The Sifted Guide to Birthday Cake

And it's not even our birthday.

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Fridays are typically reserved for subscriber-only content: On the Back Burner, an edition of the newsletter dedicated to weekend cooking projects, and monthly in-depth guides to one special dish or theme. This month, that special something is birthday cake, and it only seemed right to gift our guide to all of you (it must be at least one of your birthdays today!) Enjoy this little taste of Sifted, and if you want this type of premium content to continue coming your way, consider subscribing:

We’ve been drowning in cakes for the past two weeks—baking, frosting, filling, comparing, tasting, starting over, texting. We have a lot to spill, so with that, enjoy the...


THE CAKES

CHOCOLATE

If you were like me as a kid—a total and complete sugar addict—the chocolate cake scene from Matilda stuck with you. Prior to that, I’d never fully grasped the concept of “too much of a good thing,” especially in relation to dessert. And yet, I still left that movie wanting a piece of chocolate cake. When done right, chocolate cake teeters on the line of ‘too rich’ and ‘just right,’ like the dessert version of baby bear’s bed. It should be intense, dark, moist and pudding-like, but still have a lightness that allows you to eat an entire slice, not just a sliver. (Slivers are meant to be snacks after you’ve finished your full slice, eaten any time you walk past the cake plate.)

My go-to recipe up until testing was Beatty’s chocolate cake from the Barefoot Contessa herself, with its infamous call for a cup of freshly-brewed hot coffee. That was until I found this recipe, which is quite similar in ingredients and methods, but amps everything up just that extra little bit. It calls for double chocolate: cocoa powder and semi-sweet. You then melt the chocolate directly in the hot coffee, a brilliant time-saving move. It still has the hallmarks that make Ina’s recipe so good (an oil base, lots of buttermilk) but with lots more cocoa powder and added melted chocolate. You’re left with a lighter, more open crumb structure, but more intensely dark and chocolatey flavor than Beatty’s, which makes it the perfect foil for cloying buttercream or ganache frosting. Note: It makes a lot of cake. I halved the recipe and got a robust, two-layer, 8”-cake. Is that a bad thing? No, just proceed with caution if making a full batch. Will you have leftovers to give away? Probably not. 

PAIRS WITH: PERFECT VANILLA FROSTING, TANGY & FLUFFY CHOCOLATE FROSTING, MALTED & WHIPPED CHOCOLATE FROSTING, TOASTED COCONUT PECAN FILLING

YELLOW

I, too, live and breathe chocolate. Chocolate bars, chocolate chips, chocolate pudding, chocolate with mint, coffee, banana—I love it all! Chocolate is silky and sexy and soft and smooth. But even I have to admit that no chocolate-anything comes close to comparing to a bowl of bright, sunny yellow cake batter. Miss Alison’s recipe is the crème de la crème of yellow cakes—a pudding-like batter of egg yolks, creamy, tangy dairy, and cups upon cups of powdery flour and sparkly sugar bakes into sweet, sturdy layers of cake. (Note: You are required to eat some batter before baking.) Swooped with tangy & fluffy chocolate frosting, this is a quintessential, classic birthday cake, though I’ve made a really delicious-tasting and impressive-looking summer rendition with lots of lemon zest in the batter, layers of thick whipped cream, and fresh sliced strawberries.

PAIRS WITH: PERFECT VANILLA FROSTING, TANGY & FLUFFY CHOCOLATE FROSTING, MALTED & WHIPPED CHOCOLATE FROSTING

CARROT

The first time I baked carrot cake, it was in cupcake form (that was my first mistake) and when I pulled them out of the oven, they were gray and leaking oil. It was a scarring experience, and ever since then, I’ve left carrot cake to the experts. But because I love our dear Sifted readers so very much, I tried my hand at it again, this time with guidance from dessert, baked good, general sugar legend, Stella Parks. I loved a lot of things about her carrot cake recipe, but I particularly liked how fun it was to loudly whisk the eggs and sugars together for 8 whole minutes. From there, you stream in a lot of brown butter (!!!) and whisk some more until you end up with a bowl of thick, silky, spicy, buttery, nutty, caramel-like fluff that I could not stop dipping my finger into for “little” tastes. I found that adding a fat knob of fresh, grated ginger (a little less than a tablespoon) in with the flour mixture sends this otherwise pretty much perfect cake straight into the stratosphere. The addictively delicious batter bakes into gorgeous, thick layers that are actually orange! I tested eight cakes this week, and gave lots of slices away, but I couldn’t bring myself to share any of this one. I’d also like to note that while I love and respect raisins, walnuts, pecans, coconut and pineapple as individuals, I do not condone any of that trash in carrot cake. If you simply must have something from that category in yours, I’d suggest filling the layers with a toasted coconut pecan filling before frosting on a thick jacket of cream-cheesy frosting. The best of both worlds!

PAIRS WITH: CREAM-CHEESY FROSTING, TOASTED COCONUT PECAN FILLING

COCONUT

“It’s, like, dripping moist” is a real text Courtney sent me about this coconut cake. She’s been eating it for years via her friend’s mom, who made it for “anyone and everyone’s birthday” growing up. The cake really tastes like coconut—it’s deep, dense and buttery, but still manages to stay light and tight crumbed. Every single store I’ve been to this week has the sweetened coconut cream, Coco Lopez, though when I needed a can last week, there were none to be found. That’s to say, I used regular, unsweetened coconut milk (still following the directions to use mostly the solid part) and would do it again. It’s delicious, especially when covered in cream-cheesy frosting with about a cup of coconut flakes mixed in. (Sweetened and unsweetened both work, just adjust your powdered sugar accordingly.) And yes, I can confirm it was “dripping moist.”

PAIRS WITH: CREAM-CHEESY, TANGY & FLUFFY CHOCOLATE, TOASTED COCONUT PECAN

BANANA

My 10th birthday party was at a fancy sandwich shop. My mom rented it out, projected Passport to Paris onto the walls, and invited what felt like every neonate in Manhattan. The party was out of control, but the cake was humble (and certainly not enough to feed all of those kids). Two thin layers of banana cake, with a silky, milky chocolate frosting, made by my neighbor, who, to me, was the Martha Stewart of Hell’s Kitchen. Most kids didn’t touch it because it wasn’t plain chocolate or vanilla (I guess that worked itself out), but this cake rocked my world. Taking that first bite of bitter chocolate married with sweet banana was on par with how I felt right after my first kiss—sort of confused by it, but definitely wanted more. This banana cake recipe is the closest I’ve come to that very first one, and might just be the exact recipe Midtown Martha used for my 2006 birthday cake. The light, cakey chunk I ripped off of the warm layer (I am helpless around a hot baked good) sent me on a Proustian trip straight back to the sandwich shop. I topped what was left of the layer with a cinnamon iteration of the cream-cheesy frosting below and a dusting of cinnamon sugar, but this cake frosted with tangy & fluffy chocolate frosting will forever and always be The One.

PAIRS WITH: CREAM-CHEESY FROSTING, TANGY & FLUFFY CHOCOLATE FROSTING, MALTED & WHIPPED CHOCOLATE FROSTING, TOASTED COCONUT PECAN FILLING

OLIVE OIL

Maybe this is not the most traditional birthday cake, but I also cannot imagine anyone being mad about receiving it on their special day. This gorgeous recipe (from pastry chef and friend of the newsletter Natasha Pickowicz) is the cooler older sister of vanilla cake. She followed a guy to Italy at one point then claimed he got “too clingy”; she drinks dry martinis with extra olives; 169 Bar texts her. It’s easy, requires neither a stand mixer nor any special ingredients or techniques, and yields a super moist but delicate-crumbed cake that tastes like a hazy summer afternoon in an unspecified European country. It’s flavored with the zest of two oranges, but you could swap in or mix that with other citrus fruits. The recipe calls for a glaze of pow’ sug’ + fruit juice of your choice, and you’ve gotta love a recipe that lets you get creative. It works beautifully with a mix of juice and any fruity liqueur; I’ve glazed it with both Campari and Aperol (cut with OJ), but will be trying it with some of this Cassis that I’m loving ATM. You can also top it with any of the following frostings, or a big dollop of barely-sweetened whipped cream made from the highest fat-content cream you can find at the store— it’s what the Europeans would want! 

PAIRS WITH: CREAM-CHEESY FROSTING, TANGY & FLUFFY CHOCOLATE FROSTING

HONORABLE MENTION: FUNFETTI

Funfetti is for children and Instagram photos. Like blue raspberry and cotton candy, funfetti is a manufactured flavor designed to make kids’ eyes glaze over and mouths drool with its bright colors and copious amounts of sprinkles. Don’t get me wrong—I love sprinkles as much as the next person, and will decorate any and all of the aforementioned cakes with them. But for me, trying to make amazing homemade funfetti is like chasing a sprinkle dragon. The platonic ideal of funfetti is Pillsbury box mix. Need more proof? It scored second in blogger Pancake Princess’ very scientific and thorough sprinkle cake bake-off. We also tested Sally’s Baking Addiction (winner of the aforementioned bake-off) and found it tasty, albeit a little dense and pound-cake like. Sifted says stick to the box mix and hide the box if you’re really that self-conscious: it’s what the people want.


THE FROSTINGS

PERFECT VANILLA

I (Court) have already expressed my dislike of frosting. I am decidedly a Cake Person, not a Frosting Person, but I think that stance uniquely qualifies me to judge since I’ve been challenged to find a frosting I actually like. Frosting should complement the cake, have a good amount of salt to cut through all the sugar-fat-more sugar, and needs some kind of flavor beyond ‘sweet’: tang, citrus, vanilla, bitter chocolate. I like this basic American buttercream for the express purpose that it’s a well balanced blank canvas. It doesn’t have too much sugar or require a lot of technique, but a few spoonfuls of heavy cream help it whip up into ethereal lightness. Channel Ina and break out the good vanilla, and if you want a whiter color, we have to admit the imitation stuff has a time and place, and this is it. If you’re decorating and want a smoother finish, you can swap in milk for heavy cream for fewer air bubbles. No matter what, add a big pinch of salt. Like, do a normal pinch, taste it, then add a little more. It’ll add a je ne sais quoi that will have people going back for slice after slice. With this frosting, and every frosting, whip the butter and powdered sugar for more time than you think. When I worked in a bakery, the best batch of buttercream I ever made was when I walked away to help a customer and accidentally left the stand mixer running. Fluffy perfection.

CREAM-CHEESY

Add a little extra oomph to your standard cream cheese frosting by swapping in some mascarpone. It’s got the same smooth, creamy texture, but is slightly sweeter than cream cheese. This recipe is a solid one to follow, though I skip the honey and like to up the mascarpone to cream cheese ratio to 1:1. Then, add a big splash of vanilla or almond extract, the requisite pinch of salt, and whip all that into fluffy submission with your strongest mixer. 

TANGY & FLUFFY CHOCOLATE

Yes, we’re redirecting you to this recipe again, but this time for its frosting. It calls for melted chocolate chips, but feel free to use the best chocolate you have. Once, in line at a fancy little shop in the West Village (RIP The Meadow), I watched a man buy $65 worth of chocolate bars and tell the cashier they were for cookies he was baking later that night. If you, too, feel like balling out on a $65 frosting, I have no choice but to respect you. Once you choose your chocolate, it gets mixed with sour cream, and later whipped into a classic butter-powdered sugar-salt combo that’s been beaten until it’s “almost pure white.” Suddenly, you have a bowl full of slightly tangy, super fluffy, perfectly chocolate-y frosting that’s perfect for filling, topping, piping, and spooning.

WHIPPED & MALTED CHOCOLATE FROSTING + TOASTED COCONUT PECAN FILLING

If you’re a subscriber, both of these ~Sifted original recipes~ will land in your inbox tomorrow morning, plus our decorating wisdom (tips, tricks, tools, sprinkles!)

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Tag us @sifted.newsletter on Instagram if you make any (or all!) of the recipes from our birthday cake guide. Comment below if you think we missed your go-to birthday cake. Now blow out the candles and make a wish!