange slices optional
- orange leaves optional
- poppy seeds optional
Orange Poppy Seed Cake:
- Preheat oven to 350F. Grease and flour two 8″ cake rounds and line with parchment.
- In a medium bowl, whisk flour, baking powder, poppy seeds, and salt. Set aside.
- Using a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream butter, sugar and orange zest on med-high until pale and fluffy (about 3mins). Reduce speed and add eggs one at a time fully incorporating after each addition. Add vanilla.
- Alternate adding flour mixture and milk & orange juice, beginning and ending with flour (3 additions of flour and 2 of milk & orange juice). Fully incorporating after each addition.
- Bake for 25-30 mins or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out mostly clean.
- Place cakes on wire rack to cool for 10mins then turn out onto wire rack to cool completely.
Orange Simple Syrup:
- Place sugar and orange juice into a pot over med-high heat. Stir to dissolve sugar and cook until mixture boils. Boil for 1 minute. Cool completely before use.
- Beat butter until smooth. Slowly add in powdered sugar (1/2 cup at a time). Add vanilla and beat on med-high for 5mins.
- Add mascarpone cheese and beat just until smooth and combined. Do not overbeat.
- Repeat with remaining layer and apply a thin layer of frosting all over to crumb coat the cake. Chill for 20mins. You can leave the cake naked or fully frost the cake after chilling if desired.
- Decorate the top with fresh orange slices, orange leaves, and poppy seeds if desired.
This post was originally published on 04/12/19 and was updated with new content on 01/06/22.