When my kids and I start discussing their upcoming birthday parties, their first request is always to do with their cake. And really, when I go to a party the question foremost on my mind is “will there be cake?” Any cake is delicious and a delight, but there is just something about a birthday cake. The frosting, the sprinkles, it’s something that takes us right back to our childhood. I’ve heard from so many people that they can’t bake, or they don’t know where to start with decorating. While there are definitely cakes that require some serious skill and artistry, baking your own birthday cakes might be easier than you think. Read on to discover my favorite, easy birthday cake recipes.
The cake my kids most often request is chocolate. I have been using the same chocolate cake recipe for so long I don’t even remember where I originally got it. It’s soft yet has structure, and a great true chocolate flavor. It goes well with both chocolate and vanilla frosting and works for layers cakes, sheets cakes, or cupcakes (if you’re making cupcakes it makes about 26).
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 cups white sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ cup sour cream (make sure it’s full fat, you can also use full fat Greek yogurt. Its healthy right?)
- 2 eggs, room temperature (if the eggs are cold put them in a warm water bath for 15 minutes)
- 1 cup unsalted butter
- 1 cup water
- 5 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Butter two 9-Inch x 3-Inch round pans, cut parchment to fit into the bottoms and butter the parchment. Dust with flour and tap out the excess. Using parchment pretty much guarantees your cakes won’t stick to your pans.
Combine the flour, sugar, baking soda and salt in your stand mixer. Beat in the sour cream and eggs until well combined. Melt the butter on low in a medium saucepan, then add the water and 5 tablespoons cocoa. Bring this mixture to a boil then immediately remove from heat. Allow to cool slightly, then with your mixer on it’s lowest setting, stir the cocoa mixture into the flour/egg mixture, mixing until blended. This can be pretty messy so if you have splash guard for your mixer, use it!
Pour batter into prepared pans. Bake in the preheated oven for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. You may want to start checking at 20 minutes unless you know your oven really well, many ovens run hot and you don’t want to over cook your cakes. Let cool for about 10-15 minutes and then run a small knife around the side to unmold. Turn out onto a rack and cool completely. If you want more layers, wait until the cakes are cool, then use a long serrated knife to cut each layer in half, giving you four layers. If the tops have domed trim them (and enjoy!) so they are relatively flat.
Light and fluffy, for me vanilla cake evokes memories of the quintessential birthday cake: layers of cake piled high with creamy pastel frosting. While it would seem that vanilla cake would be one of the easiest types of cakes to make, if you’ve done a bit of baking you may have found that many vanilla cakes are dry and somewhat flavorless. I used to do quite a bit of cake decorating and my sister and I ran a small baking business at a local farmer’s market years ago, and I still struggled with vanilla cake.
The cake recipe that I usually use is from Nick Malgieri. If you’re interested in learning how to bake cakes, breads, cookies, and pastries, I highly recommend one of his books. He is a world-renowned pastry chef, but his books are easy to follow and understand.
Nick’s classic white birthday cake is simple to make and has loads of vanilla flavor. This cake is quite dense, so if you’re interested in trying out some fondant this is a great choice. Some vanilla cake recipes produce a very soft cake which can cause problems if you’re layering heavy fondant over top. The layers are very thin so if you’re looking for a tall layer cake I suggest doubling the recipe and baking four layers. The more layers the more frosting!
Classic White Cake from Bake!: Essential Techniques for Perfect Baking
- 12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
- 1 ½ cups sugar
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 6 large egg whites (¾ cup)
- ¾ cup milk
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Use two 9-Inch x 3-Inch round pans, buttered and bottoms lined with parchment or waxed paper
Set a rack at the middle level of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside. Whisk eggs and milk together, set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar for about 5 minutes, until light and fluffy. Beat in vanilla extract. Scrape down sides
with rubber spatula.
On low speed add ¼ of the flour mixture until it is absorbed. Increase speed to medium low
and beat in 1/3 of the milk mixture. Repeat this, including change of speed 2 more times. Scrape bowl and beat in remaining ¼ of flour mixture. Scrape again, increase speed to medium and continuously beat the batter for 3 minutes.
Pour batter into prepared pan(s) and smooth top. Bake cake(s) about 20 to 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center emerges clean. Cool in pan on a rack for 5 minutes, then turn out onto a rack, remove paper and let cool completely.
For years I have baked my own cakes from scratch. Then one year when I was pregnant with my third, I had morning sickness, was completely exhausted, and in no mood to even open a cookbook. I used a cake mix for the first time in forever, and my kids literally raved about it. Best cake I have ever made apparently.
Shhh, don’t tell anyone, but I love vanilla cake mix too. Even though I love the vanilla cake recipe above, vanilla cake mixes (especially ones with pudding) just have a texture and flavor that is hard to beat. They do tend to be very soft so if you’re making a tiered cake or using a lot of fondant they probably aren’t the best choice, but for simple decorating they do just fine.
The chocolate cake mixes aren’t quite a good as the vanilla ones, and I find they are lacking real chocolate flavor. But if you’re in a pinch or don’t feel like baking, cake mixes are totally a great choice.
My favorite part! There are many types of frosting, but the most popular is American buttercream. This is the easiest frosting to make, it consists of butter, confectioners (icing) sugar, and milk or cream. It’s ridiculously easy to make; if you add too much of one ingredient it’s easy to balance it out with another.
You can also add all sorts of flavorings to a basic American buttercream: vanilla, chocolate (powder or melted), malted chocolate powder, jam, or any other flavorings you might like.
While I plugged boxed cake mixes above, the same can’t be said for grocery store frosting in a can. Even my kids don’t particularly care for them, and that’s saying a lot considering how sweet they are. If you must choose a store-bought frosting, stick with chocolate. I find the vanilla flavors have a chemical taste and leave an odd aftertaste. As long as you have a mixer of some sort American buttercream is the way to go.
Basic Vanilla Buttercream
- 1½ salted butter, softened (you can use unsalted as well, just add a pinch of salt)
- 6 cups confectioners (icing) sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 3 tablespoons heavy (whipping) cream
Beat the butter in a stand mixer on medium-high until the butter is a pale yellow, about five minutes. Add the sugar, one cup at a time. If you find your sugar is a bit lumpy it helps to sift it using a wire mesh sieve. If your mixer is struggling after several cups of sugar, you can add a bit of the cream, just make sure it’s fully incorporated before adding more sugar.
Once all the sugar is combined with the butter, add the cream. Whip on medium-high for at least three minutes. If the consistency is too watery, add a bit more sugar 1/4 cup at a time. If it’s too thick add more cream, a bit less than one tablespoon at a time. Add your flavorings (for chocolate frosting start with 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder, add more to taste) and any food coloring (I like gel coloring, use sparingly) and beat again until full incorporated.
Life is Short, Eat Cake
Baking your own birthday party cakes can be very satisfying but they do take some time. If you simply don’t have the time, ingredients, or bakeware required, head to your local grocery store or bakery.
You can also check out these super easy decorating techniques. I hope you enjoyed reading my post about easy birthday cake recipes, and if you have any questions about these recipes please comment below, I am happy to help!