Almost everyone has or will make a birthday cake. But, not everyone is as prepared for all that making a cake entails. Here, I will detail all the steps involved in making the perfect birthday cake.
This step by step guide will provide all the recipes, instructions, and tips for making a great tasting and great looking cake. I am by no means a professional baker, but some of the equipment and skills aren’t things I would expect everyone to have so I will be sure to provide beginners modifications for those with less baking skills.
Before gathering any supplies or ingredients, you must make a couple decisions about flavors and design. This will help you with two things: making a cake the birthday boy/girl will love and preventing a second store trip.
There are infinite cake and frosting flavors and combinations. The best way to decide is to just ask the birthday boy/girl what they want. If it’s a surprise you can never go wrong with a chocolate/vanilla combo. I use the chocolate cake with vanilla buttercream frosting recipes below and it’s always a hit.
Once you’ve come up with your flavors, find a recipe (I will detail the one I use below and link some others) and write out a detailed shopping list. When making a cake all from scratch, it is easy to overlook ingredients and having to make an emergency shopping trip is the worst! That’s the last thing you want to do when you are elbow deep in frosting with cakes in the oven so BE PREPARED! Also, make sure to consider how you will decorate before doing your shopping run. Do you need candles? Sprinkles? Piping bags/tips? Food dye? Consider all this before hand and hopefully you can avoid any stress later!
Now that you’ve made all your decisions and bought all your ingredients it’s time to bake! Below is a step by step tutorial for how I make the perfect birthday cake.
Full recipe and how-to video at the end.
Here are the ingredients you will need for the cake:
Flour*, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, salt, eggs, buttermilk, warm water, vegetable or canola oil, and vanilla extract
*I’m using gluten free flour because my mom is gluten intolerant. If you are making a GF cake I highly suggest this Namaste brand. It doesn’t get super crumbly and the texture is great.
If you’re looking for a vanilla cake recipe, this one is super fluffy and delicious! Vanilla cake is fun for birthday cake because you can add sprinkles to it and make confetti cake. Very festive!
Here is the equipment you will need:
Stand mixer with whisk attachment, medium bowl, whisk, three 9 inch cake pans, parchment paper, and cooking spray
You will also need the specified measuring utensils in the recipe below. If you don’t have a stand mixer, a hand mixer will work just fine. If you are a frequent baker I highly encourage investing in a Kitchenaid. It really does make all the difference in the world (and look how pretty!)
Before you start mixing ingredients, do these 4 things:
- Cut out parchment paper to cover the bottom of your pans. This may seem like an unnecessary precaution, but it only takes 5 minutes to do and eliminates any chance that your cakes will get stuck to the pan and ruin your perfect cake. With this technique your cakes will slide out beautifully, I promise.
- Make sure your racks are set in the oven. If you won’t be able to put all your pans on one middle rack, place a second rack in the top third of the oven.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Set out all the butter for the frosting and allow it to reach room temperature by the time you start the buttercream. I will not allow you to microwave your butter! Don’t even try!
Now it’s time to mix your cake ingredients:
There is one key rule when it comes to mixing cake batter: mix the dry and wet ingredients separately! If you don’t, you will end up with a cake with flour lumps and nobody wants that.
So, mix the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a stand mixer, or large bowl if using a hand mixer, and combine using a low speed. If your speed is too high, you will lose ingredients over the side and in the air. In a separate bowl combine eggs, buttermilk, warm water, oil, and vanilla. Then, add this mixture to the dry mixture and beat on a medium speed until smooth (just a couple of minutes). Make sure to scrape down the sides and bottom of the pan so that all the ingredients are fully mixed in.
Now, and I can’t stress this enough, SPRAY YOUR PANS! Don’t forget it! Do it! Right now! For easiest removal, spray the pan without the parchment then place the parchment on the bottom and spray a bit on top of that. With this technique your cakes will slide out of the pans with total ease and the parchment will pull off the cake just as easy. Divide all the batter evenly among the three pans. I use a measuring cup and find just about 3 cups into each pan should do it, but if you want to live on the wild side and eyeball it, be my guest. Place your cakes into the preheated oven. Set a timer for 30 minutes. Take a load off.
When your timer goes off check your cakes with a toothpick. Take into consideration that all ovens are not created equal and yours might take a little longer to cook. So, check your cakes at 30 minutes by inserting a toothpick. If it does not come out clean do not worry, give them another 5 minutes. However, know the difference between uncooked batter and soft, squishy, delicious cake crumbs on your toothpick. Only add time if the toothpick has batter, otherwise your cakes will turn out dry, but no pressure.
Once you take out your cakes set them on a cooling rack and leave them alone! Allow your cakes to cool completely before you try to remove them or, god forbid, try to frost them.
Since your cakes will take a little while to cool, now is the time to start your frosting.
Here are the ingredients and equipment you will need for the frosting:
Cleaned stand mixer with paddle attachment, powdered sugar, salt, cream cheese, butter, vanilla extract, and heavy cream
This buttercream recipe is so tasty and really easy to work with. I also love this Oreo buttercream recipe and this peanut butter buttercream recipe. The recipe I am using today is super simple and can be used as a base for almost any other flavor. Try using almond or mint extract instead of vanilla, or finely blend up your favorite candy and mix it in. For our purposes today we want a smooth frosting with a simple flavor to compliment the chocolate, so I will not be adding anything extra.
I usually double this recipe, because who doesn’t like a lot of frosting? For the decorating technique I will show you below I always run out if I don’t double. If you double it and have extra you can freeze it, which is actually awesome to have frosting on hand for any frosting emergencies you might run into! If you aren’t trying to get fancy with the decorating you can probably get away with one, but really who ever benefited from less frosting, right?
First, place all your softened butter and cream cheese (this can come straight out of the fridge) in your stand mixer/bowl and mix until smooth. If you want your frosting to be white let the butter and cream cheese mix a little longer, it will lighten up the longer it mixes. This next part is going to get messy no matter what you do, it’s a baking rite of passage. On a low setting, slowly incorporate the powdered sugar which will then fly everywhere, but just push through. The recipe calls for 3 lbs of powdered sugar and a regular bag of powdered sugar is 2 lbs so I use 1 and a half bags. If you have a splash guard that can help with the mess. Once you have it all mixed in you will add the cream and vanilla. If you’re going for extra white frosting, using a clear vanilla extract will help. The heavy cream is where you can adjust the consistency. The recipe calls for 3-6 TBSP, so if you were using the frosting to pipe or detail you might add less cream and keep the stiff consistency. For our purposes we want it to be smooth and easy to work with so start with 3 TBSP of cream and work up from there. I usually find I need the full 6, but it can vary. Top if off with a little Salt Bae action and your frosting is good to go.
Now this is the fun part and where I encourage you to take some creative license. For this cake there are two “parts” we need to consider the color of: the base layer of the cake and the decorative boarders. I chose to leave the base layer white and did a rainbow boarder. You decide what colors the birthday boy/girl would want and divide and add food dye accordingly. I have found that these Wilton food dyes work better than anything else I’ve tried and from one of these packs you can mix and create any number of other colors. They are a gel and not liquid which prevents the frosting from changing consistency and they are super vibrant. If you can, try to avoid over mixing when adding the dye. Extra mixing changes the consistency and will make your smoothing process harder.
Here is what you need for decorating:
Cake round, frosting bag, piping tip, cake smoother, food dye, decorating turn table, bowls for mixing colors
Some of this is stuff I wouldn’t expect everyone to have. If you don’t have an icing smoother you can use an icing spatula or just a regular spatula. The icing smoother helps get flat edges, but its not completely necessary. Also, if you don’t have a turntable that’s ok too. It just helps when smoothing the edges. If you’re a frequent baker I encourage you purchase both these items because they are super helpful in the frosting process.
Before you start, make sure you have a place in the fridge for the cake. You will be putting the cake in and out of the fridge throughout the decorating process. Now, start by putting a small dollop of frosting on your cake round and placing your first layer of cake on top of it. This will keep the cake from sliding around on the cake round while you frost. Next, layer frosting on top of this layer. Get down to eye level and make sure that it is level. Place the next layer on top and repeat this same process. For the last cake layer, flip it upside down so that the more squared off edges are on top.
Now, you will do your crumb coat. When you frost the first layer of the cake, crumbs will come off with the frosting. That’s why this layer is called the crumb coat. Frost the whole cake, using your smoother and/or spatula. Don’t worry about it being pretty because you will do one or two more layers on top of this layer and those will be your pretty layers. Once your crumb coat is done, place the cake in the fridge for about 10 minutes. This will allow the layer to harden so that your next layer wont mix with the first.
Your next two layers you will repeat the same steps, but this time pay attention to the evenness and smoothness of the cake. I usually use an icing spatula to layer on frosting and then use the icing smoother to flatten it out. If you have “holes” in the frosting just add more frosting there and go over again with your smoother. I also frost near the sink and rinse off my smoother when it gets too messy. After each layer make sure to refrigerate and allow the frosting to harden before moving on. Here is a more detailed video about how to frost a super smooth cake.
You can see how I did the rainbow boarder in the video below. If you don’t want to get fancy, you can mix any color and use a piping bag and tip to frost a boarder. Here is a link for how to do a few different kinds of boarders.
Finally, I found a cute set of candles and a happy birthday sign that matched my cake. If you want to pipe on lettering you can totally do that too.
Yay! Happy birthday to us all!
How to video:
Cooking spray for cake pans
3 cups all-purpose flour
3 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups buttermilk (for whipping cream/heavy cream)
1 1/2 cups warm water
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Mix flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a stand mixer or a hand mixer using a low speed until fully combined.
- In another bowl mix eggs, buttermilk, warm water, oil, and vanilla.
- Mix together the wet and fry ingredients and beat on a medium speed until smooth. This should take just a couple of minutes.
- Spray your pans and place parchment on the bottom. Divide batter among the three pans.
- Bake for 30-35 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
- Cool on wire racks for 15 minutes and then turn out the cakes onto the racks and allow to cool completely
4 sticks or 2 cups unsalted butter (452 grams)
8 oz cream cheese
3 lbs powdered sugar (One and a half 2lb bags)
3-6 tablespoons heavy cream or double cream (45-90 g)
3-4 teaspoons vanilla (15-20 g)
Pinch of salt
- Mix together the softened butter and cream cheese until smooth.
- Slowly incorporate the powdered sugar.
- Add vanilla, heavy cream, and salt to desired taste and consistency.
- Add food dye as desired.
Hope this helps. Happy Baking!
By: Zuzu Rudio