How to Make the Best Chocolate Birthday Cake from Scratch

Time to blow out the candles on our favorite chocolate birthday cake recipe. We'll walk you through how to make this gorgeous and decadent layer cake.

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While there are plenty of birthday cake recipes out there, there’s something special about a good old-fashioned chocolate birthday cake.

If this is your dessert of choice for your big day, know you’re in good company. Dolly Parton says this is her must-have birthday treat! Better yet, making this cake is, well, a piece of cake. Our Test Kitchen’s favorite recipe is a one-bowl chocolate cake with old-fashioned icing.

How to Make a Chocolate Birthday Cake

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This moist chocolate cake is definitely worth celebrating. It appeared in the very first issue of Taste of Home and has been a favorite among our readers ever since. Thanks to Patricia Kreitz of Pennsylvania for sending this recipe our way!

Ingredients

For the cake:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 3/4 cup baking cocoa
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup canola oil
  • 1 cup brewed coffee
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the frosting:

  • 5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup shortening
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons sprinkles, optional

Go to Recipe

Directions

Step 1: Stir up the cake batter

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The first step in making this chocolate birthday cake is sifting all the dry ingredients—flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt—together in a large bowl. Since this is a chocolate-forward cake, make sure you’re using the good stuff. These Test Kitchen-Preferred cocoa powders deliver big flavor.

Then add the oil, coffee and milk and mix at medium speed for a minute. Then add in the eggs and vanilla and beat for another two minutes. The batter will be thin.

Grease and flour two 9-inch round baking pans. Divide the batter evenly between the two pans.

Test Kitchen Tip: If you’re not a coffee fan, we encourage you to still add a splash to this recipe. Coffee and espresso help to amp up the flavor of chocolate. However, if you don’t have any on hand, it’s OK to skip it.

Step 2: Bake

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Next, bake the cakes at 325ºF for 25 to 30 minutes. You’ll know the cake is done when a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes away with moist crumbs (but not wet batter).

Cool the cakes in their pans for 10 minutes. Then turn the cakes out onto wire racks to cool completely.

Step 3: Start the frosting

As the cake cools, start on this old-fashioned ermine frosting—a must on many vintage cakes.

Begin by whisking the flour and milk together in a small saucepan until smooth. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat. Continue cooking and stir until the mix thickens—just a minute or two. Once thickened, move the frosting base to a small bowl. Cover and refrigerate until chilled.

Step 4: Finish the frosting

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When the first component is chilled, grab a large bowl and beat together butter, shortening, sugar and vanilla extract until light and creamy—about four minutes.

Then add in the chilled milk mixture and beat on medium speed for 10 minutes. The end result will be light and fluffy.

If you want to take things to the next level—and you do since this is a birthday cake!—stir a handful of sprinkles into the frosting.

Step 5: Frost the cake

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When the cake layers are cool and you’re ready to frost, start by placing your first layer of cake on your serving plate or turntable. Place a spoonful of frosting down first—this will act like glue to keep it in place as you stack and frost.

Then add a layer of frosting and spread it evenly using an offset spatula. Then stack the second layer on top.

Next, give the cake a quick crumb coat. A crumb coat is a very thin layer of frosting that controls the crumbs and gets the cake ready for icing. It’s a good step to take to get professional-looking cakes.

Then, use your offset spatula to smooth the frosting around the outside and the top of the cake. You can smooth it out using the spatula or use a spoon to make swirls. It’s up to you.

How to Cut a Birthday Cake

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Ready to eat? Before you dive in, our Test Kitchen recommends letting the cake firm up in the fridge for about 15 minutes. It will make it easier to slice. When you’re ready to slice, grab a serrated knife. Dip the knife in hot water, wipe it dry and cut. This will create clean slices. Just be sure to wipe the knife after ever slice to keep things tidy.

Got leftovers? Don’t worry! You can keep this cake for a few days on the counter or even freeze individual slices of cake.

Birthday Cake Decorating Ideas

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When it comes to decorating birthday cakes, there’s nothing wrong with going simple. A good cake frosted well is a joy. However, you can easily amp up your cake’s appearance without a lot of effort.

  • Sprinkles: Move over grocery store sprinkles! There are so many adorable sprinkles available these days. Check out small companies like Fancy Sprinkles that produce pretty decorating blends.
  • Candles: Pretty candles can do a lot to dress up even a basic sheet cake. Snag a new package of classic candles, long elegant tapers, shaped candles or opt for something a bit more dazzling like sparkler-style candles.
  • Cake toppers: Candles don’t have to be the only thing topping your cakes. Try a fun cake topper. A simple cake topper can be used over and over. Or try something special for the birthday girl or boy based on the party theme. Sites like Etsy are a great place for more niche decorations.
  • Decorating tools: If you like to spend a bit of time in the kitchen with artistic pursuits, dabble in cake decorating. Some basic frosting supplies can take you a long way.

Whether you’re topping the cake with heaps of sprinkles or keeping it simple with a few candles, this chocolate cake recipe makes for the perfect birthday cake. It’s rich, moist and deserving of a celebration. You can keep the fact that it’s so easy a secret, though!

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Lisa Kaminski
Lisa is an editor at Taste of Home where she gets to embrace her passion for baking. She pours this love of all things sweet (and sometimes savory) into Bakeable, Taste of Home's baking club. Lisa is also dedicated to finding and testing the best ingredients, kitchen gear and home products for our Test Kitchen-Preferred program. At home, you'll find her working on embroidery and other crafts.