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.

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.

We “soft launched” our 2019 Recipe of the Year online a couple of months ago to fine tune it based on reader reviews. And so far, reviewers have been very positive indeed. We invite you to bake this cake, then give us your own feedback by posting a review. We rely heavily on you, our “test kitchen bakers at large,” to offer suggestions so that every recipe on our site is just as good as it can be.

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

      Absolutely, Lakshmi. Prepare the batter as written and bake at 350°F for about 25 to 28 minutes. It will make between 24 to 30 cupcakes. Consider increasing the frosting by 1.5x if you want generously frosted cupcakes or would like to pipe the frosting; otherwise, use about 1 ½ tablespoons (28 to 32g) frosting per cupcake. Happy baking! Annabelle@KAF

  1. Brenda

    This cake was amazing. I served it for a dinner party and had rave reviews. Not one person felt the frosting was “too chocolatey”!

    I did have one issue with it. I used 9″ round pans and it took a full 15 minutes longer to bake than the recipe said. At the minimum time, the center was still fully raw. I wondered about the 325 temperature. I almost thought it must be a mistake. Once the cakes had baked for 40 minutes, they were perfect. But 40 minutes for 9″ round cakes is long.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Interesting, Brenda. It’s possible that the pans we used were a bit darker than yours, which generally makes them absorb more heat. We’d recommend keeping the temperature as is and just making a note on your recipe for the ideal bake times for your pans and your oven. Annabelle@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Tonya! Unless specified as salted butter, all of our recipes use unsalted butter in order to control how much salt actually winds up in the finished product. Annabelle@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      You’re welcome to give it a try, Carrie! You may find the resulting cake isn’t as moist. Annabelle@KAF

  2. Jenny

    My cakes sunk in the middle. I’m in Denver and at about 5500 ft. I did adjust for high altitude by adding more flour (2 TbS) and a little less sugar. Plus I baked it at 350. They are sad.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We’re sorry to hear it sunk, Jenny. (Though we’re sure it’s still delicious!) We recommend following our High Altitude Baking Guide as there will be quite a few adjustments to make in addition to the bake temperature and flour. Annabelle@KAF

  3. Cindy Puchalski

    I’m a die hard bake from scratch cook. However, years ago, I used to use a white cake mix to make a pineapple upside down cake. I would like to find a basic cake recipe to use in making a all scratch pineapple upside cake. Could this be my recipe? I have tried on line recipes for pineapple upside down cake and the cake part just taste like it doesn’t belong.

    Reply
  4. Pam

    My husband does not do well with most oils (except olive) so If anyone has skipped the oil and put in more butter or used olive oil (I realize that changes the flavor) please comment on how it turned out. Thanks.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Pam, you can certainly make this an all-butter cake instead of using oil! It does result in a less tender texture, but that’s obviously 100% better than having a cake that your husband can’t eat. Happy baking! Kat@KAF

    2. Pam

      Thank you, it turned out really good with all butter and a light touch on the batter. Such detailed directions and help.

  5. Caryn grant

    Maybe I’m a purist or maybe I am just stubborn. But why the oil and not just butter in the cake? I assume it makes it a bit more moist, but is there any other reason? Please help me understand.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Caryn, you’re spot on in your guess that the oil is to make the cake moist and tender. Feel free to make this cake entirely with butter, but know that the texture will be a bit different. Happy baking! Kat@KAF

  6. Rex

    I’m a middle school cooking teacher, and looking at your methodology, I’m confused what method this recipe uses-it’s not creaming, pastry or reverse creaming. Would you consider this “2 bowl” ? I’m curious why milk/butter combination is added AFTER flour (wouldn’t gluten get overdeveloped that way?). Anyways, please enlightenmen me as to how one could categorize this. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Rex, thanks for reaching out! This cake uses a hybrid method that’s somewhat like blending, only without alternating between dry and wet ingredients. It’s inspired by a classic recipe for Hot Milk Cake, which uses the eponymous hot milk to stabilize the egg/sugar mixture and create a more even crumb throughout. Ultimately, all categorization systems are arbitrary, and like many dishes, this one doesn’t fit perfectly into any particular set. We think that whether they’re learning about taxonomy, art history, or cooking, that’s a very important lesson for middle schoolers to learn! Thanks so much for all the work you do in sharing the skills and joy of baking from scratch with your students. And happy baking! Kat@KAF

  7. Cecelia

    I can’t wait to try this- I’ve been looking for a yellow scratch cake!! Do you have a conversion chart for different size pans? 12”,10”,11×15”?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Cecelia, we don’t currently have a conversion chart for every size, but we have made this recipe as a 9 inch by 13 inch sheet cake. Prepare batter as written and bake at 350°F for about 45 to 48 minutes. There will be extra frosting if bakers make the full batch; consider making 3/4 of a batch to generously frost the cake (with a 3/8” thick layer of frosting) or a half batch for a thinner layer of frosting (a scant 1/4”). For other sizes, you may need to experiment a bit more with baking times and frosting amounts, but feel free to try them out. Happy baking! Kat@KAF

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