The Secret to Perfect Birthday Cake? It’s How You Mix It

Birthday cake slice

Photos via CakeSpy

It might not be your birthday. But don’t let that stop you from making this perfect birthday cake recipe.

Birthday cake is one of the most common requests for cake decorators. It is a special food; it carries connotations of celebration and joyful indulgence, and it tastes like pure happiness.

But how is it possible to attain perfectly fluffy layers that don’t fall flat in the flavor department? The secret to success lies in the mixing: by whisking the egg whites separately and then folding them in to the batter right before baking, you’re able to attain a buoyant texture yet rich, buttery flavor. The addition of sour cream in the batter is a little secondary secret, adding a rich flavor to the cake and ensuring that it won’t dry out. Once topped and filled with buttercream, this cake is a picture-perfect version of a classic birthday cake. It’s well worth making space for it in your recipe repertoire.

As Julia Child once said, “a party without cake is just a meeting.” With a cake like this, the party is made!

The BEST birthday cake recipe

For the cake:

  • 2 1/4 cups sifted cake flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 4 large eggs, separated
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 cup sour cream (see recipe notes)

For the buttercream:

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 6-8 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Pinch salt
  • Food coloring in your desired colors
  • Milk or cream, to thin (if needed)

To garnish (optional):

  • Sprinkles
  • Birthday candles

Step 1:

Make the cake. Adjust an oven rack in the middle position; preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease, flour and line the bottoms of two 8-inch cake pans with circles of parchment paper.

Step 2:

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set to the side.

Step 3:

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk the egg whites until soft peaks form. Transfer the mixture to a bowl for the moment, and set to the side.

Step 4:

Fit your stand mixer with the paddle attachment or a rotary beater. In the bowl (it’s fine to use the same bowl you just used for the egg whites; no need to wash), cream the butter until fluffy and light, 2-3 minutes on medium-high speed.

Step 5:

Add the sugar(s), and mix until combined and smooth, about another 2 minutes on medium-high speed. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, stirring after each addition and scraping the sides of the bowl as needed with a rubber spatula. Stir in the vanilla.

Step 6:

Add the sour cream and flour mixtures alternately, in 2-3 additions each. Mix until the batter is smooth and lump-free, scraping the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. The batter will be fairly thick.

Birthday cake batter

Step 7:

By hand, fold the egg whites into the batter, stirring gently and only until no streaks of white remain.

Fold in the egg whites

Step 8:

Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared cake pans. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, rotating at the 20-minute mark. To test doneness, insert a cake tester or toothpick in the center of the cake. It should come out mostly clean.

Batter divided between pans

Step 9:

Remove the cakes from the oven, and let cool for 5 minutes. Then, run a sharp knife around the perimeter of each pan, to loosen the edges. Turn the cakes out onto wire racks, gently peel off the parchment paper, and let cool completely. Once cooled, level the cakes if necessary.

Cakes, baked

Step 10:

Make the buttercream. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium-high speed for 2-3 minutes, or until very smooth. Add 2 cups of the confectioners’ sugar and the salt, and stir to combine, first on low then on a higher speed as the sugar is absorbed. Continue adding the sugar, 1 cup at a time, until the buttercream has attained your desired spreading consistency. Stir in the vanilla and any colorings you’d like to add. If at any point the buttercream becomes too thick, add milk or cream, 1 teaspoon at a time, until the consistency has thinned out to your desired consistency.

Step 11:

To assemble, stack one of the cake layers on a platter, and apply a generous amount of buttercream on top, spreading it evenly all the way to the edges of the cake surface. Place the second cake layer on top; if you have leveled the cake, place the cut side down so that the flattest surface is facing up.

Buttercream on cake

Step 12:

Apply a crumb coat (a thin coat of buttercream that is meant to contain crumbs and doesn’t have to look pretty), and let the cake chill in the refrigerator for 20 minutes. Once the crumb coat has set, use the remaining buttercream to ice the top and sides of the cake. You can pipe designs or take any liberties with cake decorating that you like! Garnish with sprinkles and birthday candles.

Birthday cake

Recipe notes:

  • This cake will keep for 3 days at room temperature in an airtight container; it can also be frozen for up to 1 month. Refrigeration is not suggested.
  • You can substitute yogurt or buttermilk for the sour cream in this recipe. Do not substitute milk, however, as the acidic component is necessary.
  • You can substitute any icing or buttercream recipe you like for this cake; some other variations that might taste great would include chocolate buttercream, Swiss meringue buttercream or seven-minute frosting.
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