{baking basics 101} Let Them Eat Birthday Cake

I have a very large and scary birthday coming up in two weeks.  Last fall I pledged to lose twenty pounds to confront it and, while I did manage to lose 8 pounds, I am  painfully aware that I fell short of my goal.  I think I will drown my sorrows in birthday cake.

I have always liked making cakes and am surprised by how many people who otherwise like to cook think cakes are too scary or too hard and resort to mixes.  Mixes taste nasty.  They taste like salt and metal and baking soda.  Even a failed homemade cake that barely rises is better than cake mix.

My second birthday cake, with my name misspelled
My second birthday cake, with my name misspelled

The best part about making birthday cakes is that you get to decorate them.   Birthday cakes are a lot like jack-o-lanterns; you can take out a stencil you bought at the store and produce a perfect witch flying across a night sky, or you can give the pumpkin a jagged mouth full of dangling seeds, a carrot nose, garlic-head ears and six eyebrows.  My birthday cakes tend toward the latter.

A pirate sheet cake, no beach in this one
A pirate sheet cake, no beach in this one

For many years I made my each of my three sons a pirate cake for his birthday. It was a family tradition that sprang from the fact that I found some cool looking pirate cake toppers.  We have always eaten healthy food, much of it home grown, but we part ways from the food police at whole grain birthday cakes.  Although I am not big on food coloring, I make an exception for birthday cakes, so the pirates were usually on a sandy yellow beach on a green island rising from the blue and white sea, digging into the chocolate earth to bury their ill-gotten gain.  But after ten years of so of pirates, I got bored and busted out with a 15 layer cake for Rudi’s 15th birthday.  The layers were flatish and overcooked, and the whole thing listed alarmingly, but no body cared.

a 15 layer cake for Rudi's 15th birthday
a 15 layer cake for Rudi’s 15th birthday

I went to a chemistry lecture on baking a few months after I made the 15 layer cake and found that the problem was that I mixed all my batter at once.  While I baked the layers in batches, the baking powder fizzled and died in the batter, leaving the last batches of cake more pancake-like than fluffy.

  • The time from the mixer into the oven is critical because you want to maximize air space inside your cake and if you take too long, the air spaces collapse.
  • Beating the batter, but not overbeating it, is critical.
  • Beating your egg whites separately and folding them in gently is critical.
  • The salt is critical.
  • Cake flour is critical.

Cake batter is serious business, but frosting is forgiving and can cover your sins.  I opt for simple, non-cooked frosting.  While I like cooked icing, and absolutely adore cream cheese frosting, I use a no-nonsense, straight-forward butter frosting that can be made stiff or runny depending on how much milk you add.  I divide the frosting into batches and mix the colors I want in separate bowls using food coloring I buy in the supermarket.  Some frosting gets layered on with a frosting spatula, some gets piped on through a plastic bag with a corner snipped off.   No fancy equipment needed.  Sprinkles are optional, depending on your design.

Remy's Hello Kitty birthday cake
Remy’s Hello Kitty birthday cake

My granddaughter and I make cakes together almost every time she comes to visit, birthday or not, and no matter how critical I feel about the results, she always likes them.  Cakes I make with her tend to be heavy on the sprinkles and bristle with candles, even if it no one’s birthday.  It is an intergenerational art project.

Kaylee decorated our dog's birthday cake
Kaylee decorated our dog’s birthday cake

I am not sure what kind of cake I will have for my birthday, but I will probably bake and decorate it myself.  Maybe I will make it look like a social security check.  Or maybe like an old lady with wrinkles and white hair.  Or maybe just chocolate with nuts, a true adult cake.

Tintin and Snowy cakes
Tintin and Snowy cakes

This is a basic yellow cake recipe that almost always works. I wrote down this recipe years ago and don’t remember where I got it.

The recipe is for a three layer cake.  Once the cake layers are completely cool, you can frost the top of the bottom layer, then plop the middle layer on top of it and frost the top of the middle layer.  Once the top layer is added, frost the sides, then frost the top and smooth over any irregularities as needed.  You can also cut up one of the layers and use it to make odd shaped pieces, like caves or ears or lolling tongues.  Or you can bake the cake in one 9 by 13 sheet pan for around 30 minutes and decorate the top of it as you wish.  If you use glass pans, reduce the heat by 25 degrees.



  • 2 2/3 cup cake flour
  • 2 ¼ teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup unsalted butter
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 cup milk
  • 4 egg whites


Prepare three nine-inch round cake pans by buttering the bottom and sides, then dusting the pans with flour.  Knock any excess flour out of the pans and into your compost bucket.  If you prefer, you can cut out circles of parchment paper to cover the bottoms of the pans after you butter and dust the sides.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Sift flour, baking powder and salt together and set aside. Using a mixer, cream butter at medium speed until soft, then gradually beat in sugar and cream until light.  Beat in egg yolks one at a time.

Add vanilla.  On medium-low speed, add flour mixture to butter mixture in three parts, alternating with milk.  Stir the batter until smooth after each addition, but do not stir more than that.  Total mixing time once you start adding the flour should be no more than two minutes.

Whip egg whites in a separate bowl until stiff but not dry.  Gently fold them into the batter by hand.

Divide batter evenly into the pans. Bake 30 to 35 minutes until tops of the layers are light brown and a toothpick inserted into the middle of the layer comes out clean.  Remove from oven and cool in pans for 10 minutes, then remove from pans to a wire rack to cool completely before frosting.

Michael"s vegetable garden birthday cake, complete with a broccoli tree and an irrigation pond
Michael”s vegetable garden birthday cake, complete with a broccoli tree and an irrigation pond


The frosting is Mark Bittman’s ( who else?) from “How To Cook Everything.”


  • 1 stick unsalted butter
  • 4 cups confectioner’s sugar
  • 6 tablespoons milk or cream
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract


Cream the butter with a mixer, gradually work in the sugar, alternating with the milk, mixing well after each addition.  Stir in the vanilla.  If too thick add a little more milk, one teaspoon at a time.  If too thin, refrigerate it for awhile.


11 Comments Add yours

  1. My favorite cake to make growing up was the cake for Easter – shaped into a bunny’s head. Have a Great One

    1. Dianna says:

      I was born on Valentine’s Day so had heart shaped cakes for much of my childhood. I will probably make a heart shaped cake for this Birthday of Impending Doom too.

  2. My mother always baked and decorated our birthday cakes and I loved it. She did use mixes. She is not much of a cook, let alone baker. We helped bake and frost the cake, but the decorating was hers alone and she would surprise us with her creation when it was time to sing and blow out the candles. This left such good memories for me that I am doing it for my children. Happy birthday and enjoy your cake!

    (Love the vegetable garden cake BTW)

    1. Dianna says:

      As I got older, starting at around five, my father began to bake my birthday cakes. He was not innovative but made them from scratch with really good gooey cooked white icing. They were always a hit at my birthday parties and everyone in those benighted times marveled that a man could bake a cake. It was partly because my mother was Czech and birthday cakes were not in her repertoire. She made strudel, he made cakes.

      thanks for the birthday wishes.

  3. Skerr says:

    Chocolate cake with nuts for sure! Happy Birthday & Valentine’s Day too. I adore baking and eating cakes and despise cake mixes. My wife loves a ‘box’ cake. So, I always make my own birthday cake and am forced to use a mix once a year. Making your own Is the best way to get the cake you want to eat! Celebrate well and I hope Kaylee is there to help with the decorating!

    1. Dianna says:

      thanks Sarah, since I am going to be doing two months of celebrating, perhaps there will be time for you to make me a cake. 🙂

      1. Skerr says:

        I would love that! BTW we tend to have pirates in the Easter basket and sometimes they make it into the manger!

        1. Dianna says:

          pirates are all around great decorations! I hope to make a New York City trip to celebrate with my peeps there so we’ll see if we get together a you-are-older-than-dirt dinner or something.

  4. Lisa says:

    Happy Birhday Diana!!!! You brought back memories of my mom baking birthday cakes. Thanks for the trip down memory lane!!

  5. Dianna says:

    thank you and you are welcome. Birthday cakes are great and anyone who was loved as a child probably has birthday cake memories.

Start a conversation --> We love feedback!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s