So I resolved to be a bit more adventurous in the kitchen this year – stretch my comfort zone a bit. I love to cook, but I’ve never been a very talented baker. All of that measuring exact amounts doesn’t mesh with my laissez-faire personality or something. For desserts, I typically make cookies or a fruit crisp because those are much harder for me to screw up, but my dad’s favorite dessert is yellow cake with chocolate icing. He isn’t big on sweets, but he can put away some yellow cake. His birthday was last week, and since we gave up pre-packaged stuff like boxed cake mixes long ago and because I thought he deserved his favorite dessert for his birthday, I decided to branch out and bake him a cake. I first did quite a bit of research on the recipe itself, and then dug in. Obviously, this thing isn’t even remotely healthy, but I know (and approve of) every real ingredient that went into making this thing, and it tasted amazing. How it looked was a different story! Bookmark this for your next birthday – you’ll love it.


Some caveats: (1) while this is now my go-to birthday cake recipe, I will either make it in a 9×13 pan or as cupcakes next time. I am just not cut out for the double decker thing, as you can see. The double layer cake is so pretty when done well, but I think I’m just not cut out for all of the steps involved. If you are, more power to you. This was how my cakes looked when I peeked in the oven to see if they were done. Tons of batter had overflowed onto my stone on the bottom rack of the oven. I tried to follow these tips on layer cakes, but mine still turned out totally lopsided and rather sad looking. (2) The recipe is a little fussy, but I think it’s worth it. Deb from Smitten Kitchen doesn’t add extra steps unless they’re necessary in my experience with her recipes.

Yellow birthday cake
Barely adapted from Smitten Kitchen


4 cups plus 2 tablespoons (480 grams) cake flour (I made my own because I don’t have cake flour sitting around)
2 teaspoons (10 grams) baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon (5 grams) table salt
2 sticks (1 cup, 1/2 pound or 225 grams) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups (400 grams) sugar
2 teaspoons (10 ml) pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups buttermilk (475 ml)*


Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter 9×13 cake pan or line your cupcake tin with cupcake liners.

Sift together the dry ingredients in a medium bowl. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until pale and fluffy, then add vanilla. Add eggs one at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition. At low speed, beat in buttermilk until just combined (mixture will look curdled). Add flour mixture in batches, mixing just until the flour is incorporated.

Spread batter evenly in cake pan, then tap pan on the counter to eliminate air bubbles. Bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool for at least an hour. (I put mine in the freezer for about an hour, which helped with the frosting).

I have a standard chocolate buttercream icing that I thought sounded better (and less fussy) than the icings Smitten Kitchen’s recipe used, but feel free to experiment.


Chocolate buttercream frosting
My mom’s recipe


1 1/2 cups salted butter, at room temperature
3 3/4 cups powdered sugar
3/4 cup cocoa powder
3 – 4 Tbsp heavy cream or whole milk
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract


In an electric mixer (or using a handheld mixer), mix the butter until light and fluffy. Then add the powdered sugar, the cocoa powder, the vanilla extract, and about 3 tbsp cream/whole milk. Whip mixture until light and fluffy (about 3-4 minutes), adding additional tablespoon of milk/cream if necessary.

Notice in the picture how the whole cake slopes down from right to left. I had to use icing to fill in the parts of the cake that didn’t make it from the pan, so some bites had enormous amounts of frosting (which was awesome!). So learn from my mistakes – your version is bound to look prettier than mine, but I’ll guarantee that however sad it looks on the outside, it tastes delicious!

*My standard trick for buttermilk is this: for every cup of buttermilk that you need, add a tablespoon of white vinegar or lemon juice to a measuring cup, then fill up the measuring cup up to the one cup mark. Stir to combine and let sit for several minutes before using. Typical store-bought buttermilk has additives to stimulate the natural occurring bacteria in traditional buttermilk; whereas, traditional buttermilk is a by-product of butter making. I can only find traditional buttermilk at Whole Foods or EarthFare, so I typically use the shortcut unless I’m planning lots of baking.