I am so excited to share this Ultimate Guide to Baking Birthday Cakes! Over the last 7 years of blogging we have shared so many different ideas, tips and tricks for baking birthday cakes. I’ve learned a ton along the way and one of the things I’m excited about incorporating this year on the blog are more back-to-the-basics teaching. Giving not just ideas and pretty photos, but the actual know how to create beauty.
Baking birthday cakes is one of the topics I am most passionate about. You can peek into our birthday cake archives to get a feeling as to why. Baking a birthday cake for someone is a thoughtful way you can transform an everyday into a really special day they will remember.
This ultimate guide to baking birthday cakes is packed full with ideas and smart tips that I’ve learned over the past number of years, basic recipes, and the inspiration for creating your own fabulous birthday cakes at home. I hope you will pin it, save it, and remember it for the next birthday party you need to bake for.
“Oh… but how will I eat the cake if my head is over there, and my hands are over here?”
― Marie Antoinette
Let’s get started.
PART ONE: CAKE TOPPERS
I want to start this off by talking first about cake toppers since it is the first part of a cake that anyone notices. The cake topper you choose can really make or break a cake look.
Topping cakes with text has long been a favorite of mine. Apart from having mad cake decorating skills it can be the easiest way to turn a simple cake into a piece of art.
Here are 5 of my favorite ways to write on a cake:
1. Writing on a cake with icing
Writing with icing on a birthday cake is the easiest way to personalize a party cake. Practice first on a piece of wax paper to get use to how the icing will roll out and keep a toothpick nearby. A toothpick is the easiest way to get the details just right.
2. Writing on a cake with cut fondant
A fun way to top a cake is by rolling out fondant and then cutting it into form. Roll the fondant out and use alphabet cookie cutters to cut out the letters. Once the letters are cut you can use them to decorate the outside of a cake, or even bake them inside like this tasty treat!
3. Writing on a cake with sugar
Use a printable alphabet template with sugar. Print out the words you’d like to say and sprinkle sugar, or edible glitter to create a perfect text print directly onto the cake.
4. Writing on a cake with chocolate
Writing words with chocolate tastes amazing! To create the best chocolate look use melting candy chocolate (it comes in many different colors). Take a printed letter template and cover it with a layer of wax paper. While the chocolate is hot, place it in an icing bag and trace over the letters with the piping hot chocolate. Allow it to fully cool on the wax paper and carefully remove the fun topper for your party cake with a spatula.
5. Writing on a cake with cake
Whether you are writing words or updating a cake with a sweet detail (like the kids hands to make a tree!), using a small amount of piecrust or baked cake is an easy way to do it. To create a similar look – bake a portion of the cake in a wide but shallow baking dish to create a thin layer of cake. Then use a template or even the kid’s hands to gently cut around, (with a butter knife), and place on top of the finished cake.
PART TWO: BASIC RECIPES
Mastering these basic cake recipes is an important part of creating an amazing birthday cake.
Once you have a handle on the following easy to whip up cake & frosting recipes, you’ll be able to recreate your sweets in a million different ways. Many of our recipes on this blog are based on these simple birthday cake staples. Get to know them, practice making them, and before you know it – you’ll be a cake making pro.
Basic Vanilla Cake Recipe
A good basic vanilla cake is anything but basic. Made with love and great ingredients, this staple will become your starting point for many beloved recipes.
To make the basic vanilla cake recipe you will need:
- 3 cups sifted cake flour
- 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1 3/4 cups sugar
- 2/3 cup butter or margarine
- 2 eggs
- 1 1/2 teaspoons good quality vanilla
- 1 1/4 cups milk.
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Pull out and grease baking pans. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt; set aside. Combine sugar and butter together until and cream until light. Add room temperature eggs and vanilla to creamed mixture and beat until thoroughly mixed.
- Add flour mixture in portions to the creamed mixture alternately with milk, beating well after each addition. Continue beating one minute.
- Spread the batter evenly in prepared pans. Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean.
- Cool in pans on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove from pans; cool completely. Fill and frost as desired.
Basic Chocolate Cake Recipe
Chocolate is a decedent treat that is bound to make any celebration even better than before. The moist richness of this cake recipe is a special family treat. It is one of my favorites to make.
To make the family tradition chocolate cake you will need:
- 3 ounces unsweetened chocolate
- 1/2 cup water
- 2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 sticks (1 cup) butter, softened
- 1-1/2 cups sugar
- 4 large eggs, separated (yolks should measure about 1/4 cup, whites about 1/2 cup)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup buttermilk
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Combine the chocolate and water in a small saucepan and set over very low heat. Cook, stirring vigorously as the chocolate begins to melt, until the mixture is smooth. Remove from the heat and let cool.
- Combine the flour, baking soda, and salt, and sift them together onto a large piece of waxed paper. Put the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment and beat until smooth and well blended.
- Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla and the cooled chocolate mixture and beat until blended. Add the sifted dry ingredients in three parts alternately with the buttermilk, beating after each addition until the batter is smooth.
- In a separate mixing bowl, beat the egg whites until they are stiff but moist. Gently stir one third of the beaten whites into the batter. Add the remaining whites and fold them in.
- Divide the batter among the three pans. For two of the pans, fill at least half way. The batter for the last pan will fill about 1/4 of the pan. Bake for about 40-50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into a cake comes out clean. Note: the third pan will bake for less time, check for doneness sooner, about 30-35 minutes.
- Remove pan from oven and let cool for about 5 minutes; turn out the cake onto racks to finish cooling completely.
Basic Red Velvet Cake Recipe
For this red velvet cake, we used a cream cheese frosting, but we also added it to the batter for a super soft cake that melts in your mouth. It is a gloriously sweet way to end Easter (or any!) brunch.
To make the red velvet cake, you will need:
- 2 cups flour
- 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup unsalted butter
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 4 large eggs
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1/2 a block of Philadelphia Cream Cheese
- 1 tablespoon canola oil
- 1 tsp vinegar
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 4 tablespoons gel red food coloring
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease and flour 2 (9-inch) round cake pans.
- Sift flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder and salt in a mixing bowl.
- Beat the butter and granulated sugar in a large bowl for about 5 minutes or until light and fluffy. Next, beat in the eggs 1 at a time. Mix in the cream cheese, buttermilk, oil, vinegar, food coloring, and 2 teaspoons vanilla.
- Gradually beat in sifted dry ingredients on low speed until just blended. Pour batter into prepared pans.
- Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Allow to fully cool before removing from pan.
The right frosting can cover a multitude of cake sins.
Homemade frosting tastes so much better than the store bought variety and it is super easy to make. Here are a couple favorite birthday cake-frosting recipes to cover our cakes with homemade love.
Basic Cream Cheese Frosting
To make a sweet cream cheese frosting, you will need:
- 3 (8 oz.) bricks cream cheese
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
- ¼ cup milk
- 1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1 box powdered sugar
- In a large bowl beat together cream cheese, milk, and butter until smooth. Add in vanilla and salt mix together on low and add in powdered sugar a small amount at a time. Beat well with each addition until the frosting is bouncy and the consistency looks right.
Basic Whip Cream Frosting Recipe
To make the basic whip cream frosting you will need:
- 2 cups chilled heavy cream
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup sugar.
- Pour the cream, vanilla, and sugar into a deep bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer attached with the balloon whisk. Whip the cream until soft peaks form, about 10 minutes; it must be stiff enough to spread.
- Be sure to use the whipped cream immediately. If frosting begins to soften, place the bowl in the freezer for a few minutes, then whip again until soft peaks form.
Basic Butter Cream Frosting
To make the butter cream frosting you will need:
- ½ cup butter
- ¼ cup heavy whipping cream
- 1 cup powdered sugar
- 1 tsp Vanilla extract.
- Cream the butter on medium speed, 2 to 3 minutes (until light and fluffy). Add the powdered sugar and mix until smooth.
- Add the cream and vanilla extract and mix on low speed until incorporated, 2 to 3 minutes.
- Add more cream if necessary, mixing on low speed, until the frosting reaches the desired light and fluffy consistency, about 3 to 5 minutes.
BASIC CUPCAKE RECIPE
To make a basic cupcake you will need:
- 2 sticks butter
- 1 ½ cups sugar
- 4 large eggs
- 3 cups flour
- 1 Tbsp baking powder
- 1 Tsp salt
- 1 cup whole milk
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a muffin tray with paper liners.
- Mix the butter on high until it is creamy. In a separate bowl whisk the eggs until they are frothy. Combine the eggs with the butter and add in sugar and vanilla until well combined.
- Sift flour, baking powder, and salt together in another bowl.
- Add the dry ingredients to the mixture along with the milk – alternating as added.
- Fill the cupcake tray with the mixture about ¾ of the way full and bake for 18-20 minutes
PART #3: GOOD TO KNOW
There are some things that are just good to know when it comes to baking birthday cakes and being successful in the kitchen. Many of these tips we’ve learned along the way over the years and a few are just for fun. As a hobby baker it is not important that I know everything there is to know about baking cakes, but to know enough for making really great ones is a treasure that I am so happy to have.
What we know in the kitchen will be tasted forever.
Here are 10 random baking tips that you’ll be happy to know:
1. Know how to separate an egg
To correctly separate an egg you will need three bowls.
Start by cracking your egg correctly – which can be done by gently tapping it on a hard surface such as a countertop. Don’t use the sides of a bowl as they will crack the egg too intensely and allow for the shell to mix with the whites. Instead gently tap the egg on a counter and careful pull the two sides apart.
As you pull the sides apart the egg white should begin falling out into your first bowl. Be careful not to lose the yolk as well. Tilt the eggshells back and forth with the yolk gently going between the two of them to allow all the egg white to fall. Place the yolk in a separate bowl and cover immediately with plastic wrap.
Repeat as necessary and combine the yolks if needed for the recipe.
2. Know how to work with fondant
Cover a cake with fondant by placing about half of the fondant block on a cutting board. Place the rest of the fondant in a Ziploc bag until ready to use again. Sprinkle powdered sugar on a flat surface or board. Begin kneading the fondant to a workable consistency. Roll out the piece of fondant with a rolling pin, to about 1/4″ thickness, lifting and turning as you go. Dust surface with more powdered sugar if necessary to prevent fondant from sticking.
Carefully lift the fondant with both hands and place it above the cake, eyeballing where it’ll be evenly positioned on the cake. Cover the cake with the fondant. With your hands, lightly smooth outward on the top and down the sides of the cake, shaping the fondant to the cake. Trim excess fondant from the base of the cake with a sharp knife.
3. Know how to use edible glitter
Edible glitter livens up any cake instantly! Use the glitter to cover an entire cake or to make bright stripes. Buy a selection of edible glitter from the craft store baking section. I was pleasantly surprised at the great colors that have evolved with this fun product. If you’ve never used edible glitter before, it is easy to use and tastes like sugar.
To make the glitter party stripes. Lay pieces of wax paper straight down on the cake; I pushed the paper gently with my finger against the frosting to hold it in place. Then sprinkle the edible glitter making a pretty cake filled with sparkling stripes. Repeat the laying of the wax paper and sprinkling of glitter across the top of the cake.
We let our stripes dissolve on the side for an artistic look, but you could easily wrap the paper around the sides to continue to straight-ish lines down the sides of the cake. The lines won’t be perfect (it is glitter after all!) but the look is stellar and crazy simple to create.
4. Know how to bake cakes in jars
For a simple way to present gorgeous cakes at a party, serve them in glass jars. Mason jars, wick jars, and even small Dixie cups can work as a serving tray for a good cake. Any cake recipe can be broken down and baked this way. Wash and dry the glass jars and fill about ¾ of the way with batter before baking on a cookie sheet. Layer in strawberries and frosting for the individual cake of that is both unique and personal!
5. Know how to make cake doodles
Making chocolate shavings – or doodles as I like to call them is an easy way to turn any frosting job into a gorgeous cake presentation. The doodles are awesome for covering up a spot or two that didn’t turn out quite as planned and give the entire cake a festive party texture.
We’ve tried making these doodles many different ways and here’s the final result…
The best way to make them is by using a full chocolate bar of good quality (My favorites are 90% dark cocoa or nutty white chocolate). Hold the bar on one side and run through the side of your cheese slicer. You do not want to grate the chocolate since the pieces will end up too small – but use the side that is set to create cheese slices. Carefully run the chocolate down that and you’ll end up with the perfect doodles for your party cakes, every time.
6. Know how to place flowers on a cake
Placing flowers on a cake is one of my favorite and one of the simplest ways to decorate a cake. To create an instantly gorgeous cake it is best to use edible flowers.
Some of my favorite edible flowers include daisies, evergreen sprigs, CHRYSANTHEMUMS, Lavender, Basil, DAYLILIES, NASTURTIUMS, Pansies, Roses and Squash blossoms.
Place a toothpick through the thickest part of the flower head – this is normally found where the flower would start to bud. Stick the other end into the cake where the flowers should stay in place. You can create as large of a floral look as you’d like with this trick. Often I will aim to connect 8-9 different flower heads together using floral wire and then use toothpicks to secure them to the cake on the backside for a finished cascading look that is anything but ordinary.
7. Know how to bake a cake inside an egg
To make the birthday cake Easter eggs poke a small hole in the top of each egg and gently pull back the top 1/5 of the eggshell. Pour out the insides and save for future use. Rinse each eggshell and allow drying before dipping and painting with an egg dye kit (or create homemade edible egg paint). Allow the eggs to fully dry.
Mix your favorite cake recipe per instructions. Fill each egg about 3/4 of the way up with batter. The easiest way to get the eggs to stay standing during this process is to use a cupcake tray. A mini tray will hold one egg per slot. A large cupcake tray can fit 2 eggs per slot, but be careful the eggs to not touch or they will brown on the side they are touching each other.
Bake the eggs checking back often. They will not need to bake the entire time the recipe suggests, ours baked about 1/2 the time. Check the doneness by inserting a toothpick into the center, when it comes out clean the egg cakes are done.
8. Know how to cover a cake in sprinkles
Topping a cake with sprinkles is a fabulous way to make a statement that everyone will love! I’ve found an easy way to make a gorgeous sprinkle cake without finding sprinkles in the crevices of my kitchen three years later!
To do it, start with a cake that has set with a crumb layer attached.
Place the cake inside a wide box with a lip that has been covered in wax paper (I normally grab our last Costco box for this – it’s always the perfect size). Frost the cake and quickly begin patting the sprinkle around the side of the cake. To do this – slightly dampen your hand, pour sprinkles onto that hand, and then quickly place that hand around the side of the cake. You may have to repeat it a couple times to get a good covering.
These steps make for a cake covered in perfect sprinkles without all the mess!
9. Know to bake a cake inside a lemon
Baking a cake inside a lemon or other tasty fruit is such a fabulous way to kick of a shower or spring birthday party! Creative, fun and easy to boot.
Cut one lemon in half. Hollow out both sides and fill the lemon with a favorite cake recipe. Tie the lemon closed with a length of twine. Place the tied, batter filled lemon in tin foil and bake. Set the oven to double the normal cooking time and reduce the temperature of your recipe by 50 degrees for a perfectly fruity sweet treat.
10. Know how to bake a level cake
The secret to baking a level cake every time is so simple. You will be happily surprised… Before placing the cake pans into the oven, use an old dishcloth or an old shirt (just a small length of the fabric) and tie it around the pan. The weight on the outside will allow your cake to bake evenly and fix the age-old problem of a lopsided layer cake.
PART FOUR: IMPORTANT BIRTHDAY CAKE TIPS
Here’s how to cut the perfect piece of cake.
- Freeze your knife. Stick it in the freezer about an hour before cake cutting time – it will slice through any amount of crumble and butter cream with ease.
- Start with an inner circle cut. Use the knife in an up and down fashion to cut a circle in the center of the cake. About a 3 inch diameter – more for a very large cake.
- Next cut in from the side as normal for good size pieces that don’t have the inside of the cake fall out everywhere! It works like a charm, every time.
Here is a list of commonly used substitutes, because some days going back out to the store just isn’t an option. ;)
- If you don’t have and egg use ½ mashed banana
- If you don’t have sugar use honey in a 1:1 ratio
- If you don’t have brown sugar use white sugar 1:1 ratio + 1 tablespoon molasses
- If you don’t have vegetable oil use applesauce in a 1:1 ratio
We are all in this baking game together! Although I would argue our own baking archives here hold enough fun and creative recipes to have you baking all year long – there are always new and fresh ideas coming out.
Here are a few of my favorite places online to travel for baking inspiration and sweet treat ideas. Once the basic birthday cake recipes are down, these sites will give you great inspiration for taking your sills even further.
I hope this ultimate guide to baking birthday cakes will encourage you to get baking this year, And if your a seasoned birthday cake baking veteran, I’d love to know what other baking tips you have.
(All photos from our birthday cake archives).