Introducing our 2019 Recipe of the Year: Classic Birthday Cake


Yellow cake with chocolate frosting: what could be more familiar? Whether made into smash cupcakes for a toddler’s birthday party, baked as a potluck sheet cake, or fashioned into magnificent, towering layers, this classic combo of vanilla cake and chocolate frosting is ubiquitous in America’s baking landscape.

Yet for a dessert that’s so seemingly simple, it’s difficult to find a great recipe. That’s why, over the past year, we challenged ourselves to come up with the very best version of this cake we possibly could.

The result?

2019 Recipe of the Year via @kingarthurflour

Classic Birthday Cake – our 2019 Recipe of the Year.

Why was this simplest of cakes a challenge? Two reasons.

First, many of us grew up with boxed cake mixes layered with canned frosting. And to this day those childhood memories, made rosier by time, guide our judgment of any made-from-scratch cake.

Indeed, there are still boxed cake mixes that produce a reliably tasty yellow cake: tall and light, soft and moist, with a certain tantalizing flavor that’s hard to identify. (Is it vanilla with a touch of almond … ?)

Truth be told, much of that flavor and texture is chemically induced (propylene glycol, anyone?), and thus impossible for the home baker to replicate exactly — though many of us keep trying.

The second reason this cake recipe was a hard one to nail? It’s so simple. Unlike, say, banana bread with its multiple complementary flavors and easy-to-achieve dense/moist texture, yellow cake has nothing to hide behind. The ideal yellow cake rises nicely, has a perfectly even crumb, and tastes like … well, vanilla and butter and comfort. Period.

2019 Recipe of the Year via @kingarthurflour

And chocolate frosting? It’s simply chocolate at its most basic. No nuts, no spices; just all fudge all the time.

If anything at all is even slightly “off” with either cake or frosting, your audience will call you on it. (Right after they hold up for comparison their mom’s special box mix cake enhanced with instant vanilla pudding powder.)

Still, we persisted. And finally came up with a cake we’re all proud to stand behind (and happily dig into).

We've named Classic Birthday Cake our 2019 Recipe of the Year. Read all about it and see how it's done. Click To Tweet

Bake it! Our 2019 Recipe of the Year

We’ll start with the cake. Note that it’s simple to make it gluten-free simply by substituting our gluten-free Measure for Measure flour for our standard all-purpose.

2 cups (241g) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour OR Gluten Free Measure for Measure Flour
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
4 large eggs
2 cups (397g) granulated sugar
1 tablespoon (14g) vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon almond extract; optional, for enhanced flavor
1 cup (227g) milk (whole milk preferred)
4 tablespoons (57g) butter, cut into pats
1/3 cup (67g) vegetable oil

Preheat the oven to 325°F with a rack in the center. Lightly grease two 8” x 2” or 9” x 2” round cake pans; for extra protection against sticking, line the bottom of the pans with parchment, and grease the parchment. If your 8” pans aren’t at least 2” deep, use 9” pans.

2019 Recipe of the Year via @kingarthurflour

Weigh your flour; you’ll find its weight by toggling to “grams” at the top of the ingredient section above. Or measure it by gently spooning it into a cup, then sweeping off any excess.

In a small bowl, combine the flour, salt, and baking powder. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, either using an electric hand mixer or a stand mixer with whisk attachment, beat the eggs, sugar, vanilla, and almond extract until thickened and light gold in color, about 2 minutes at medium-high speed. If your stand mixer doesn’t have a whisk attachment, beat for 5 minutes using the paddle attachment.

 2019 Recipe of the Year via @kingarthurflour

The batter should fall in thick ribbons from the beaters, whisk, or paddle.

Add the dry ingredients to the mixture in the bowl and mix — by hand or on low speed of a mixer — just enough to combine. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl, then mix again briefly, to fully incorporate any residual flour or sticky bits.

In a saucepan set over medium heat or in the microwave, bring the milk just to a simmer. Remove the pan from the heat and add the butter and oil, stirring until the butter has melted.

2019 Recipe of the Year via @kingarthurflour
Slowly mix the hot milk-butter-oil mixture into the batter, stirring until everything is well combined. Scrape the bowl and mix briefly, just until smooth.

2019 Recipe of the Year via @kingarthurflour

Divide the batter evenly between the two pans. You’ll use about 2 3/4 cups (about 580g) in each.

Bake the cakes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean and the top feels set, 26 to 30 minutes for two 9” pans, or 38 to 42 minutes for two 8” pans. If you’re using our gluten-free Measure for Measure flour, bake the cakes longer: 36 to 40 minutes for the 9″ layers, or 43 to 47 minutes for the 8″ layers.

2019 Recipe of the Year via @kingarthurflour

Remove the cakes from the oven, carefully loosen the edges, and allow them to cool for 15 minutes in the pans. Then turn them out of the pans, and transfer them to a rack, right-side up, to cool to room temperature.

Next up: the frosting

1 1/4 cups (106g) natural cocoa powder* (sifted if lumpy)
1 cup + 3 cups (113g + 340g) confectioners’ sugar (sifted if lumpy)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup (74g) hot water
1 tablespoon (14g) vanilla extract
16 tablespoons (227g) butter, softened

*Dutch-process cocoa can be substituted for the natural cocoa in the frosting if it’s what you have in your pantry, or if you prefer a more robust, bittersweet chocolate flavor.

2019 Recipe of the Year via @kingarthurflour

In a large mixing bowl or the bowl of your stand mixer, stir together the cocoa powder, 1 cup (113g) of the confectioners’ sugar, and the salt. Stir in the water and vanilla, scraping the bowl if necessary.

2019 Recipe of the Year via @kingarthurflour

Add the butter and remaining confectioners’ sugar, stirring to combine. The mixture will be very stiff.

2019 Recipe of the Year via @kingarthurflour

Using an electric hand mixer or a stand mixer with paddle attachment, beat the frosting at medium-high speed for 1 to 2 minutes, stopping halfway through to scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl. The frosting should be lightened in color and fluffy,

2019 Recipe of the Year via @kingarthurflour

Assemble and frost the cake

Place one of the cake layers on a serving plate or cake stand; tuck strips of waxed or parchment paper underneath the edge of the cake to keep the plate clean.

Spread the bottom layer with about 1 cup of the frosting, enough to make a 1/4” to 1/2”-thick layer. An offset spatula works well here.

2019 Recipe of the Year via @kingarthurflour

Center the second layer bottom-side up (for a flat top) over the frosted layer and press gently to set it in place.

If your schedule permits, place the cake in the refrigerator or freezer, uncovered, for at least 30 minutes (or up to 2 hours) to firm it up. This will make the layers less likely to slide around as you work, and the cake won’t shed crumbs as you frost. If you’re pressed for time, you can skip this step.

2019 Recipe of the Year via @kingarthurflour

A crumb coat keeps things smooth

For the best-looking cake, do the frosting in two steps. First, spread a very thin layer of frosting around the sides and across the top; this is called a crumb coat. You should be able to see the cake through the frosting in spots, it’s that thin. Refrigerate the cake for 20 minutes to let this layer set. Again, skip this step if time is a factor.

2019 Recipe of the Year via @kingarthurflour

Once the cake is chilled, use the remaining frosting to coat it thoroughly and evenly. If you have any leftover frosting, you can use it to pipe decorations on the top and/or around the base.

Speaking of piping decorations, there’s more than one pretty way to frost a cake: Grab your spatula and check out our cake styling guide for six imaginative techniques.

Store the cake, covered, at room temperature; or in the refrigerator if your kitchen is hot. The cake will keep at room temperature, covered with a cake cover, for up to three days; in the refrigerator, covered, for up to one week, or in the freezer, well wrapped, for up to one month. If the cake is cold, let it come to room temperature before serving.

2019 Recipe of the Year via @kingarthurflour

Happy birthday cake! Or maybe we should just say Happy [insert your own milestone event] cake. And hey, even if there’s nothing in particular you need to celebrate — this delicious cake will make any occasion special!

Get a head start —

Cake layers and frosting can be made up to three days ahead, refrigerated, and the cake assembled the day you wish to serve it. For storing, wrap the layers in plastic and transfer the frosting to an airtight container, or tightly cover the bowl in which you made it.

When you’re ready to assemble the cake, remove the frosting from the fridge and warm at room temperature until soft enough to spread easily.

The whole cake (assembled and decorated) can be stored in the freezer for up to a month.

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Mary

    I used your tip of checking the cake with an instant read thermometer and it worked! Can I used this on all cakes and is 205 degrees a universal temperature for doneness in a cake? Thanks!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Mary, it can vary a bit depending on the type and moistness of the cake, but by 210°, pretty much any cake or brownie will be done. The big exception is cheesecake, which is a totally different kind of dessert and is typically done between 165° and 170°. Happy baking! Kat@KAF

  2. Sarah

    The cake was incredibly light and fluffy, but the tops (I made cupcakes) came out shiny, sticky, and a bit mottled in texture. Any idea why this would happen?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Sarah! That’s perfectly normal and quite common, especially during humid weather. Sugar is hygroscopic, meaning it will absorb and attract as much moisture as it possibly can, including from the air. Usually, the cupcakes don’t necessarily come out of the oven sticky, but the sugar attracts the moisture as they cool and become sticky that way. They’d also become sticky if stored before fully cooled.
      The mottled appearance could be an indicator that a little bit of the batter (usually either at the bottom of the bowl or stuck to the paddle or bowl sides) wasn’t whipped as much as the rest of the batter so it had a dark color. Giving a good swipe of a spatula through the bowl all the way to the bottom and around the edges can help incorporate any potentially darker, less aerated batter into the mix. We hope this helps! Annabelle@KAF

  3. Shelly

    I tried this recipe using the weighted grams to be as precise as possible but while the flavor was amazing, the cake came out a bit dense. Any tips?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi there, Shelly! We’re sorry to hear that this well-loved recipe didn’t turn out quite as expected. One of the common reasons why a cake turns out gummy is from over-developing the gluten. Once the flour has been added to the batter it is best to do as little mixing possible and ensuring that you scrape the bowl well (getting the bottom as well as the sides) to make sure the mixing after this point is efficient. We hope this helps and if we can chat further with you about this recipe, please feel free to give our Baker’s Hotline folks a call at 855-371-BAKE (2253). Kindly, Morgan@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hello, Alan! While we don’t test our recipes using sugar substitutes, experimentation can be one of the most fun parts of baking. If you’re down for a little adventure and are open to the unexpected, give it a try! We recommend starting with substitution instructions from the substitute’s package or the manufacturer’s website since a swap won’t always be 1-for-1. If you’re curious, we have a couple blog articles that we think you’ll find interesting. The first was one of our earliest articles and in it we tested some of our favorite recipes using Splenda in place of sugar. The second shares sugar alternatives that we’d had a spread about in Sift Magazine. Happy experimenting! Morgan@KAF

  4. Theresa

    Can cake enhancer be used in the cake recipe and espresso powder used in the frosting? If so, how much of each do you recommend?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Sure, Theresa! The Cake Enhancer page says to add 2 to 4 tablespoons to your batter, and the Espresso Powder says to add 1/2 to 2 teaspoons, depending on how strong you want the flavor to be. If you want it to merely enhance the chocolate flavor, 1/2 teaspoon should do the trick. Happy baking! Annabelle@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Rosa, if the total egg is around the same size as a typical egg, just go ahead and use it as one egg. Happy baking! Kat@KAF

  5. Jill

    Any chance you can tell me if this doubles well? I have made this a handful times as a single batch, it is by far my favorite vanilla recipe that I use (and I have about 4 that I rotate through)…but need to make a two tiered cake and rather not make it twice.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Tina! We haven’t tested this recipe in a baking sheet, but as written it makes enough batter to fill one half-sheet pan. We’d recommend baking it for about 23 to 26 minutes or until the sides pull away from the pan just slightly. Kindly, Morgan@KAF

  6. Moira

    I love the frosting in this recipe but was wondering if I would get the same result if I left out the cocoa powder for a vanilla flavored frosting? Do I need to replace it with another ingredient to make the flavor better, more “vanilla-y”?

    Reply

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