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 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
- 1 1/2 cups unsalted butter room temperature
- 8 oz mascarpone cheese softened but slightly chilled, 250g container
- 4 cups powdered sugar sifted
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 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.
I’ve made the frosting twice and it’s curdled a little bit. The first time I added more icing sugar which made it easier to work with. I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong, the buttercream is beautiful before I add the mascarpone. Thanks
Hi Toni! Mascarpone can be finicky to work with and will curdle if either not completely at room temperature or if it’s overmixed.
Hey Liv! Could I substitute buttermilk for the milk?
Hi Aisha! Normally that would be fine but this recipe already has a lot of acid in it from the orange juice. I would use regular milk for best results.
Hello! Would the cake be okay if I don’t add the poppy seeds? I would simply like it to be an orange cake without seeds! Thanks for any feedback 🙂
Hi Abigail! For sure, just leave them out 🙂
Thank you! Can’t want to try it!
I’ve always loved the idea of an orange ginger cake. What might one need to do/sub to modify with regular minced ginger?
Hi Cyd! I think that would be a delicious addition. If you’re using fresh minced ginger (rather than ground, powdered) I would add it with the butter and sugar while they are creaming. I’d add up to a tablespoon depending on how strong you like the flavour. You can either still add the poppy seeds or leave them out.
This cake is one of my favorite. I made it for my daughter’s birthday and it was a success. I added a few cut up canned mandarin-oranges in the middle and I used the syrup to drizzle the layers. It was light and refreshing. Thanks for the recipe.
Hi Nicoleta! So glad you loved it. Thanks for your tips!
A couple questions for you—
I’m planning on making this cake in a rather large pan to achieve a sheet cake. Roughly a 13 x 19 pan, how many batters do you suggest I make?
What is the secret to achieving a softened mascarpone cheese, yet still chilled? How long do you leave out for?
Thank you in advance!
Hi Jessica! Converting pan sizes is always tricky. Here are some sites I use as a guideline:
Based on that I would 1.25x the recipe or so to make sure it’s thick enough. Re: mascarpone, it depends on how warm your place is and how big the tub is. I’d guess around an hour or so.
Hello! Your recipes are amazing! I was wondering if I could use this for a 4 layer 6in cake (for decoration purposes I would like a tall cake). Thank you so much!
Hi Erica! The recipe as-is will make a three layer 6″ cake with layers that are 2″ tall. If you want to do 4 layers then they will be thinner. It’s totally fine but be sure to reduce the baking time.
Cake was delicious! I used blood oranges both for the peel and squeezed fresh the juice and the orange flavor really came through. I added a dash of cream of tartar to the frosting and found it easy to spread! I also made a 4in version with chocolate frosting that was delicious!
Hi Jennifer! So happy you loved it. Thanks for all your tips!
Really lovely cake. I used the optional syrup which added more orange flavour as I infused the syrup with orange peel and juice – so yummy. However next time I would try omitting the syrup to keep it a bit lighter. I might try adding some orange peel or orange oil (or Cointreau!) to the frosting next time to keep up the orange flavour. Thanks for a great recipe.
PS Thanks Liv for your honesty about the frosting- it is tricky! And keeps home cooks like me from feeling let down if/when my end result doesn’t look impossibly picture perfect! Cheers, from Australia 🇦🇺
Thank you! I try to keep it real over here 🙂
Hi Rana! So happy you loved it. Thanks for the feedback 🙂
Ally Why says
I want to attempt this cake in the next days, to take with me visiting my grandparents.
I wanted to ask if I can take just the half of the frosting, so the cake isn’t covered entirely by frosting. (Similiar to your pictures) Or is the frosting already measured for this amount?
I’m a bit unsure as it will be just the second time I make a cake with frosting.
Thank you so much for your help in advance!!!
Hi Ally! The frosting is already measured for this amount. You might have a small amount left over but not too much. If you halve it I worry that there won’t be enough.
I have previously made this cake for a baby shower, but did an orange SMBC. It was such a hit. I’m just wondering how much I would need to increase the recipe by to make 4 layers for a six inch cake? I always use your recipes as they are no fail. x
Hi Jane! Converting pan sizes is always tricky. Here are some sites I use as a guideline:
The recipe as-is will make three 6″ layers so I would increase the Servings to 16 to get 4 layers.
Little Bakers Kenya says
The cake came out perfectly, can it be frozen while frosted?
Hi there! Yes, it should be fine.
hey! i absolutely love all your recipes and am wondering – i’m making this into a small wedding cake and want frosting that can last a little bit and cover the whole cake. i saw that you had some difficulty – do you have another frosting you’d recommend for taste + durability? would your buttercream frosting be good (or a variation on it), or perhaps the cream cheese frosting you mentioned? thanks so much 💕💕
Hi Daisy! I find cream cheese frosting just as difficult to work it (it’s very soft), but I think any of these frostings would be great, especially for a wedding cake.
Followed recipe exactly and cake is very dry. Recommend adding syrup
Hi Carole! The cake should not be dry. Is it possible it was overbaked? Baking times are just a guideline as all ovens differ. Simply syrup will help add back moisture for sure though.
Jackie S. says
Hi Liv, can I prepare the filling the night before, refrigirate and assemble the next day? Alternatively, can the assembled cake stay in the fridge overnight before serving?
Hi Jackie! Do you mean the buttercream? I would just bring it to room temperature and rewhip before frosting. And yes, the cake can (and should) be refrigerated. Take it out 2-3 hours before serving.
I don’t know why but my cake wasn’t just cooking from the centre. Just had to throw the whole thing could you tell me what could have gone wrong? But the taste was delicious. Love the recipe
Hi Dishita! It sounds like it maybe needed more time in the oven.
Love all of your bakes they always come out super but I’m hoping to modify this slightly into a lemon cake to include a curd between filling. It’s also nearly August, in Barcelona, Spain. Am I crazy to think the frosting will be stable enough?
Hi Jessica! Thank you! The frosting is already on the softer side, so it will likely be quite soft. You can chill the frosted cake though, that should help. But with the curd, it could become messy. I would do a buttercream dam to hold the curd in and chill that layer before stacking the other on top. That should help.
Thank you so much for commenting! I am confident that it will turn out well with your tip! I’m assuming you meant the marscapone buttercream……I’m just going to go for it!! Thanks again!!
Please let me know how it turns out! 🙂
The cake turned out great! It did require a lot of chilling time between layers As started to soften immediately but it held up, looked great and reportedly tasted great 🙌🏼 Thank you so much for your advice as I would have just struggled putting it altogether in one go probably!
Yay! So happy it worked out 🙂
I cant seem to find black poppy seeds . Will the white ones work the same?
Hi Priya! That should be fine but the flavour will be milder I think.
I baked the cake today. It tastes and smells wonderful but it’s nowhere near the height of your cake on the photo that you posted. Is it supposed to raise that high? I used 8 inch pan per the directions.
Hi Susan! The cakes should bake to be about 2″ tall each in 8″ round pans. If they didn’t rise as much, is it possible your baking powder is expired? Or that the batter was overmixed?
rohit aggarwal says
thank you livforcake for giving me wonderful information
Hi Rohit! Happy to help.