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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Stylist: Jesse Szewczyk
Recipe Review

We Tested 4 Famous Birthday Cake Recipes and Found a Clear Winner

published Jan 15, 2021
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If you’ve ever been tasked with making someone else’s birthday cake, you know how much pressure it can be. You want it to turn out perfectly. It’s their big day, and the cake is the centerpiece that marks the occasion!

Now, we all have different preferences when it comes to birthday cake — maybe you like chocolate on chocolate, or Funfetti, or even ice cream cake. But to me, nothing beats a classic yellow cake with chocolate frosting and an abundance of sprinkles.

Until recently, I hadn’t found a birthday cake recipe that I could rely on. Yellow cake recipes vary drastically, each producing birthday cakes with different tastes and textures. Some use oil to keep them nice and moist, while others stick to butter so they are more flavorful. Some fold whipped egg whites into the batter to keep them light, while others rely strictly on baking powder to give them their rise. And don’t even get me started on how drastically different chocolate frosting recipes can be!

I was eager to find out which combination of frosting and cake would yield my perfect slice, so I chose four of the most popular birthday cake recipes and baked them off in a side-by-side taste test. At the end of the day, I found a winning recipe that was hands-down the best I’ve ever had. It’s moist, flavorful, and perfect for celebrating a special day.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Stylist: Jesse Szewczyk

Meet Our 4 Birthday Cake Contenders

Pretty much any kind of cake can be considered a “birthday cake,” so to keep things fair I only tested recipes that were a combination of yellow cake and chocolate frosting. From there, I searched the internet to find the most popular and beloved recipes, looking for ones with lots of comments and positive reviews. I also asked my coworkers for their personal favorites. This led me to recipes from four great bakers: Divas Can Cook, Smitten Kitchen, King Arthur Baking Company, and Joy The Baker.

Divas Can Cook lightens up her cake batter with whipped egg whites, then frosts the cake in a classic homemade frosting made with two whole sticks of butter. Smitten Kitchen frosts her cake in an unexpected frosting made with sour cream instead of butter. King Arthur Flour flavors their cake with a hint of almond extract and finishes it in a chocolate frosting made with warm water. And lastly, Joy The Baker amps up her frosting with a generous amount of Ovaltine powder to enhance the chocolate flavor. They were all unique in their own right, and I was excited to test them all!

How I Tested the Birthday Cake Recipes

Each birthday cake was baked on the same day and compared in a side-by-side taste test. I followed each recipe exactly as written and tried hard to keep all outside factors to a minimum. I baked them all in the same oven, used as many of the same overlapping brands of ingredients as possible, and tasted them all at the same exact time. I wanted the test to be as fair as possible.

I also had two of my friends taste the cakes to see what they thought. At the end of the day we all picked the same cake as the winner, and it has now become my new go-to cake recipe whenever birthdays roll around.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Stylist: Jesse Szewczyk

1. The Classic (yet Slightly Underwhelming) Birthday Cake: Joy The Baker’s Everybody’s Birthday Cake

This recipe was super classic yet slightly forgettable. The batter was made with the standard mix of ingredients (butter, flour, sugar, eggs) and yielded a pleasant cake, but nothing to write home about. It had a nice vanilla flavor and subtle tang from buttermilk, but the texture skewed slightly dry. (Although it’s possible I overbaked mine slightly.) The frosting, however, was better than the cake — it’s made with a generous amount of chocolate Ovaltine powder which gave it a nice malty note and helped elevate the chocolate flavor.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Stylist: Jesse Szewczyk

2. The Most Unique Birthday Cake: Smitten Kitchen’s Best Birthday Cake

This recipe produced a delicious birthday cake with a pleasant vanilla flavor that I imagine anyone would love. If you’re looking for a super moist cake, this isn’t it, but it definitely isn’t dry, either — just very light. The thing that made the recipe so special, however, was the frosting, which is made with melted chocolate, corn syrup, and sour cream. It was tangy, perfectly sweet, and a welcomed departure from the butter-based frostings most birthday cakes get finished in. Although it took a bit of work to get the texture just right (you have to chill it first), once it was the perfect temperature it was super easy to work with, and gave the cake a gorgeous glossy finish. If you’re looking for something a bit unexpected, this recipe is perfect.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Stylist: Jesse Szewczyk

3. The Absolute Best Frosting: Divas Can Cook’s Fluffy, Moist Homemade Yellow Cake

This birthday cake was absolutely delicious: moist, flavorful, and super fluffy. It did take a bit more work than the other recipes, since you have to whip the egg whites, but the results were worth it. The thing that really made this cake stand out, however, was the whipped buttercream chocolate frosting. It was creamy, rich, and decadent without being too heavy or overpowering. It’s made with a combination of both melted chocolate and cocoa powder, giving it a bold chocolate flavor that isn’t too sweet. For people who love frosting, this birthday cake recipe is perfect. It’s all about the frosting, and I will definitely be using this recipe again the future.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Stylist: Jesse Szewczyk

4. The Clear Winner: King Arthur’s Classic Birthday Cake

This recipe was hands-down the best combination of frosting and cake. The cake was super moist, light, and flavorful, thanks to a combination of both vanilla extract and almond extract. The cake was also super easy to make, coming together in just a few minutes. It was the textbook version of yellow cake, and the most tender of the bunch. The frosting was also delicious. It was the thickest off all of the recipes, and the most like a grocery store-style buttercream. Because it was so thick, it was a bit difficult to work with — but the taste more than made up for that. As a whole, this birthday cake was hands-down the best, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Do you have a favorite birthday cake recipe? Let us know in the comments!