Kitchn Love Letters

The Best Birthday Cake Is One You Bake Yourself

published Oct 15, 2019
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Credit: Lauren Volo

Not everyone likes birthdays, but I do. I consider myself a birthday enthusiast. Birthday celebrations of every shape and size bring me immeasurable joy. I love seeing how families celebrate each other, honoring milestones big and small.

I love celebrating my own birthday too, of course. I could get sentimental and say it’s a chance to take stock of everything I’ve learned over the year, and to dream about what the next year will bring. But if I’m being completely honest, my favorite thing is the cake.

I’ve requested the same cake — yellow with chocolate frosting, the classic birthday cake — since I was 8 years old. My mom baked up old-school boxes of Duncan Hines mix each year and I gleefully devoured them. Now that I’m an adult (and a mother), I don’t request that cake. I just bake it for myself every year. And I really think everyone should bake their own birthday cakes too.

Credit: Meghan Splawn

Everybody’s Birthday Cake

A few years ago, I shared my recipe for making a classic birthday cake. We bake it for almost every birthday in our house (the one for my son’s third birthday is pictured above). My kids even call it “everybody’s birthday cake.” The iconic combination of buttery yellow cake — not too sweet, with a small, tender crumb that yields delightfully to the tines of a fork — and rich chocolate frosting is, to me, the perfect balance of flavors. And it’s a lot easier to make (without the box) than most people think.

Yellow butter cake uses a classic cake-mixing method where softened butter and sugar are creamed together before whole eggs are added. The eggs and the butter naturally color the cake a pale yellow. Then the dry ingredients and milk are added in alternating batches. You can do all this with a hand mixer and then divide the batter between cake pans or bake it in a homey 13×9-inch pan. While the cake bakes, it will perfume your whole house in a delicious, celebratory aroma.

The frosting is nothing more than a chocolate-enhanced American-style buttercream (so, butter and powdered sugar). But I add two additions that make it taste far better than the canned version I loved growing up. Keep reading before you judge, but they’re Ovaltine and mayonnaise!

The mayonnaise is a trick I picked up from my days working with Alton Brown. It makes for a smoother and just slightly less sweet frosting — which keeps the sugar from being overwhelming. The Ovaltine is pure nostalgia. It adds a distinct chocolate flavor that is both sweet, salty, and a little malted. When I want a richer chocolate frosting, I also add melted and cooled bittersweet chocolate.

When the cake is cooled and frosted, I add colorful sprinkles and tall birthday candles. And as a birthday enthusiast, trick candles happen to be a particular favorite of mine.

Credit: Meghan Splawn
They just won't go out!

The Pleasure of Baking Your Own Birthday Cake

Baking is my favorite hobby. It’s the thing I do to bring me back to myself when I’m feeling low. But it also has magical birthday powers too. When I bake my own cake, there’s no disappointment if no one else delivers on my special day. Instead, the cake I bake is a gift I get to give myself. And I enjoy every step in the process, but especially sharing that gift with my family. On a larger scale, I’m also modeling to my own children what loving and celebrating myself looks like.

If you’ve never tried it, I highly recommend baking your own birthday cake at least once in your life. We live in a time where ideas about self-care are complex and commodified. But baking a cake for yourself is simple, and fun — and you have no one’s expectations but your own to meet. Loving yourself well on your birthday is empowering and sets a confident tone for the year to come. Plus, you get to eat cake just the way you like it.

At Kitchn, our editors develop and debut brand-new recipes on the site every single week. But at home, we also have our own tried-and-true dishes that we make over and over again — because quite simply? We love them. And we decided to start sharing some of our absolute favorites with you. Here’s a peek into what we’re cooking and eating in our own kitchens.