Our 3rd Birthday Cake

A cake with chocolate frosting with a sparkly sign reading "happy birthday" in cursive, on a blue glass cake stand

Kitra: Happy birthday to us! Not as people, but to the ritual of biweekly cake days.

Jordan: This was definitely not the Cake Day Birthday we had imagined. Last year we made a lovely towering cake together, and our plan was to do something similar this year while continuing our hunt for the perfect fudge frosting.

But, you know, *gestures vaguely* this.

So instead we made two cakes, each in our respective homes, with Google Hangouts going and whatever assortment of candles/sprinkles/etc. we had in our kitchens.

We’ll *probably* stop offering you takes on yellow cake with fudge frosting after this, but we hadn’t yet shared the one I actually make for birthdays (mine, friends, coworkers, everyone gets this cake). It’s SO CUTE. And fast. And looks great in pans that have their own lids for easy transport on the metro. (Remember the METRO? Jeez it’s been a while.)

It’s from the Smitten Kitchen Every Day party cake builder, which is honestly just so great. If you make a lot of cakes for things—which seems weird as I type it, but Kitra is presumably not the only person who has been appointed Designated Cake Baker in their office—then the book is worth it for that alone.

Jordan originally wrote “Designated Cake Baker in their friend group” and let me tell you, the one true dream that I have in this world is for my friends to let me make them cakes for their parties. Casual housewarming cake? I got you. Brunch cake? Yep. Birthday cake? PLEASE GOD ASK ME TO BRING A BIRTHDAY CAKE TO YOU. I’VE BEEN TRAINING MY WHOLE LIFE FOR THIS AND NO ONE HAS EVER ASKED.

As you can see, Kitra has Many Feelings about cake, and this cake in particular. But let’s talk frosting. We’re still on the hunt for the perfect canned-style fudge frosting. No chocolate frosting either of us has made has ever been as good as eating that straight out of the can on graham crackers.

The frosting I default to is the one we put on our birthday cake last year, and the one I put on mine this year. It’s very easy, and I’ve had half a dozen self-proclaimed frosting haters ask me for the recipe. And since it is a different style from that dense fudgy canned stuff, I don’t find myself comparing them. I’m content.

I wanted something a little different, though, so I tried the one in Dining In, Alison Roman’s first cookbook (and the source of the cake from last year). It’s a bit of a richer chocolate flavor, with some tanginess from the sour cream. If you want a more nuanced frosting, this is a good option. It’s still no canned frosting, but it’s pretty good. It was also very forgiving of my realization that I had no powdered sugar and had to use regular sugar instead.

As we all know, the thing that makes a birthday cake a birthday cake is what goes on the frosting. Silly candles are ideal. Fancy cake toppers are cool. I have been stockpiling all of the above, but really all you need are rainbow sprinkles. Always rainbow sprinkles.

*Ranibow sprimkles.

Yellow Cake

From Smitten Kitchen Every Day, adapted slightly with a gluten-free option


This is a buttermilk cake, which gives it extra tenderness. If you don’t have buttermilk, you can fake it by mixing regular milk with a tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar and letting it sit while you do the butter/sugar/egg portion of the recipe. You can also use spoiled milk, which is what Jordan did because she accidentally ended up with three half-gallons of milk a while back and doesn’t use them that quickly.

Jordan made this using gluten-free flour. She used the America’s Test Kitchen blend, which is also Kitra’s preferred gf flour. It came out just a little denser and less domed than Kitra’s all-purpose flour cake, but was delicious and not noticeably gluten-free. You can probably swap in another good gluten-free blend if you like; assuming your blend includes some sort of starch (most do), you can just use 200g of gluten-free flour instead of the flour and cornstarch.


  • 6 tablespoons (85g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • ¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon (160g) sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • ¾ teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¾ cup buttermilk (see note)
  • 1¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons (180g) flour (see note)
  • 2 tablespoons (15g) cornstarch


Preheat the oven to 350° and grease an 8-inch square or 9-inch round cake pan. If you’re going to be turning the cake out, you should also line the bottom with parchment paper and grease the paper.

In a large bowl, use an electric mixer (stand or handheld) to beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Scrape the bowl down with a rubber spatula and add the eggs, egg yolks, and vanilla. Beat until combined, then scrape again. Add the baking powder, baking soda, and salt and beat again until you can’t see any of the dry ingredients. Add the buttermilk and mix until the batter is more or less combined; it will probably look a bit curdled, which is fine. Add the flour and cornstarch and beat just until combined (again, scraping to make sure there are no pockets of unmixed batter hiding at the bottom).

Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let cool at least 10 minutes before turning out of the pan, and let cool fully before frosting.

Sour Cream Chocolate Frosting

Adapted slightly from Dining In


As we noted above, this is a slightly tangy frosting thanks to the sour cream. For a more traditional chocolate buttercream, see the one we used last year. No powdered sugar? We learned through experience that you can substitute regular sugar; you might just need to beat it a bit more to get it to dissolve fully, and it will probably be a bit denser.

If you use this frosting, you should probably refrigerate the cake if you don’t eat it all immediately.


  • ½ cup (4oz, 1 stick) butter, at room temperature
  • ¾ cup (90g) powdered sugar OR ½ cup (100g) granulated sugar
  • 6 oz (170g) dark or bittersweet chocolate
  • ½ cup (120g) sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • pinch of salt


In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the butter and sugar together on high until very pale and fluffy, 4-5 minutes. (It should be basically white by the time you’re done.)

Meanwhile—or right after, if you’re using a handheld mixer—microwave the chocolate in a medium bowl for about 1 minute, until it is about 70% melted. Stir until the remaining lumps melt; this keeps it from getting too hot. Stir in the sour cream, one scoop at a time, until fully blended.

Add the chocolate mixture, vanilla, and salt to the butter/sugar mixture and beat on high until fully combined and very fluffy. You’ll likely need to scrape the bowl a couple of times with a rubber spatula. You should be able to use the frosting immediately, but if it seems a bit soft, you can refrigerate it, stirring every 5 minutes or so, until it’s your preferred consistency.

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