Cooking

TT Culinary Institute: Birthday Cake

What your childhood dreams are made of
How to Make a Perfect Birthday Cake
Photos: Rachel Vanni/Tasting Table

"A great birthday cake needs spirit and soul. It should elicit a FEELING! Cake = CELEBRATION after all," Christina Tosi, pastry chef and owner of Milk Bar, says.

For us, the words birthday cake call to mind box mix and nostalgic memories of our mothers spreading Duncan Hines frosting on a Betty Crocker cake. So we're tackling the challenge of recreating a yellow cake with chocolate frosting that's even better than the semi-homemade one we loved as kids (see the recipe)—and has that spirit and soul Tosi's after.

In addition to tapping Tosi, known for her birthday cake and truffles, we enlist the help of  Bobbie Lloyd, chief baking officer of Magnolia Bakery, and Stella Parks, author of BraveTart, to help us out.

"As a baker, a perfect birthday cake is all about balance and point of view," Tosi says. "It starts with moist, evenly baked cake and well-balanced fillings (be it ice cream, frosting or beyond) that complement the cake."

Taking it one step further, Parks says, "I'm in the school that birthday cake has to be layered. You only get so many occasions where you can pull out all the stops. A layer cake is special."

We couldn't agree more, so let's break down the steps to a flawless birthday cake.

I Love You, Pan

Before you even turn the oven on, there's a crucial step to baking any cake that is so often overlooked: You must grease and flour your pans. As Lloyd puts it, "After all your hard work, you don’t want your cake sticking to the pan!"

The reason to do both? When you put your cake in the oven, the heat begins to unravel the proteins in the batter and then coagulates them over the course of baking. These proteins will stick to a bare pan like glue, which spells trouble when you go to remove your cake. The grease puts a barrier between the batter and pan, to prevent any kind of sticky situation; dusting with flour prevents the fat from dissolving into the cake batter.

Wake and Bake

Tosi hits the nail on the head when she says, "The flavor of yellow cake is magical." We second that. "[It] should be slightly dense (rich in egg yolks as opposed to lightened with egg whites), a gorgeous yellow color, perfectly moist, and the flavor deep and soothing: a hint of butter and vanilla flavors, but generally a flavor that feels impossible to put your finger on otherwise."

Tosi is proud to share that her home state of Ohio is also where scientists invented the artificial yellow cake flavor of your favorite boxed moments. But for those looking for the real deal, attention to detail when mixing is key.

"It’s easy to overmix cake batter, and you must be careful when adding ingredients," Lloyd adds. When you're making the batter, you want to make sure the butter is at room temperature, so you can cream it with the sugar and avoid any lumps. Then, when you add the eggs, going one at a time allows more air to be whipped into the batter.

Jack Frosting

Some people may argue that the frosting is even more important than the cake itself. (We're equal opportunists when it comes to our sweets and give both components ample attention, but we don't dispute the importance of a good, rich topping.) We make a classic American buttercream with butter and confectioners' sugar before folding in a cooled salted ganache of melted chocolate and sour cream. It's rich and sweet and salty, and you're going to love it.

Parks says that when it comes to frosting, the crust factor—or the super-thin crackle that forms from the confectioners' sugar solidifying—is just as crucial. This helps extend the shelf life of the cake and keeps it moist by sealing in all the moisture.

Can We Build It?

Now here's the part everyone gets worried about: assembling. We're all about that lazy Susan life. Throw your cake stand on one and see how much easier it is to frost that bad boy. We even have pictures below in the slideshow to help steer you down the right path.

"Keep your cool—frosting a cake can be a very stressful and frustrating thing to get your cake to look picture perfect," Tosi admits. Her secret method at Milk Bar? "Throwing caution to the wind, we spread each layer of cake, filling, frosting and crumb evenly using a very fancy, high-tech tool: a cheap metal spoon! Just bend the handle until you get the angle that works best for you, and you’ll have an easy-to-use makeshift froster that you can build a bakery empire around."

The Waiting Game

Finally, the overarching motif connecting every baker's advice is the necessity of patience. Go ahead and bake your cake layers in advance to ensure they fully cool. Then after you build your beauty, let the cake and the frosting sit and properly set before cutting into it. And above all, unless you're traveling with it in the heat of summer (in which case 30 minutes would suffice), never put that cake near the fridge. Chilling it will ruin the creamy texture of the frosting and risk drying out the cake.

So there you have it: the perfect birthday cake. Bet you wanna put your name on it.

  • Make the chocolate frosting by creaming butter and sugar before folding in a cooled ganache of chocolate and sour cream.

  • Slice the tops off the cooled cakes to create an even surface.

  • Spread a little frosting on the cake stand to keep the cake in place.

  • Place the cake in the center of the stand, cut-side up.

  • Add 1¼ cups frosting over the cake.

  • Using an offset spatula, spread the frosting to evenly coat the first layer of cake.

  • Place the other layer of cake, cut-side down, over the frosting.

  • Add three-quarters of the remaining frosting over the top of the cake.

  • Frost the cake, working frosting over the top and down to the sides of the cake.

  • Use the remaining frosting to completely cover the cake.

  • Use a dish towel soaked in hot water to wipe the spatula clean and help smooth the top of the cake.

  • Once the top is smooth, move on to smooth the sides of the cake.

  • Once frosted, let the cake sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.

  • Decorate with sprinkles, then slice and serve.

  • 1/14
hide

LET’S DISCUSS:

Around the Web

Get the Tasting Table newsletter for adventurous eaters everywhere
X Share on FB →