There comes a time in every person’s life when you need to produce a birthday cake. Here, we will give you everything you need to know about mixing, baking, and building the perfect one. (No, the perfect birthday cake does not come from a box.)
And yes, of COURSE we will give you the Funfetti variation.
These are the ingredients you’ll need for the cake:
For the full recipe (and how-to video!), jump to the bottom of this post.
This is the only equipment you’ll need: a hand mixer, three 9-inch cake pans, and a good spatula.
If you have a stand mixer, of course that works too. I like the spatulas that are made from one piece of silicone — they’re super easy to clean (nothing can get stuck between the handle and the spatula), and can even be used to frost a cake. This company called “Chef’n” makes a really good one.
You’ll also need a whisk, mixing bowls, and measuring cups, but you probably already have those.
Before you start, do these three things:
1. Arrange the two racks in your oven so that one is in the top third of the oven and one is right in the middle: You’ll need both to bake all three layers.
2. Get all your ingredients together and measure them out. It will make the entire cake baking process go ~super smoothly~.
3. Make enough space in your fridge to hold a large cake. The bottom shelf is a good place.
2. In another bowl, combine the granulated sugar, brown sugar, and butter.
A note about your butter: It should be at room temperature. That means it is soft enough that when you press it, it dents easily.
This will make your life SO much easier, as anyone who has tried to mix cold butter can tell you.
It should be a very pale brown, with no visible lumps of brown sugar. So pale! So fluffy!
If you have any stubborn pieces of brown sugar lurking, crush them with a spatula, then keep beating.
4. Now add the eggs and egg yolks, ONE AT A TIME. Beat each egg or egg yolk into the mixture before adding the next one.
If you add them all at once, you’ll end up with a giant gloopy mess on your hands.
5. Now, beat, beat, beat till everything is light, pale, and fluffy — about five minutes total. Don’t forget to periodically scrape the sides of the bowl to make sure everything is being incorporated.
Yeah, five minutes kind of seems like an eternity, but this step is super important. You’re beating air into the batter so that your cake will be light and delicate, not dense and spongey.
So you don’t exhaust your hand, a good thing to do is rotate the BOWL, not the mixer.
6. Now combine the buttermilk, vegetable oil, and vanilla extract.
I like doing this in a measuring cup, since it’s easier to pour from.
OK, now you’re going to mix everything together — but you’re not going to dump everything in at once. You’re going to do it gradually, alternating between wet and dry ingredients. This prevents lumps ~and~ over-mixing.
It’s gonna go: dry/wet/dry/wet/dry.
Here’s what the batter should look like: creamy, fluffy, no lumps, totally smooth, and really, really delicious.
It’s important not to overmix the batter. When you overmix, you work the flour, which develops gluten. Gluten does two things: makes the cake rubbery, and gives it a domed shape. You don’t want either of those things.
Oh, and HERE’S a great trick: When you’re done with the beaters, put them in that bowl or measuring cup you already used. That makes for *super* easy clean-up/easy access for licking them.
9. Place the three cake pans in the oven: two pans on the top rack and one on the middle rack. Bake for 35–40 minutes.
You aren’t using the lowest rack because if you put the cakes down there they will brown on the bottom before they bake all the way through. Not what you want.
You’ll know the cakes are done when they turn a nice golden brown color and smell like heaven. You can also tell a lot by the way the cake feels. Press the center slightly — it should spring back, not sink in.
They’ll also begin to pull away from the sides of the pan.
10. Now cool the cakes: The fastest (and best) way is to turn the them out onto a wire rack. The holes in the rack allow heat and steam to escape. That prevents moisture from building up and, duh, cools the cakes faster.
If you *don’t* have a wire rack, that’s OK — just cool them in their pans on the counter. It will take longer, but it won’t ruin your cakes or anything. Whatever you do: Don’t put them in the fridge.
At any rate, let the layers cool completely while you make the frosting.
Now it’s time to make THE FROSTING! Here are the ingredients you’ll need:
Don’t forget to gratuitously drag your finger through it for sampling purposes. You know, to make sure it’s good. (It is.)
13. NOW IT’S TIME TO FROST. With the cakes still upside down on the rack, spread some frosting evenly over the first layer, then put another cake layer on top and frost that. Repeat with the last layer.
Stacking and frosting the cakes upside down will give your cake a nice shape — avoiding the dreaded “domed top.”
14. Spread a thin layer of frosting all over the cake. Don’t worry about making it pretty at this point, you just want to make sure there’s no naked cake peeking out. This is called the “crumb coat.” Think of it as your base coat.
If you get cake crumbs in the frosting, it’s OK — this is just a base. Any imperfections will be covered up when you add the second coat of frosting later.
If you have an offset spatula, that is a good tool for frosting. If not, don’t stress — the spatula also works.
15. Place the cake, still on the rack, in the fridge. (Remember when I said to clear out space in the fridge?) Chill it for at least two hours. You can leave the remaining frosting out at room temperature.
It’s important to chill the cake so the frosting between the layers can set, making it easy to move around and cut. Chilling also makes that “crumb coat” of frosting firm, which will make the second coat go on ~silky smooth~.
16. Take the cake out of the fridge and frost it one more time. This time, use a butter knife or offset spatula and make it pretty.
This is the outer layer of frosting, so make it count. It could be super smooth and sleek or wavy with swirls and swooshes. Your cake, your call.
At this point, you can chill the cake until you’re ready to decorate and serve it. It’ll last in the fridge about two days, lightly covered with plastic wrap.
17. Now comes the fun part: Decorate it however you want. Large sprinkles! Tiny sprinkles! Sprinkles all over! On the sides! On the top! No sprinkles at all! (JK)
If there are any frosting casualties in the process, just smooth them out.
BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE. Click HERE to find out how to turn this cake into funfetti with vanilla frosting. You know you want to.
Perfect Birthday Cake
By Alison Roman
Makes one 9-inch cake
For the Vanilla Cake:
4 cups all-purpose or cake flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 ½ tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1 ½ cups buttermilk
½ cup vegetable oil
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups sugar
½ cup lightly packed light brown sugar
4 large eggs
4 large egg yolks
For the Chocolate Frosting:
12 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups powdered sugar
Pinch of kosher salt
12 oz. bittersweet chocolate chips, melted and cooled
For the cake:
Preheat oven to 350° and position one rack in the top of the oven and one rack in the middle of the oven. Spray three 9-inch cake pans with nonstick spray.
In a large bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda together; set aside. In a medium bowl (or a measuring cup), combine the buttermilk, vegetable oil and vanilla extract; set aside.
In a large bowl, combine the butter, sugar, and light brown sugar. Using an electric mixer on high, beat everything together until it’s super light and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Add in the eggs and egg yolks one at a time, beating in between additions. Beat the batter until it’s almost doubled in volume and very light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. (Don’t forget to periodically scrape down the sides of the bowl.)
With the mixer on low, gently beat in one-third of the flour mixture. Before it’s fully combined, add in one-half of the buttermilk mixture. Repeat with remaining flour and buttermilk until everything is well blended and no lumps remain.
Divide the cake batter among the three cake pans and place two pans on the top rack and one pan on the middle rack. Bake 35-40 minutes, rotating the pan on the middle rack up to the top rack halfway through baking, so they all get even oven love. You’ll know the cakes are done when they are golden brown, pulling away from the sides of the pan and the tops spring back ever so slightly when you press them.
Remove the cakes from the oven and invert them onto a wire baking rack to cool completely. (If you don’t have a wire rack, let them cool in the cake pans on the counter.)
For the frosting:
In a large bowl, combine the cream cheese, butter, sugar, and salt. Using an electric mixer on high speed, beat until everything is fluffy and almost pure white, about 5 minutes. With the mixer on low, slowly add in the melted chocolate and blend. Increase the speed to high and beat until everything is combined and the frosting looks super fluffy and delicious like it came from a can (but it didn’t), about 2 minutes.
Once cakes are cooled, use an offset or regular spatula to spread frosting onto the first layer of cake, bottom-side up. (Layering the cake with the flat bottoms on top makes a cake with a neater shape; you can layer and frost the cakes on the wire rack or on a plate.) Repeat with remaining layers. Apply a thin layer of frosting all over the cake, making sure to cover the whole cake. This is called “the crumb coat,” and it’s just the base layer, so don’t worry about making it perfect. Chill the cake for 2 hours, but keep the frosting out at room temperature.
Remove the cake from the fridge and using either an offset spatula or a butter knife, give it another coat of frosting, doing whatever decorative patterns or swirls your heart desires. Super smooth, peaks and valleys, whatever you like! Your cake, your call.
Decorate with sprinkles however you please.
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