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. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Julie! We’ve had success making this recipe in a 9″ x 13″ pan and as cupcakes! For a 9″ x 13″ pan, prepare batter as written and bake at 325°F for about 45 to 48 minutes. And for cupcakes, prepare the batter as written and bake at 325°F for about 25 to 28 minutes — you’ll end up with will make between 24 to 30 cupcakes. We hope this helps and happy baking! Morgan@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Elizabeth! You’re certainly welcome to make a vanilla buttercream for this recipe. Because the bitterness of the cocoa balances out the sweetness of the vanilla cake, you’ll want to use a frosting that isn’t very sweet. Cream Cheese Frosting would be fantastic because the tang of the cream cheese would help with that balance. Happy baking! Annabelle@KAF

  1. Joe D.

    My first attempt at this recipe was a fail. I weighed the flour but even still, the batter seemed very thin to begin with. The cake turned out rubbery, greasy, and dense. I do like the addition of the almond extract, though.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Joe, it sounds like your ingredients may have been over-mixed! It’s definitely not a thick batter, but a rubbery and dense texture usually means there was too much gluten formation from a batter that was overworked. Next time, just mix enough to ensure the ingredients are combined. Some lumpiness is just fine! This will help you get the proper texture for this cake (and others). Happy baking! Kat@KAF

    2. Carl

      When I mix the dry ingredients together always use a hand whisk to blend all of the ingredients. When I add theory ingredients to the liquid I fold it in with a rubber spatula or on occasion will gently stir it in with a wooden spoon, a third at a time. I never use an electric beater to combine. Works great. The more gentle
      you are with the mixing, the less gluten is formed and the crumb is lighter.

  2. Carl

    Love this cake. I did a few things different. I use butter flavored Crisco and flour to grease the pans. I think the flour makes it easier to dislodge the cakes. I also used olive oil instead of canola oil. And for the frosting I used the Triple Chocolate Blend cocoa for a richer frosting. Very light and moist with wonderful flavor. Cake layers were perfectly equal and flat. Great recipe and directions.

    Reply
  3. Jenny

    I hope to make this cake soon, always looking for the “perfect” yellow cake, and comments from those who have tried it are so positive. My hesitation is the flour/sugar ratio being equal – suggests to me that this cake would be overly sweet for my taste. Would reducing the amt of sugar impact the final product adversely? I’m an experienced baker but would be reluctant to tinker with that. Thanks

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Jenny, that’s an excellent question! It’s definitely a sweeter cake, which is intended to balance the deep, bittersweet flavor of the chocolate frosting. You can certainly experiment with reducing the sugar, however. Eliminating up to 25% of the sugar should work just fine. For more information, we suggest our blog post How to reduce sugar in cake. Happy baking! Kat@KAF

    2. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi there, Jenny! We’d encourage you to give this recipe a try as written once, but in our How to reduce sugar in cake blog article we found that reducing the sugar in cake recipes by 10% really didn’t change the texture or flavor much so that would be a good place to start and then work from there. Happy baking! Morgan@KAF

  4. Jim

    Both layers broke when trying to get them out of the pan. I bake often so it’s not due to a lack of preparing the pan. The batter was very loose/thin compared to what I am use to. Flavor was ok, I think right in the middle in terms of taste, not the best and not the worst.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Jim, did you use parchment in the bottom of the pans? We’ve found that our cakes come out beautifully when using it. It’s also possible that your layers were just a touch underbaked, as the edges should be pulling away from the sides of the pan when they’re ready to come out of the oven. Happy baking! Kat@KAF

    2. Jim

      Thanks, I did not use parchment. When posting my initial review, I had only tried a small broken piece while warm. I ended up making the frosting recipe (and randomly decided to add half a jar of marshmallow fluff) and the cake is pretty good. I will try again with parchment next time.

  5. Candy Nixon

    This was the best yellow cake I have ever made. I wasn’t able to try the frosting recipe as I only had sweet ground Ghiardelli cocoa so I used my recipe for that frosting instead. This will be my go to recipe now, and I will give your frosting a try next round.

    Reply
  6. Melanie

    This is a really great recipe. Easy to follow with delicious results! The cake has a wonderful flavor and texture. The icing is also delicious! Thank you for for a recipe I will definitely make again!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We’re glad you enjoyed the flavor, Will! Toughness is often the result of gluten development, so it’s possible that the batter was beaten a bit too much after the flour was added. Try shortening up that final mixing session a little bit! Annabelle@KAF

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