Lemon Poke Cake

If you’re unfamiliar with the idea, a poke cake is a simple, yet genius concept. After baking a yellow or white cake, holes are poked over the top. Then, the cake is covered with some mixture that will then seep down into those freshly-poked holes. After some refrigerator time, the cake is frosted.

I used a version of a yellow cake that is my normal go-to. It’s more dense than not, but that allows it to hold up to all the pokes and the thick, heavy topping.

There are some old-fashioned versions with little tunnels of freshly-mixed Jell-O brightening up a standard cake. Some versions use pudding. I simplified a bit by mixing condensed milk and fresh lemon juice. It’s a thick mixture and will not soak completely into the cake. That’s perfectly fine. No cause for concern!

Lemon Poke Cake is a bright, refreshing, delicious cake. It's always a crowd-pleaser! - Bake or Break

Of course, what better way to top off a refrigerated cake than with cream cheese frosting? Splash in a little more lemon juice for even more lemon flavor.

The three components of this cake are all lemon-flavored. Each one has just a hint of lemon. The finished cake still maintains a very gentle lemon flavor. There’s no doubt that this is a lemon cake, but it doesn’t beat you over the head with it. It’s lovely and cool and just the thing for dessert on a summer day.

Lemon Poke Cake

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Lemon Poke Cake


    For the cake:
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 & 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2-3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1-1 & 1/2 teaspoons lemon zest
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • For the topping:
  • 14 ounces sweetened condensed milk
  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
  • For the frosting:
  • 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 3 cups confectioners' sugar
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice


Preheat oven to 350°. Grease a 9"x 13" baking pan.

To make the cake:

Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

Using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Mix in lemon juice and lemon zest. Gradually add flour mixture, mixing just until combined. Stir in sour cream.

Transfer batter to prepared pan. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a pick inserted into the center comes out clean.

To make the topping:

Whisk together condensed milk and 1/4 cup lemon juice until smooth. Using the round handle of a wooden spoon*, poke holes about 1/2 inch apart over entire surface of warm cake, making sure not to poke all the way to the bottom of the cake. Pour mixture over cake. Note that not all of the mixture will be absorbed into the cake.

Allow cake to cool completely. Refrigerate cake for at least 1-2 hours to allow topping to set and soak into cake.

To make the frosting:

Beat cream cheese, confectioners' sugar, and 1 tablespoon lemon juice until smooth. Spread evenly over topping of cool cake. Refrigerate at least an hour before serving.


*Some of you have encountered issues with the condensed milk mixture not soaking into the cake. While I successfully used a fork to make many, many holes in the cake, I've changed the directions to use the round handle of a wooden spoon to make the mixture soak into the cake a bit easier. As is mentioned above, not all of the mixture will be absorbed.

Keep cake refrigerated.


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  1. Yum! Will have to try this. My favorite poke cake is what my family always called “Chocolate Soaky Cake.” It’s a yellow cake with holes poked in it and topped with boiled fudge icing. The chocolate soaks down into the cake and hardens. So good!

    • Kathe Chamblee January 27, 2014 Reply

      I would love the recipe for this chocolate poke cake with fudge drizzled in the holes of the cake. This sounds like my kind of cake. Thank you.


    • Pat June 17, 2015 Reply

      Sounds like wonderful tasty idea for a chocolate lover. Would you mind sharing the recipe? Thank you.

    • Peggy Winstead September 29, 2015 Reply

      I would love to have the recipe for The Chocolate Soaky Cake and also the boiled chocolate icing.

      Thank you,

  2. vanillasugarblog July 25, 2012 Reply

    woman just give me a bucket of that frosting!

  3. This is beautiful! I love lemon. YUMMY!

  4. Miranda July 25, 2012 Reply

    Nice. Seems simple yet refreshing and delicious. Great photos!

  5. Janet July 26, 2012 Reply

    This looks lovely! I was wondering if the lemon frosting mixture would also be adequate for macaron filling?

  6. Jenny @ BAKE July 26, 2012 Reply

    What a genius idea! I saw something similar for a Mexican cake, I love all the lemon you’ ve used!

  7. Melanie July 26, 2012 Reply

    Your photos are just beautiful! I’d love to pick your brain on your shooting secrets/techniques.

    And this cake looks easy yet delicious. Thanks for posting!

  8. jennifer July 26, 2012 Reply

    Janet, I think the frosting wouldn’t be sturdy/stable enough for macarons. Even refrigerated, it’s very soft.

  9. Edith July 26, 2012 Reply

    I have never heard of poke cakes before…..it sounds amazing. So does the cake have to be fairly dry in order to soak up the topping well?

  10. Riley July 27, 2012 Reply

    This looks delicious! Is “poke cake” the technical term? :)

    • carolyn ronquist March 1, 2014 Reply

      I think the technical name was “Jello poke Cake.” I made one with lime cake and lemon frosting. Really good for a hot summer day.

  11. SpinTheMeal July 27, 2012 Reply

    Oh, I just love poke cake. It’s my one go-to cake recipe for a moist, delicious result every time. Never thought of using lemon before, though. I’ve always made strawberry or raspberry, using Jello mix and hot water to “soak” the cake. Your recipe looks wonderful!

  12. jennifer July 27, 2012 Reply

    Edith , it doesn’t need to be dry. I do make it a bit dense so it will hold up to all the holes poked into it and all the topping.

  13. Jennifer July 30, 2012 Reply

    That looks delicious! I wonder if you could also use lemon curd (such as the lighter lemon curd recipe?) for the topping?

  14. jennifer July 30, 2012 Reply

    Jennifer, I think lemon curd would be lovely!

  15. Cindy August 4, 2012 Reply

    I made this today, well, sort of. I used a box cake mix, but made the topping as written. The topping is delicious, but never did sink into the cake. It just sat on top like a traditional frosting. I think the lemon juice thickened up the condensed milk too much. Anyway, it was a great tasting cake!

  16. Tv Food and Drink August 8, 2012 Reply

    The perfect dessert for summer for me is anything with lemon. Thanks for sharing this. It will be on my counter within the week! Gary

  17. Tracy {Pale Yellow} August 17, 2012 Reply

    I used to make poke cakes when I was young with my mom using boxed mixes and jello. I have never thought to make a from-scratch version! This cake sounds refreshingly delicious!

  18. Emily November 1, 2012 Reply

    Hi Jennifer. This looks like a great recipe! I am an editor for AllFreeCasseroleRecipes.com and I wanted to let you know that I featured this recipe in a blog post. You can find it here: http://blog.recipelion.com/trending-jello-poke-cake-recipes-big-hit/

  19. Petra November 11, 2012 Reply

    Did you mean sweetened condensed milk?

    I’m in the middle of making this and just made the topping with regular condensed milk. Doesn’t seem right…so I think I’m going to use sweetened…but then I’m worried it’s going to be too sweet.

    • jennifer November 11, 2012 Reply

      Petra, it is sweetened condensed milk. Sorry for the confusion!

  20. Michael December 28, 2012 Reply

    Could I possibly use lime zest in the topping to give it that lemon lime flavor?

  21. Michael December 28, 2012 Reply

    Or possibly Orange zest?

  22. jennifer December 28, 2012 Reply

    Of course, Michael. Either one would be fine.

  23. Claire March 27, 2013 Reply

    Hey! This looks so delicious…..
    I really want to have this cake for my birthday, or a variation of it!
    A large post-it note is now devoted to that thought 😉
    I would really love to try this with coconut!
    Maybe coconut cream soaked into it, with a whipped cream frosting
    and toasted coconut? Sounds enchanting!
    Any thoughts?
    Thank you for the awesome recipes!!

  24. jennifer March 27, 2013 Reply

    Hi, Claire! My mother used to make a cake very similar to this one with coconut. She used a boxed yellow cake mix, poured coconut milk over that to soak into the holes, topped it with whipped cream and sweetened coconut. One of my favorites!

  25. Claire March 27, 2013 Reply

    I’m definitely trying that!
    Have a great Easter.
    I shall be cooking some of your recipes for our celebration!
    I’ve fallen in love with your recipes. 😉
    Thank you!

  26. Christy April 3, 2013 Reply

    Do you have a strawberry lemon version of this?

  27. jennifer April 4, 2013 Reply

    Christy, I haven’t made a strawberry-lemon version. You could easily add some pureed strawberries to the frosting. It might be possible to add some to the topping, but it might make it too thick to soak into the cake.

  28. Sarah April 7, 2013 Reply

    I made this today, only used a box lemon cake, added creme fraische to condensed milk and puréed blackberries. It was unbelievable! I bet you could add a little regular cream to the condensed milk if you used puréed strawberry and it would soak right in, just not too much.

  29. Mandy April 8, 2013 Reply

    Hello –

    I made this yesterday and although the cake had great flavor, the “poke” part is misleading. I poked the cake as directed, but none of the topping soaked through. It pretty much just sat at the top of the cake. I was expecting the cake to be moist because of the condensed milk, but it pretty much resulted in regular lemon cake with condensed milk sitting on the top and frosting on the top of that. Good flavor, but I wouldn’t make this again unfortunately.

    • carolyn ronquist March 1, 2014 Reply

      Poke with a fork about 1 inch apart and the jello should go right down.

  30. Jean C April 19, 2013 Reply

    My aunt gave us a poke cake recipe when I lived at home. I have to say, the condensed milk part is a new twist, We used lemon pudding.

    If a fork does not make big enough “pokes” try a butter knife.

  31. Really appreciate that you made the cake from scratch rather than using a cake mix. I’m off to pin it on my Cake Board and my Lemons & Limes Board on Pinterest.com

  32. Lauren May 16, 2013 Reply

    My Mom requested a lemon poke cake for Mother’s Day and I decided a made-from-scratch cake was the way to go. The lemon flavor and cream cheese frosting was excellent, but the cake and “poke effect” were huge disappointments. Like many others have found, the condensed milk does not seep into the cake, resulting in a dry cake with gooey condensed milk and cream cheese frosting on top. Cake mix and Jello is fool-proof.

  33. Julie May 19, 2013 Reply

    I made this and I think the sweetened condensed milk was a little too thick and didn’t seep into the cake very well. I think I’ll add a little evaporated milk next time to thin it out a bit. The cake was still good though!

  34. Janet June 10, 2013 Reply

    I made this yesterday and loved it. I have made the coconut version for years and everyone loves it. I dont think it is the thickness of the condensed milk. I believe it has to do with the number and size of the holes. Another tip I have used is to pour half on and let it sink in and then pour the rest.

  35. Sherry June 28, 2013 Reply

    I just made this cake for my husband’s birthday–I poked TONS of holes all over the surface of the cake with a fork, but it in the fridge and went to work. A few hours later came home to make the frosting and none of the topping sunk into the cake. It is all just laying on top, so I just put the frosting on top of that layer. I hope it tastes ok, but I am really disappointed :(

  36. Jamie July 5, 2013 Reply

    My experience was like many of the comments here–the lemon/condensed milk mixture did not seep into the cake! It was like I had two layers of frosting. I followed the directions carefully and poked many holes as was suggested. The cake had a good flavor, but others are right, the “poke” aspect is misleading. I guess you need a large wooden spoon handle to make the holes?

  37. Lindy September 16, 2013 Reply

    Okay, so I have a recipe I have adapted that’s similar to this but my milk mixture is a combination of cream, evaporated milk, and sweetened condensed milk with lemon juice and zest. The first time I made the cake it was moist and amazing! Since then I have tried about 5 to have the same results and through my research I have found that sweetened condensed milk and lemon juice actually have a reaction together and the lemon juice actually thickens sweetened condensed milk. Within minutes you can have a pudding like mixture. I’m trying to figure out why it didn’t happen to me the first time and since hasn’t worked out but rather given me a thick layer. I’m working on it! Just a heads up!

  38. susan l February 1, 2014 Reply

    To avoid the problem of your topping not soaking in, try pouring it immediately after mixing onto a still warm cake. Chill then add the icing.

  39. Karen February 9, 2014 Reply

    I make this as the jello version, but use a straw to poke the holes into the cake. Works great.
    Good luck.

  40. Carla July 16, 2014 Reply

    I used a wooden spoon handle and then one of those rubber topped turkey basters. It was the exact match for hole size and I squirted the “pudding” into the holes…. this cake was delicious with fresh raspberries on top! Thanks for the recipe :)

    • Author
      Jennifer McHenry July 17, 2014 Reply

      Glad you liked it, Carla! I love the addition of raspberries!

  41. Debbie March 16, 2015 Reply

    Do I have to put it in the fridge? I was really in the mood for a warm gooey cake, so I thought after I poured the condensed milk mixture, I could let it cool on the countertop before adding the frosting. What do you think yay or nay?

    • Author
      Jennifer McHenry March 16, 2015 Reply

      Debbie, I definitely recommend refrigerating the cake so that the topping will set well. That being said, I don’t think it will be a disaster if you don’t. It would need to be cooled to room temperature before you frosted it. If you decide not to refrigerate it before serving, you will still need to refrigerate any leftovers.

  42. Tina May 19, 2015 Reply

    I just made this cake and I love the frosting and the cake but the condensed milk was a little too much and didn’t seep into the holes. I ended up scraping most of it off, then frosted. I will definitely make this cake again,however, I will use a lemon jello mixture instead of the condensed milk. My family wasn’t a big fan of the sweetened condensed milk.

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