5 Rules for Making an Ugly Birthday Cake (and Celebrating with Your Friends)

published May 22, 2017
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There is no dessert more special than a birthday cake. It’s the most personal and celebratory of treats. Far superior to weeknight cookies and less fussy than something as monumental as wedding cake, it’s a dessert with a purpose. And there’s also no greater baking joy, in my opinion, than making a birthday cake for someone you love.

I always have the best intentions when I decide to make someone a birthday cake, but it rarely goes as planned. I wait too long to find the perfect recipe or don’t have the right supplies on hand, and I end up skipping the whole process entirely in favor or a simpler dessert or, even worse, nothing at all. This is a total shame, because everyone should eat cake on their birthday — baking plans be damned. That’s why I’m in favor of embracing the ugly semi-homemade birthday cake.

What’s an Ugly Birthday Cake?

You’ve most likely come across the ugly birthday cake in your life — especially when you were a kid. Ugly birthday cakes are thrown together a little last-minute; usually made with a box mix; and have more sprinkles, candles, and icing than you can possibly imagine. They usually take the form of a sheet cake, and are served in a disposable aluminum pan or a glass casserole dish.

It’s definitely something you’d never see on Pinterest, where all the cakes look so stylized they’re almost too pretty to eat. Birthday cakes don’t need this kind of prestige. They need to be consumed. They shouldn’t be purchased at the fancy bakery days before someone’s birthday. They need to be a little messy around the edges. They need to be thoughtful, and that means being semi-homemade.

Ugly birthday cakes are less about the person who made it and more about the person it’s for. When someone walks in with a gorgeous cake to someone’s birthday party, it suddenly becomes about the person who made it (Wow! Such skill! How did you learn to do this?) versus who it’s for.

The 5 Rules of the Ugly Birthday Cake

1. When in doubt, reach for the boxed stuff.

If you’re strapped for time, don’t even think about trying to make a birthday cake from scratch. There are some truly delicious boxed cake mixes that will make your life so much easier. If you don’t have time for the boxed stuff, then consider buying a naked cake at the grocery store and dressing it up.

2. Get lots of candles.

To make a truly magical birthday cake, you need lots and lots of candles. You don’t need to get the fancy kind or something that matches the cake — just buy candles, stick them into the cake, and light them on fire.

3. Write “happy birthday” in icing.

An essential part of an ugly birthday cake is writing “happy birthday” in icing. Do not attempt to make this look pretty; the more “homemade” it feels, the better.

4. Add sprinkles. No, even more sprinkles.

If you haven’t noticed, the most important part about an ugly birthday cake is the decoration. Add way more sprinkles to this birthday cake than you’re accustomed to (but make sure you can still read the “happy birthday” writing — or not.)

5. Don’t use anything fancy for serving.

Ugly birthday cakes are not the kind of thing you want to display on top of a fancy cake stand. A casserole pan is a great way to serve the ugly birthday cake, and it also makes it easier to transport the cake to wherever you’re going. Serve with a simple knife and don’t be afraid to get messy.

Although it’s easy to fall into the Pinterest trap of beautiful cakes and fancy parties, remember why you’re celebrating in the first place. You want to see your friends or family, eat some delicious food (including cake!), and celebrate someone you care about. Sometimes the best thing you can do is just make something,top it with a ton of sprinkles and candles, and scribble the name of the person celebrating their birthday in whatever icing is available at the grocery store (I’m in favor of green, for what it’s worth).

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