How To Make Classic Birthday Cake

How To Make Classic Birthday Cake

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Meghan Splawn
Jan 9, 2017
(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

Birthday cake is the only thing you need to make a birthday special. Whether you're celebrating your kids or yourself, I believe everyone should have a cake on their birthday. Homemade birthday cake is one of my favorite gifts to give, despite having a family birthday in almost every month of the year.

The secret to pulling off a homemade birthday cake at any time is a one-bowl cake that bakes up buttery and tender-crumbed, topped off with swirls of flavorful buttercream and a smattering of sprinkles. Making and decorating a homemade cake is easy and impressive once you've done it a few times. Here's how to make a classic, kid-friendly birthday cake for any birthday celebration.

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

How to Bake a Yellow Cake from Scratch

Duncan Hines Yellow Cake Mix is one of my favorite nostalgic treats of all time, but after having gone without eating it for several years, I was disappointed by the cake the mix baked up. Shortly after, I discovered Faith's Yellow Butter Cake recipe, which is the recipe you'll find below. This cake recipe bakes up moist and tender with a rich, buttery flavor, thanks to both to the butter and the whole eggs used in the cake batter.

Here are a few keys to baking up the perfect yellow cake for birthday-cake building.

  • Grease the pans well: To prevent sticking, use nonstick spray or extra butter and flour to coat the pans. For extra insurance, you can line the bottom of the pans with parchment paper rounds. Let the cakes cool in the pans for about 10 minutes before flipping them out.
  • Make sure to use room-temperature butter: Proper creaming, that is beating together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, gives the cake its tender crumb and aids in its rise. Using softened butter makes creaming easier, but also makes the batter ready for the addition of eggs, flour, and milk.
  • Mix well: Once the eggs, flour mixture, and milk have been added, beat the batter for 3 minutes. Worried that an over-mixed cake will be tough and chewy, new bakers often baby the batter, which can lead to an uneven rise, or a tunnel-filled or flat cake. Mixing well makes the batter homogenous while incorporating air.
  • Cool completely before frosting: While you can mix up the frosting while the cake bakes, you'll have to wait until the cake is completely cool to frost it.

Read more: What's the Difference Between White, Yellow, and Vanilla Cake?

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

Classic Chocolate Frosting, Updated

The classic chocolate frosting you typically see swirled on yellow cake is dark and rich — a perfect indulgence for adult tastes, but often too dark for young ones.

The recipe below is flavored with Ovaltine — a malty chocolate drink mix — instead of unsweetened chocolate or cocoa powder. I've also included instructions for adding melted unsweetened or bittersweet chocolate to the whipped frosting.

This recipe is easily adapted to the addition of either, thanks to a secret ingredient: mayonnaise! That's right, just two tablespoons of the stuff makes for a creamier frosting without cloying sweetness.

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

Building and Decorating

So, you've baked a beautiful cake and whipped up a luscious frosting, but now you have to combine the two in a feat of execution. So let me tell you a secret: Professional cake decorating is all about turning imperfections into art. Cake a little humped? Thinly slice the hump off with a serrated knife or turn the hump into a hill of candles. Use frosting to patch holes in the cake. Aim for a whirly-swirly layer of frosting, instead of a perfectly smooth one, and then top the whole cake with sprinkles that will disguise any crumbs that the frosting picked up.

Read more: How To Frost & Decorate a Layer Cake

Sprinkles Tip: Make a custom sprinkle mix by combining jimmies of two to three colors with mini nonpareils and sanding sugar.

How To Make Classic Birthday Cake

1 (2-layer) 9-inch cake, 8 to 12 servings

What You Need

Ingredients

For the yellow butter cake:
8 tablespoons (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon fine salt
3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/4 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the chocolate frosting:
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/3 cup Rich Chocolate Ovaltine powder
2 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
2 ounces unsweetened or bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled (optional)

Equipment
2 (9-inch) round cake pans
Cooking spray
Electric hand or stand mixer
Measuring cups and spoons
Wire cooling rack
Offset spatula
Cake plate or stand

Instructions

  1. Heat the oven and prepare the pans: Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 350°F. Prepare 2 (9-inch) round pans by greasing them thoroughly with butter or cooking spray. Sprinkle a little flour over the pan, tilt and shake to distribute evenly, and then tap out the excess over the sink. You can also line the bottom with parchment paper for extra insurance if you'd like.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar: Use an electric hand mixer or stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment to beat the butter and sugar together on medium speed until fluffy and light, about 3 minutes.
  3. Add the eggs: Add the eggs and beat until fully incorporated and the mixture looks creamy and very pale yellow.
  4. Add the flour, followed by the milk and vanilla: Beat in the flour, salt, and baking powder at low speed, followed by the milk and vanilla. Beat everything together on low for 30 seconds, and then on high for 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
  5. Bake the cakes: Divide the batter between the prepared pans and bake until the tops spring back slightly when pressed and the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan, 25 to 30 minutes.
  6. Cool the cakes: Cool the cakes in the pans on wire racks for at least 15 minutes. The cakes should fall right out of the pans once they've cooled a little and the sides of the cake have shrunk back from the pan. Flip each pan over onto the rack and tap gently all over. Lift the pan slightly to release the cake. Flip the cakes back over so they are right-side up. Cool completely before frosting.
  7. Make the frosting: Use an electric hand mixer or stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment to beat the butter, mayonnaise, and Ovaltine together until lightened in color and increased in volume, about 1 minute on medium-high speed. With the mixer running, add the powdered sugar 1/2 cup at a time until fully incorporated. Add the vanilla extract, salt, and melted chocolate, if using, and beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 5 minutes more.
  8. Fill the cake: Place the bottom layer of your cake on a cake stand or serving dish. (You can line the cake plate with a few strips of parchment paper to keep it clean while you frost it, but this is not required.) Place about 1/3 of the frosting on the center of the cake, then spread it around towards the edges. Smooth out the filling as evenly as possible. Invert the second cake layer on top of the frosting.
  9. Frost the cake: Take a step back and really look at your cake. If it is leaning or appears crooked, gently press it back into place. Place a large dollop of frosting on the top of the cake. Using an offset spatula, begin to smooth out the frosting and push it towards the edge of the cake. After the top of the cake has been frosted, begin applying the frosting to the sides of the cake. Working with small amounts for more control, first aim at applying an even coat of frosting, and then work on smoothing it out. Once there is frosting on all sides of the cake, use the tip of an offset spatula or the back of a spoon to create a swirled finish for your cake. Sprinkle with sprinkles (if using) immediately after frosting, as the frosting tends to dry a little as it sits.
  10. Slice and serve: You can slice and serve the cake immediately or refrigerate overnight. Let the cake come to room temperature before serving.

Recipe Notes

  • Storage: Cover and store cake leftovers in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
  • Make ahead: The unfrosted cake will keep, wrapped in plastic and at room temperature, for about a week; the baked cakes can also be frozen for up to 3 months.
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