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 Beth

    Hi! If I wanted to use this recipe for a 12×18 sheetcake, should I double the recipe? I would like the single layer to still be thick. Thank you! 🙂

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Mary Beth! We would recommend doubling the recipe so that it will fit in your pan. You’ll only want to fill the pan two-thirds of the way full though so it doesn’t spill over the sides — if you have any extra batter you can use it to make a couple cupcakes. Happy baking! Morgan@KAF

    2. The Baker's Hotline

      Mary Beth, doubling the recipe would give you a nice, thick 12×18″ sheet cake. You probably won’t need to double the frosting, however, since you won’t be needing to fill multiple layers. Happy baking! Kat@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      You definitely can, Martha! To make a 9″ x 13″ sheet cake, prepare the batter as directed. Pour it into a lightly greased 9″ x 13″ pan, and bake in a preheated 325°F oven for about 45 to 48 minutes, until the cake tests done. You’ll have excess frosting if you make the entire frosting recipe; if you don’t want to end up with leftover frosting, consider making a half recipe (which will frost the cake minimally), or a three-quarter recipe (which will frost it more generously). Happy baking! Kat@KAF

  2. Sadie

    If I only have one 9″ pan, can I make a taller cake and bake it longer, or should I do two separate bakes with the same pan?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi there, Sadie! We wouldn’t suggest putting all of this batter in one pan, it will most likely spill over the sides — you’ll want to do two separate bakes. While the first cake is in the oven, just cover the remaining batter and let it rest at room temperature while the other cake bakes. Happy baking! Morgan@KAF

  3. Rick Lanzetta

    Would it be possible to use buttermilk instead of whole milk? I find that buttermilk gives you a more moist cake. If I use buttermilk would I need to add baking soda to to balance the acid?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi there, Rick! You sure can experiment with swapping the milk for buttermilk! We haven’t tried it our selves but would suggest just switching out the milk and not making any other changes. The cake and frosting have enough sweet notes to them that the acidity of the buttermilk shouldn’t create an undesirable flavor. Happy baking! Morgan@KAF

  4. M.B.

    My cake got over cooked and dry at the edges. The cake only rose in the middle. I used 9 in aluminum pans and a gas oven. I put both pans side by side on the center rack. The four inch center of cake was delicious. I would make this again if I knew what went wrong in the cooking.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi M.B.! It sounds like either your oven is running a little hotter than ours or that the pans simply conducted heat too quickly. If you’ve tested your oven with a thermometer and found it’s running true to temperature, the best thing to do will be to insulate the outside of your pans. You can do this either by using cake strips or making your own cake strips by covering damp strips of rags with tin foil and wrapping that around the whole exterior of the pans. This extra insulation should allow the cakes to bake evenly so the sides don’t become dry before the center has a chance to bake through. We hope this helps! Annabelle@KAF

  5. Sandra

    I’ve been craving a good yellow cake with chocolate frosting for years. Finally found it. I did add 3 additional Tbsp of milk to the frosting to make it creamy.
    Delicious! Exactly what a yellow cake should tasty like.
    Going in my permanent recipe file.

    Reply
  6. Linda

    Made the cake. Felt like I wasted my ingredients and time. Won’t make again. Was not fluffy. Didn’t taste like cake. Really disappointed

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We’re sorry this recipe didn’t hit the spot for you, Linda! If you want help troubleshooting, we’d love it if you called our free Baker’s Hotline at 855-371-BAKE (2253) so that we can help you figure out where your cake went awry. Kat@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Amy! This batter is a bit on the thinner side, so while mini chocolate chips would add some nice flavor and texture, they might all sink to the bottom of the cakes. If you don’t mind this or are willing to experiment, go for it! 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup would be great. Annabelle@KAF

  7. Thrifty Made

    The icing recipe was extremely thick and wouldn’t spread with a spatula at all! This was even after I thinned it with some milk and it was still very very thick! The cake however is delicious!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We’re glad you enjoyed the cake, Chrissy! Cocoa likes to absorb any moisture it can, (including from the air) so it sounds like it just needed a little more thinning to make it easily spreadable. Sometimes just adding a teaspoon of warm water can help greatly. Another option is to hold back some of the cocoa powder, a couple of tablespoons, and sprinkle it in as needed until the texture reaches the thickness you prefer. Annabelle@KAF

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