Need some birthday cake inspiration for your next big celebration? Sure, you could take some hints from the stars and bake up the best cake based on the birthday person’s zodiac sign. Or you could go with a fun confetti cake. But really, who doesn’t crave a rich, chocolate cake on their birthday? It’s luxurious, satisfying and is a great people-pleaser.
There are many chocolate cake recipes out there, but for birthdays, it’s best to go with a recipe that knocks it out of the park every time, like this five-star recipe. Stir this up for your next birthday party and you likely won’t have leftovers. We’ll walk you through how to make this cake from scratch.
How to Make a Chocolate Birthday Cake from Scratch
One of our Test Kitchen’s favorites for birthdays is this chocolate cake recipe with chocolate frosting from Megan Moelbert of Springville, NY. The recipe is straightforward and uses baking basics—perfect if you’re making a last-minute cake for a surprise party.
Here’s what you’ll need for the cake:
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 cups water
- 2/3 cup canola oil
- 2 tablespoons white vinegar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/3 cup + 1 tablespoon cocoa powder, sifted
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
Here are the ingredients you need for the frosting:
- 3-3/4 confectioners’ sugar
- 1/3 cup cocoa powder
- 1 cup butter, softened
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 3-5 tablespoons milk
There are also some gear that will make baking this cake easier. Our Test Kitchen swears by a KitchenAid stand mixer ($230) to whip up any baking recipe. And don’t forget to grab some round baking pans ($23) and decorating supplies like this nifty offset spatula ($11) that makes frosting a breeze.
Step 1: Stir Up the Cake Batter
To start this cake, beat the sugar, water, oil, vinegar and vanilla extract until blended. You can use a stand mixer or hand mixer here.
In another bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa (be sure to sift it first), baking soda and salt. Slowly add this dry blend into the wet ingredients and beat until smooth. And that’s it! This cake batter is a snap to put together.
Step 2: Prep Your Pans for Baking
Before pouring your batter into the pans, be sure to prep them for baking. Do this by greasing the pans—yes, even if they are nonstick—with shortening, butter or cooking spray. Then dust the inside with a bit of flour and tap out the excess. Line the bottom of the pans with a round of waxed paper or parchment paper. You can get a detailed tutorial on how to grease pans here.
Once all that’s in place, divide the batter evenly between two nine-inch round baking pans. Use a kitchen scale if you want to be extra precise. (Eyeballing it is OK, too.)
Editor’s tip: If you don’t have nine-inch pans (or just want to use something else), check out our handy baking pan conversion chart.
Step 3: Bake and Cool
Bake the cakes at 350ºF on the center rack for 30 to 35 minutes—until a toothpick comes out clean. When the cakes are done, remove them from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool.
After ten minutes, invert the cakes to remove them from the pan and let them cool all the way before frosting. (Do not frost a warm cake! The icing will melt right off.)
Step 4: Make the Buttercream Frosting
The frosting for this cake is a simple American buttercream flavored with cocoa. You can have it stirred up in about five minutes.
To make the frosting, beat the softened butter and vanilla together until well blended. Then add in the cocoa powder and confectioners’ sugar alternatively with the milk. If you find that your sugar and cocoa are a bit lumpy, give them a quick sift.
Editor’s tip: Start with just a few tablespoons of milk. You may find that your frosting only needs a bit of moisture to reach the right consistency. If it’s too stiff you can always add more. If you think your frosting is too runny—don’t fret. Just add in a bit more confectioners’ sugar. This recipe is very forgiving.
Step 5: Frost the Cake
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 (this tool is essential in our Test Kitchen). 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 top of the cake. You can smooth it out using the spatula or use a spoon to make swirls. It’s up to you. Get detailed cake frosting directions here.
Serving the Cake
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 our even freeze individual slices of cake.
Birthday Cake Decorating Ideas
When it comes to decorating 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 like this 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 supplies can take you a long way.
What About Baking Substitutions?
If you have folks with allergies (or just have a bare pantry), you may need to make some baking substitutions. Fortunately enough, this cake recipe is dairy- and egg-free, making it friendly to many with certain sensitivities. However, if you need to make any other swaps, here are some recommendations:
- To make a gluten-free chocolate cake: This recipe does use all-purpose flour. If you need to make the cake gluten-free, try an easy conversion like Bob’s Red Mill 1-to-1 Baking Flour. Use the same amount of this GF flour as you would traditional flour.
- To make the frosting dairy-free: If you need to make the frosting in this recipe dairy-free, use your favorite butter substitute or shortening. As for the milk, use your favorite alternative milk or even water.
- What if you don’t have canola oil: If you don’t have canola oil on hand, try vegetable oil, grapeseed oil or other neutral cooking oils (stay clear of options with a strong flavor like olive oil).
- Out of vanilla extract? Try a vanilla substitute like vanilla bean paste or almond extract (half the amount of extract if you’re using almond—it’s strong). Worst-case scenario: You omit the extract and let the cocoa take the lead.
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!