Kisha Gulley was once kicked out of a Facebook group for mothers with autistic children after a c...Read More
This chocolate birthday cake is made with three layers of the moistest, lightest chocolate cake you will ever taste. The best part? The recipe is almost one bowl, and only requires two bowls and a whisk to bring the batter together. The cake is then covered with a creamy, luscious, and fudgy chocolate cream cheese frosting that will be a hit at any birthday!
I made the chocolate birthday cake in honor of Hummingbird High‘s TENTH birthday. Ten years ago on this very day, I opened up Blogger (yes, Blogger—not even WordPress!) to start this baking blog. I had no idea that it would eventually lead to a full-time career with my recipes and baking advice being featured in places like The New York Times and Bon Appetit, as well as my very own cookbook!
I know everybody’s here for the recipe, but today’s a special occasion! So please allow me to look back on ten years of Hummingbird High:
In November, 2011 I start Hummingbird High on a whim. I had just moved to Denver, Colorado a few months earlier for a job in finance/management consulting. I was absolutely miserable. At the time, I told folks that I started Hummingbird High to learn more about high altitude baking by baking my way through my favorite cookbook at the time, The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook . But really, it was a way to escape the drudgery of my job.
In early 2012, I hit a first milestone for Hummingbird High. One of my first original recipes gets accepted for publication on foodgawker.com! Some context: this was pre-Pinterest days. Back then, foodgawker.com was how food bloggers got seen and discovered. To wit, my recipe’s publication on foodgawker.com led to republication on The Huffington Post . And as a result, this was the first time folks beyond my immediate friends and family started reading Hummingbird High!
After that, I get officially hooked on blogging. I splurge on my very first KitchenAid stand mixer. I start baking more recipes beyond the ones in The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook . All this creative energy inspires me to take a risk in my professional life. I leave my finance job to accept an internship in marketing for a tech startup in Portland, Oregon.
This is the first year that Saveur Magazine selects Hummingbird High as a finalist for their “Best Food Blog Awards” in the “Best Baking and Desserts Blog” category. I think the awards are defunct now, but at the time, they were a HUGE deal.
I was over the moon! Despite still working my day job (after a summer internship, I was officially hired on to be a part of the startup’s marketing team), the nomination motivates me to blog harder. I begin to get serious about Hummingbird High. I buy my first Big Girl DSLR (I believe it was a Canon Rebel? Or maybe this was when I upgraded from a Rebel to a Canon 5D Mark II?). I take photo editing classes at a local media center.
On the more personal side of things, I buy my first house in Portland!
Looking back, I think this is the year that food blogging became less anonymous. That is, it became more of a “real” community. Many of us food bloggers started talking to each other—either through social media (because Instagram was really starting to blow up around this time), comments on each other’s blogs, emails, and eventually text messages—and became “IRL” friends. In fact, I’m still friends with many of these folks today!
So if I had to pick a favorite year of blogging, 2014 would probably be it. My food blogger friends and I still treated our blogs like journals. Our posts were super personal and filled with colorful, intimate details of our lives. Our recipes weren’t beholden to the demands of SEO and sponsors. People (even the ones we didn’t know personally, and had just stumbled on our blogs accidentally) enjoyed reading these stories.
This really felt like the year in which we were living in a wonderful, creative community based on food and friendship. Because even beyond other food bloggers, many of you were baking from the blog. And even more of you were following along with the personal stories, cheering me on when I hit accomplishments and commiserating and relating with the struggles of being a young-20-something.
This was also the first year in which my work was published in another website. Food52 reached out and commissioned me to develop a recipe for them—one for homemade sprinkles! David Leibovitz then shared the recipe on his Facebook page, and I just about died of happiness.
2015 was a BIG deal for Hummingbird High. Once again, Saveur Magazine selects Hummingbird High as a finalist for their “Best Food Blog Awards” in the “Best Baking and Desserts Blog” category. Since I was unable to make the awards ceremony the first time around, I make it my utmost priority to attend this one. It was a BLAST (especially since many of my friends were also nominated for awards)!
This was also the year in which Instagram highlights my account, @hummingbirdhigh, as one to follow. In the course of a few days, my account skyrockets from around 20,000 followers to over 100,000! A talent agent from Digital Brand Architects (one of the most prestigious agencies representing influencers) to ask if I wanted them to represent my work. My response? Hell yeah!
But things are rocky on the personal front. I’m still at the tech startup, but unhappy in my day-to-day. Although I think I’m doing a good job balancing my job with Hummingbird High, I can tell that management is suspicious and questioning my commitment. I switch teams within the company to a more technical role. Although my new manager is more understanding and flexible about Hummingbird High, a recruiter comes knocking on my door.
The recruiter wants me to come work for a bigger, more established, and well known tech company for double my salary at the startup. The only catch? The job is in San Francisco. At the same time, my longtime partner Erlend had just been accepted to grad school in New York City. We decide to do long distance—I accept the job in San Francisco on the condition I get transferred to the company’s New York office within a year.
Things work out—I move to New York City! I am still balancing Hummingbird High with my day job at the tech company. But it’s working out better than it did at the old startup in Portland.
That is, until I meet one of my food blogger friends for lunch. She’s in town from Los Angeles to sell her cookbook proposal to major book publishers in the city. Although I’d never seriously considered writing a cookbook, our conversation inspires me. I begin interviewing with different literary agents and working on a cookbook proposal.
This is also the first year in which I get to travel extensively for Hummingbird High. I attend the Copenhagen Cooking and Food Festival with two other food blogger friends, quickly followed by a brief trip to Hershey, Pennsylvania to tour the Hershey chocolate factory. Less than two weeks later, I fly out to Washington State to tour an apple farm and learn more about the industry. I then travel back to Portland to attend Feast Portland.
It’s the first year I really feel the pressure and time crunch of doing both my day job and blogging at Hummingbird High.
My cookbook went to auction in the summer of 2017. At this point, I realize I can’t continue to do my day job in tech AND blog AND write a cookbook. I make the commitment to blog full-time at Hummingbird High and begin working on my cookbook, Weeknight Baking .
As part of my decision to work on Hummingbird High, Erlend and I decide to move back to my old house in Portland. We weren’t sure if we would be able to afford our cost-of-living in New York without my fancy tech job. And our move worked out just in time for Erlend’s graduation, too!
Looking back, I now realize that this year was a blur. I’d vastly underestimated the amount of work that it takes to write a cookbook. I spend the majority of the year focusing on my book and not much else. As a result, I neglect a lot of things: my health (I gained something like 20lbs during the cookbook writing process!), some friendships, a part-time job as a food photographer I’d foolishly accepted before I realized that the cookbook was going to take everything over. For the first time, I even neglect Hummingbird High.
Despite it all, I find solace and happiness in the recipe development process for Weeknight Baking . This year taught me SO much. I would make so many different recipes of the same baked good to compare them all and learn what I like best about each. In doing so, I learned so many new tips, techniques, and tricks along the way. I would make the same recipe over and over again, just to make sure that it worked before I immortalized it in my cookbook.
And finally, throughout it all, I come to realize that one of the things I really, truly love about food blogging is simply that: the food and the baking. I credit this year and my writing my book for teaching me how to become the baker I am today.
This is the year that my cookbook, Weeknight Baking , got officially published! It was released on October 29, 2019. I wish I could say that the process was worth it, but honestly, I’m not sure I would do it over again. Instead, I decide to focus 100% of my time and energy on Hummingbird High.
And the next thing I write probably shows how clueless I was then, but here goes: this is the first time I realize blogging has changed a lot. Like, a lot LOT. I realize that most of my food blogger friends from 2013 to 2015 had either slowed down OR ramped up considerably. There was no in-between. I no longer recognized many of their blogs. Gone were the personal stories and photos. Instead, posts were focused exclusively on the recipes, providing tons of technical information and not much else.
As for the folks who weren’t blogging in this way, they had mostly stopped. Instead, they were now mostly on platforms like Instagram and even TikTok, sharing the colorful details of their lives in photos, videos, and Stories on those apps.
If not that, they were longer blogging.
And it was also around this time that I had a serious, candid conversation with one of my food blogger friends. She explained to me that, over the last few years, she and others had faced mounting criticism that their blog posts were too long, too intimate, too personal, etc. I just hadn’t noticed because I was too busy working on my book!
Something clicked. I ran my first (and so far, only, because quite frankly this experience shook me, lol) reader survey on Hummingbird High . I asked you guys what you wanted to see and read on Hummingbird High. Your responses were incredibly insightful, useful, but also damning. My friend was right. Many of you responded that the recipes I’d published on Hummingbird High were too complicated and time-consuming, with ingredients that were too obscure and hard to find. Others commented that my writing was too long and unwieldy. The majority of folks also didn’t want to read through a post that had nothing to do with what they wanted to bake.
Like I said, I was SHOOK. I realized that if I wanted to keep blogging for Hummingbird High full time, I needed to take this criticism and feedback seriously.
I started the year, guns blazing, with a content calendar for Hummingbird High full of simple baking recipes that I hope you guys will find more accessible and enticing to bake. All is well—until the pandemic hits.
From a business point of view, COVID was an odd time for Hummingbird High. With everybody stuck at home, folks were cooking and baking from scratch more than ever. As a result, especially in the months of March and April, traffic numbers for Hummingbird High were WILD. So many people were making my recipes! In 2020, my site almost crashed twice from all the traffic. The first time it happened, many of you guys were going crazy for this dalgona coffee recipe (a.k.a. the quarantine drink of 2020). The second time was the day before Thanksgiving (which makes sense, since many of you were prepping Thanksgiving desserts on that day). Furthermore, my focus on simple, accessible recipes like Small Batch Brownies and Banana Bread With Sour Cream were a resounding success.
You’d think that all that traffic would amount to crazy earnings from ads on Hummingbird High. Unfortunately, this was not the case—as a response to COVID, many companies had halted their ad spend. What did that mean? In previous years, a visitor clicking on an ad in my blog would earn me something like $1 to $5 per click. But in 2020, a visitor clicking on that very same ad would only earn me .01 to .05 cents. Yes, you read that right! So I was in an odd position: although SO many people were making my recipes, I was getting paid literal pennies for it.
Panicked about the ability to pay my mortgage, I decided to start a Patreon (which I still run today). Many of you were SO supportive, understanding, and signed up for memberships. I cannot tell you how grateful I am for this support!
I’m still here, recovering from the rollercoaster that was the last year and a half. But similar to 2019, I’m looking around and wondering if I’m behind again. At this point, it’s no secret that blogs are no longer the thriving communities they once were. First, Instagram had taken over their relevance; now, TikTok.
I love TikTok, but speaking frankly, my recipes and the kind of content I like to make (pretty static photos, long-form and detailed writing) don’t suit the platform at all. In many ways, TikTok feels like it was created in direct opposition to the kind of content I make. On TikTok, you need to be “real” (that is, nothing too pretty or staged), funny, and brief.
And as you can tell from this post, I am none of those things.
Many of my peers are once again pivoting to keep up with the times, but I’m more reluctant to do so. Back in 2019, it made sense for me to do so—many of you had started following along on my journey because of the recipes, and I wasn’t doing a good enough job with that.
But this time feels different. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that many of you don’t really care about watching my social media videos. And that’s totally okay! They’re not my favorite, either—I myself get more inspiration from seeing a beautiful photo of a recipe than watching somebody make it in a video. So this time, it feels more like I’m appeasing social media platforms and algorithms that don’t care a lick about me.
And I talked about this in last year’s anniversary post, but it doesn’t feel sustainable to keep changing things up to “stay relevant”. Because in doing so, I feel like I start to lose why folks are even here in the first place: the recipes, and our shared love of baking.
The way I see it, I stand at a fork in the road. I can bow down to the pressure of the changing times and grind the kind of content I need to make in order to “stay relevant”, keep growing my audience (if I can, and that’s a big “IF”), and as a result, sustain a livable income. But in doing so, I feel like I will lose the joy I get from Hummingbird High. It will feel more like a regular job in which I’m struggling to get through something I don’t enjoy.
Alternatively, I continue doing what I do now, creating the kind of long form content I enjoy making, but with the full knowledge that it likely won’t be financially sustainable. That Hummingbird High will continue on, but likely in a reduced capacity as I go back to the corporate world and restart a more traditional career.
Maybe I’m being dramatic. Maybe there’s a middle ground. I’m experimenting with a TikTok account that DOES showcase the kind of video content I like to make and enjoy myself—a cookbook review TikTok! You can check it out here (and please, give me a follow). And maybe I could spend more time and energy on Patreon. My work there has always been about the recipes and having direct conversations with you guys about them.
In the end, this is what I’m hoping—that I’ll find a middle ground between the two paths. But I’ll be honest. The middle ground seems murky. Because last year, I talked about trying to figure it out, too. It’s literally one year later, and I am no closer to any clarity.
Except one: whatever happens, I can’t deny that it’s been an impressive ten years of Hummingbird High. Thank you for following along on my journey, especially if you’ve been here since the beginning and watched me evolve and grow over the years.
Now let’s eat some cake.
Here are all the reasons to make this chocolate birthday cake:
For my blog’s tenth birthday, I wanted to make a recipe that would showcase ten years of baking knowledge. I scoured through my blog archives and thought hard about which recipes I kept coming back to over and over again. I also thought about the many techniques and tips that I learned over the years.
After much consideration, I truly believe this chocolate birthday cake recipe is IT. The cake uses a chocolate cake base AND a chocolate cream cheese frosting that I’ve used many times before. But don’t worry! I made small iterations and rewrites to the recipes to showcase many new tricks and techniques that I’ve learned. If that interests you, be sure to read all the sections of this blog post for the how and whys of everything.
But don’t worry! If that doesn’t interest you, you can skip straight to the recipe, too. I promise that you’ll still get a really delicious cake without dealing with any of the nitty gritty detail.
First things first—I knew I wanted to go with a tried and tested chocolate cake. Like the chocolate recipe in my cookbook, Weeknight Baking ! In my opinion, it makes the best chocolate cake ever. The cake is moist, soft and fluffy without being claggy. It has a subtle chocolate flavor that will pair with all sorts of frostings.
I wish I could take credit for the development of the recipe. But the truth is, I adapted it from Ina Garten. The chocolate cake recipe is basically Ina’s, with a few exceptions. (I subbed in cake flour for a softer cake, upped the amount of vanilla extract and salt.) I mean, why mess with The Queen, ya know?
I first discovered that cream cheese can be used as a secret ingredient in frosting recipes back in 2013. Because cream cheese has a subtle tangy and umami flavor on its own, it can help temper the sweetness of buttercream frosting. It prevents the frosting from being too one dimensional and sickly sweet, without any of the work of making meringue-based frostings.
Over the years, I’ve experimented with different chocolate cream cheese frostings. But I always come back to this one (in fact, I even used it in the cake recipe for Hummingbird High‘s third birthday in 2014). It is just so incredibly luscious and silky, with just enough body and firmness to make it a dream to pipe. And in terms of flavor, it brings just the right amounts of chocolate and tangy sweetness to this chocolate birthday cake.
Speaking frankly, I also thought I deserved a bit of a break for Hummingbird High‘s tenth birthday. I didn’t want to make a recipe that was too time consuming or elaborate. Instead, I wanted something that came together easily.
Like this chocolate birthday cake recipe! The chocolate cake is almost one bowl and requires no stand mixer to bring together. Instead, all you need is a whisk and rubber spatula. And while the frosting recipe DOES require a stand or handheld electric mixer, rest assured that the recipe only takes 5 minutes to come together!
Because the chocolate cake is so moist, it stays fresh several days after making (especially if it’s covered in the chocolate cream cheese frosting).
And on the flip side, both the cake and the frosting can be made ahead of time. Both components keep well in the freezer until you’re ready to bring everything together!
Now that I’ve convinced you to make this chocolate birthday cake, here’s everything you need to make the recipe:
And let’s talk about some key ingredients and potential substitutions:
You need 3 cups cake flour to make the chocolate cake.
In the grocery store, you’ll likely find an aisle of more flour varieties than you would have thought existed: all-purpose, bread, cake, pastry, and many more. These varieties are defined by their protein percentages. Cake flour contains less protein than all-purpose flour. As a result, using cake flour in a cake recipe results in a cake with a softer and more tender crumb. If you need a brand recommendation, my favorite cake flour is Swans Down Cake Flour.
Yes!But it’s not a 1:1 substitution. 1 cup of cake flour (4 ounces or 113 grams) tends to weigh less than 1 cup of all-purpose flour (4.5 ounces or 128 grams). So if you’re planning on using all-purpose flour instead, you need to swap out the cake flour with 2 ⅔ cups (12 ounces or 340 grams) all-purpose flour. However, note that using all-purpose flour in this recipe results in a heavier, slightly denser and breadier cake crumb.
You need 1 cup plus 2 Tablespoons natural unsweetened cocoa powder to make the chocolate cake, plus another 1 cup for the frosting.
Cocoa powder, when used in baking recipes, often comes in two varieties: natural unsweetened, and Dutch-processed.
Natural unsweetened cocoa powder is more typical and is cocoa powder in its purest form. It is slightly reddish brown in color and results in deeply flavored chocolate goods. Because it is slightly acidic, it is often paired with baking soda in baking recipes to help create a chemical reaction that will cause the baked good to rise in the oven.
Dutch-processed cocoa powder is natural unsweetened cocoa powder that’s been treated with alkaline to neutralize its acidity, giving it a darker color and milder flavor. It is the cocoa powder that is used for making midnight-black baked goods like Oreos.
You can use either in this recipe with great results. Natural unsweetened cocoa powder will produce a cake and frosting that’s more reddish brown in color. On the other hand, Dutch-processed cocoa powder will produce a cake and frosting that’s more blackish brown. I’ve tried it both ways, and they are each equally delicious.
You need 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt to make the chocolate cake, plus another ¼ teaspoon for the frosting.
I like to use kosher salt (as opposed to table salt) when baking. Its larger crystals make it difficult to confuse with granulated sugar. However, not all kosher salts are created equal. Some kosher salts have smaller granules than others, which will result in saltier tasting baked goods.
For consistency, I recommend sticking to one brand, and one brand only: Diamond Crystal kosher salt . It’s the only brand of salt I use when I develop recipes for Hummingbird High. Why? Diamond Crystal kosher salt is one of the few 100% pure salts in the grocery store. Other brands have additives that can add unexpected flavors to your desserts.
Yes, with reservations. Morton’s Coarse kosher salt granules are much smaller, denser, and crunchier than Diamond Crystal. According to this Food52 article, the two are different shapes and sizes because of how they’re made. Morton’s is made by flattening salt granules into large thin flakes by pressing them through high-pressure rollers, whereas Diamond Crystal is formed by a patented method in which “upside-down pyramids [are] stacked one over the next to form a crystal.” You can even see a visualization of the different sizes in this Cook’s Illustrated article.
Okay, but what does that mean, exactly? 1 teaspoon of Morton’s will taste saltier than 1 teaspoon of Diamond Crystal. Wild, right? So if you follow my recipes exactly as they are written but use Morton’s instead of Diamond Crystal, the results will come out saltier. In fact, sometimes they will come out TOO salty. So if you’re using Morton’s instead of Diamond Crystal, reduce the salt in the recipe by half.
Want to learn more about Diamond Crystal versus Morton’s Coarse kosher salt? Definitely check out the Food52 and Cook’s Illustrated articles I linked to above, as well as this Taste article.
Yes, with reservations. If you use table salt, you’ll need to reduce the recipe’s salt quantity by half.
If you read my little essay about Diamond Crystal and Morton’s, you learned that Diamond Crystal kosher salt granules are larger than Morton’s kosher salt granules. The same principle applies to table salt versus kosher salt. Table salt granules are much smaller than kosher salt granules. As a result, 1 teaspoon of table salt tastes much saltier than 1 teaspoon of kosher salt… simply because it can hold more granules! Wild, right?
So if you follow my recipes exactly as they are written but use table salt instead of kosher salt, the results will come out saltier. If you’re using table salt instead of kosher salt, I recommend reducing the salt in the recipe by half.
You need 1 ½ cups buttermilk to make the chocolate cake.
Yes! Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to make 1 ½ cups buttermilk. Use as directed in the recipe.
Make your own buttermilk with whole milk. Whisk together 1 ½ cups (12 ounces or 340 grams) whole milk and 1 ½ Tablespoons white vinegar or lemon juice in a small liquid measuring cup. Let sit for 5 minutes to thicken, then use as directed in the recipe. Although you can technically use non-fat or skim milk to make buttermilk, I don’t recommend it. These non- and low-fat versions will lead to less flavorful baked goods.
Alternatively, you can also make your own buttermilk with yogurt. I learned this neat trick from my friend Izy at Top with Cinnamon . She thins out 3 parts of natural, unsweetened, and unflavored yogurt with 1 part water to use in place of buttermilk. She says that you can also use a thicker yogurt (like Greek yogurt), but you’ll likely need to use more water to get it to the consistency of buttermilk.
Similar to my note above, use whole yogurt if possible. Non- and low-fat yogurts will result in less flavorful baked goods.
Finally, you can use that same trick I just described on sour cream. Thin out 3 parts full-fat sour cream with 1 part water to use in place of buttermilk.
You need 1 ½ cups VERY HOT coffee to make the chocolate cake.
Honestly, whatever coffee you have on hand works! I am lazy and hate making coffee at home. So I just heated up the pre-made coffee I had on hand: Stumptown Cold Brew Coffee. And when I don’t have that cold brew in stock, I literally just make coffee with an instant coffee brand like Folgers or Nescafé.
Yes! If you are lucky enough to have an espresso maker at home, go for it~ You may want to make an Americano type drink to make sure that you have the 1 ½ cups of coffee you need for this recipe.
And yes, before you ask, you can also use instant espresso instead of instant coffee in this recipe, too.
If you don’t like the taste of coffee, rest assured that this chocolate birthday cake does NOT taste like coffee at all. Instead, the coffee is there to make the cake extra moist and enhance the chocolate flavors of the cake! It’s a common pastry school technique—similar to adding salt to savory foods, adding a little bit of coffee to chocolate makes it taste more flavorful.
However, if you’re completely caffeine averse, no worries! You can substitute out the coffee for the same amount of very hot, freshly boiled water…just know that your cake might not taste as chocolaty the original recipe.
You need ¾ cup cream cheese to make the chocolate cream cheese frosting.
Technically yes, but I don’t recommend it. Using low-fat cream cheese will lead to a less flavorful frosting.
You need 4 teaspoons light corn syrup to make the chocolate cream cheese frosting.
Using corn syrup in chocolate frosting is another technique I learned from a pastry school textbook. The corn syrup adds several desirable qualities to the frosting:
First things first—it works as a preservative, preventing the frosting from drying out and crusting too much even after a few days.
Next: the corn syrup also gives the frosting a silky structure, making it a dream to pipe. Without it, the frosting can harden too quickly, making it difficult to pipe. Its thick, syrupy quality also gives the frosting body, preventing it from being too runny and loose.
And finally, corn syrup gives the frosting a beautiful shine!
In a pinch, you can substitute another kind of liquid sweetener like agave nectar, maple syrup, honey, and Lyle’s Golden Syrup. However, your frosting probably will have a slightly different consistency and sheen than mine.
And if you opt for a liquid sweetener with a “strong” flavor like maple syrup or honey, it’s likely that your frosting will have a hint of that flavor, too! I personally think honey would taste great with the chocolate and cream cheese components of the frosting.
You need 6 Tablespoons whole milk to make the chocolate cream cheese frosting.
Yes, but with reservations. Skim, low-fat, and non-fat milks will lead to less flavorful baked goods.
Yes! You can use alternatives like almond milk, coconut milk, soy milk, and/or oat milk in this recipe without altering the results. However, be mindful that using an alternative milk with “strong” flavors (like coconut or oat milk) will impart their flavors into the baked good, too. Specifically, your frosting might have a subtle coconut or oat milk flavor to it.
Here are the basic steps to make chocolate birthday cake from scratch:
So when making layer cakes, I actually like to make the cake the day beforehand to avoid waiting in the kitchen for several hours. I bake the cake layers the day before. Then, once they’re cooled to room temperature, I freeze them overnight. There are many advantages to doing this—learn more in the Troubleshooting and FAQ section below!
I recently discovered that you don’t really need to sift cocoa powder or confectioners’ sugar when making frosting. Because you’ll be mixing the frosting at high speed, most of the lumps work themselves out pretty easily! Save yourself time and energy—DON’T bother sifting these ingredients. Only sift if you’re using them as ingredients in baked goods with delicate crumbs (like angel food cake, or even the chocolate cake in this chocolate birthday cake recipe).
To apply a crumb coat, follow the instructions to stack the cakes, layering frosting between each cake to “glue” them together. Cover the top and sides of the cake with a thin layer of frosting—this is the crumb coat. Use just enough frosting to cover the entire cake completely. There’s no need to spend the time to make it look pretty! You’ll end up covering the crumb coat later.
Then, refrigerate the whole thing for 10 to 15 minutes, just enough for the frosting to harden.
This is where you can be creative. You can use the remaining frosting to frost a perfectly smooth cake (similar to this pink champagne cake of mine), use the offset spatula to create rustic swirls (like I did for this Hershey’s Perfectly Chocolate Cake). For this cake, I went a different route: I used a fork to create horizontal lines on the cake.
It looks impressive and it sounds intimidating, but it’s astonishingly easy. All I did was hold the twines of a fork against the sides of the cake. I then rotated the cake on the stand, holding the spatula in place but moving it slightly upwards as I turn. Doing so creates a natural spiral up the cake, creating the horizontal lines. Confused? Check out this cake decorating video that demonstrates the technique. Cool, right?!
If you’re pinched for time, simply cover the top of the cake with the rest of frosting. It will look plenty tasty and delectable, I promise!
It should go without saying, but first things first: you need three 8-inch round cake pans to make this chocolate birthday cake.
You’ll also need the following:
If you bake cakes regularly, it’s likely that you already have the tools I just listed.
Yes! However, you’ll need to adjust Bake Time slightly. I would start checking for doneness slightly earlier—maybe at the 30 minute mark as opposed to the 35 minute mark?
In theory, yes, but I don’t recommend it. Doing so will require a TON of adjustments. You’ll likely need to adjust the Bake Time of the cakes. You’ll also likely need to adjust the quantities of the chocolate cream cheese frosting.
If you don’t own ANY round cake pans and want to make a chocolate sheet cake, check out this recipe for potluck chocolate sheet cake. It’s very similar and even uses a chocolate cream cheese frosting!
A cake board is a stiff piece of cardboard that’s placed underneath the cake. The cake board makes it easy to transfer the cake from the rotating cake stand (which we’ll get to in a hot second) and onto a different serving plate or cake stand.
Cake boards come in different sizes to match the most commonly used cake pans. Professionals like to match the size of their cake board to their cake pan—that is, professional bakers will place a 8-inch round cake like this one on top of an 8-inch round cake board.
That being said, it’s easier for beginners and novice bakers to use a slightly larger cake board (e.g. pairing a 8-inch round cake with a 9-inch round cake board). Doing so makes it easier to pick the cake up for transfer. You can cover the rest of the cake board with a piped frosting border, or leave it as is—nobody will mind, I promise!
No, you don’t really need a cake board. This recipe instructs you to place the cake on a cake board, and then place the whole thing in the center of a rotating cake stand. However, you can place the cake on its serving plate instead (and then place the serving plate on the rotating cake stand).
If you’re opting for this method, it’s best to use a plate that’s completely flat—like any of these plates from Crate and Barrel’s Mercer collection (which I love and have, BTW). A flat plate gives you a level surface that makes it easier to frost the cake evenly and smoothly.
A rotating cake stand, or a cake turntable, is a cake stand with a plate that rotates 360 degrees. This function allows bakers to smooth the sides of cakes evenly and efficiently. The best cake stands are sturdy, with a heavy base that doesn’t easily move when accidentally nudged.
I found my rotating cake stand at a local restaurant professional supply store; however, this Ateco model is very similar. If you’re on a budget, opt for this cheaper, lightweight plastic version by Wilton. I also like this rotating cake stand from Food52. It looks like a regular cake stand, so there’s no need to put yourself through the scary task of moving your beautiful, finished cake onto a serving platter!
Yes, but I don’t recommend it. In a pinch, you can use a lazy Susan by setting the cake on a serving platter, then placing it on an upside-down bowl on the lazy Susan’s center. You’ll be able to rotate the cake this way. That being said, it’s likely that you’re going to have a much harder time crumb coating your cake. Learn more in the next Troubleshooting and FAQ section!
While spatulas for cooking have a wide rectangular or square head, offset spatulas have a thin, blunt blade. This blade enables you to easily spread and scrape sauces, fillings, frostings and more when baking. If you don’t already own one, I recommend investing in both a short and long offset spatula with sturdy metal blades. These ones from Ateco are my favorites.
Yes, but your life will be infinitely easier if you invest in an offset spatula. But without one, you can use a baking spatula, a butter knife, or the back of a spoon to cover the cake completely in frosting. Then, use a bench scraper or a (clean) ruler to smooth the sides of the cake for the crumb coat.
Yes, but your cake will look different from mine.
If you don’t want to invest in a piping bag and a star tip, you can use a ziptop bag instead. Transfer the remaining frosting into the ziptop bag, then snip a corner of the bag with a pair of scissors. Voila! You’ve just hacked a piping bag. This makeshift piping bag can pipe little blobs of frosting.
If you want to skip the piping bag completely, feel free! You can just use the extra frosting to cover the sides and top of the cake completely, and then top the cake with the rest of the frosting.
I used this closed star Ateco 847 tip from this Ateco Jumbo Tip Set. But really, any star piping tip—opened or closed—will do!
Great question! I’ve been doing a lot of research to answer this question for some time now. I believe it’s a trick gleaned from old-fashioned chocolate cake recipes.
First of all, coffee and chocolate are frequently paired together in desserts. Even if a chocolate recipe doesn’t use coffee, the recipe still frequently instructs bakers to use espresso powder. Why? Coffee/espresso enhances the chocolate flavor, making it taste more intense and rich (without making it taste like coffee).
And according to my research, the hot coffee helps get rid of any stubborn lumps in the cocoa powder. Most old-fashioned chocolate cake recipes instruct you to make the batter by hand with a whisk. And if you’re a seasoned baker, you know how hard it can be to whisk lumps out of batter!
Furthermore, the hot coffee “blooms” the cocoa powder, deepening the cocoa powder’s chocolate flavor. It’s similar to how coffee and tea become more flavorful when steeped in hot water.
And finally, all that extra water makes the cake super moist.
If you don’t care about the appearance of your cake, by all means, skip the crumb coat! However, if you’re making this chocolate birthday cake to impress someone, I highly recommend crumb coating this cake.
The cake has soft crumb can be really hard to frost. If you try and frost this cake without a crumb coat, it’s VERY likely that crumbs will shake loose from the cake and get caught in the frosting. However, the crumb coat will help seal crumbs from the cake, allowing you to apply thicker layers of frosting later.
If you want to skip crumb coating the cake, I recommend making the cake layers a day ahead and freezing them overnight! Learn more below in the section titled “FAQ: Making This 6 Inch Chocolate Birthday Cake Recipe Fit Into Your Schedule”.
First, let me stress this: use a cake board!!! Doing so makes it much easier to transfer the cake from place to place. If you’re a beginner, I recommend getting a cake board that’s slightly larger than the size of cake you’re making (ie, using a 9-inch cake board for an 8-inch cake). A larger cake board makes it easier to pick the cake up by the board and move it place to place without messing up the frosting you worked so hard on.
In theory, yes, but I don’t recommend it. Why? Even as a three layer cake, the cake recipe makes pretty tall (think: 1.5- to 2-inch tall) cakes. So if you divide that amount of batter between just two pans, those layers will probably be something like 2.5 to 3 inches tall! You’d need to make sure your pan has at least 3- (or even 4-) inch tall sides, and you’d likely to have to increase the recipe’s Bake Time, too.
If you’re looking for a two-layer chocolate cake, I recommend my take on Hershey’s Perfectly Chocolate Cake. Although it’s written as a three-layer recipe, I also include instructions on how to bake it in two 8- or 9-inch round cake pans. Alternatively, Weeknight Baking , my cookbook, has a recipe for a two-layer, 8-inch chocolate cake that’s very similar to this chocolate birthday cake!
That bumpy top usually means that the cake batter was undermixed! After mixing together the batter, you will then pour a generous amount of coffee into it. If this coffee isn’t mixed into the batter properly, it will separate from the rest of the batter, bubble up and cause that texture on the cakes.
Don’t worry about it too much—the cakes will still be edible, and you can level off that part of the cakes. But if you plan on making this recipe again, be sure to follow the recipe’s instructions to mix the batter for at least 2 to 3 minutes after adding the coffee.
Ah yes—the chocolate cake has a REALLY soft crumb. It can be hard to frost, even if you waited for the cakes to cool to room temperature completely.
If you want to make your life easier, I recommend tightly wrapping the cooled cakes in plastic wrap. Freeze for at least 20 minutes, then assemble and frost the frozen cakes. Freezing helps provide structure to the cakes and will help keep crumbs from getting into your frosting.
If you like the sound of freezing the cakes beforehand, be sure to check out the next section! There, I recommend making the cakes a day ahead of the frosting and assembly to make your life easier.
In general, I don’t make a layer cake recipe all in one day. Why? Layer cake recipes usually consist of many components and “mini recipes” within the recipe. To wit—at a minimum you usually need to make a recipe for a cake, then a recipe for a frosting. To add insult to injury, the layer cakes need to be cooled to the right temperature before assembling the cake (which is another recipe in itself). That’s basically three recipes all in one day, turning this cake into an all-day affair in the kitchen!
So what do I do? I break up the overall recipe over a series of a few days, making some components a few days ahead of assembling the cake. For this chocolate birthday cake recipe, I recommend the following schedule:
Follow the recipe instructions to make the chocolate cake layers and cool them.
Once the chocolate layers are cool, individually wrap each cake in two layers of plastic wrap. Freeze overnight.
Note that the layers can be made well in advance of the rest of the cake. The layers freeze well for up to 3 months.
Follow the recipe instructions to make the chocolate cream cheese frosting. Once ready, assemble the chocolate birthday cake.
For best results, slightly thaw both the chocolate cake layers before assembling the cake. Simply unwrap the cakes and set them on the counter at room temperature 20 minutes before assembling the cake.
If you fail to thaw them slightly, water will bead through the frosting as the cakes thaw. A quick 15- to 20 minute thaw beforehand is all you need to prevent this issue!
The assembled chocolate birthday cake can be stored at room temperature, under a cake dome or a large bowl turned upside down, for up to 1 day. Press a sheet of plastic wrap against any cut surfaces to prevent the cake from drying out. After that, cover the entire cake loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 3 days.
Sadly, no. The cake batter uses baking soda to leaven the cake. Baking soda reacts immediately with other ingredients in the batter to create bubbles that get trapped in the cake batter. These bubbles then rise up in the oven to give the cake rise and create its texture. If you let the batter sit for too long, these bubbles will pop and dissolve, leaving you with a flat cake.
Yes! You can freeze the cake in the following ways:
Follow the recipe instructions for making and baking the chocolate cake layers. Once the layers have cooled, tightly wrap each cake layer in its own individual sheet of plastic wrap. Freeze for up to 3 months. To use in the recipe, there’s no need to thaw the cakes! Simply set the cake layers out on the counter 20 minutes before assembling the cake. Use in the recipe as directed.
You can also freeze the chocolate cream cheese frosting. Follow the recipe instructions to make the frosting. Transfer to a ziptop bag and squeeze any extra air out of the bag. Freeze for up to 3 months. To use in this recipe, transfer to the refrigerator to thaw overnight the day before assembling the cake. Then, thaw at room temperature to soften. Beat on medium-high in a stand mixer for 2 to 3 minutes to make it creamy again. Use in the recipe as directed.
Tightly wrap any leftover slices of cake in plastic wrap and freeze for up to 3 months. To serve, transfer to the refrigerator to thaw overnight. Rewarm for 10 to 20 second intervals in the microwave until room temperature.
And if you STILL find yourself with too much, you can always freeze the leftovers for another baking project. The frosting will keep in the freezer for up to 3 months after making.
That being said, DON’T apply this advice to other recipes beyond American buttercream . I still encourage you to sift these ingredients (ESPECIALLY if they look really lumpy) when making baked goods with delicate crumbs like angel food cake, or even the chocolate cake for this birthday cake recipe. You’ll also need to sift confectioners’ sugar when making royal icing.
yield: 1 3-layer, 8-inch cake
Prep Time: 10 mins
Work Time: 50 mins
Bake Time: 35 mins
First, make the chocolate cakes. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Generously spray three 8-inch cake pans with cooking spray and line the bottom of each with a parchment paper circle. Spray the parchment, too.
Mix the dry ingredients. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.
Whisk the wet ingredients, then mix in the dry ingredients and coffee. In a large bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, oil, eggs, and vanilla. Gradually whisk in the dry ingredients until just combined. Slowly pour in the coffee. The batter will be fairly runny; use a rubber spatula to scrape down the bottom and sides of the bowl. Use the rubber spatula to finish mixing until smooth and well combined, 2 to 3 minutes more.
Divide the cake batter between the pans. Divide the batter evenly between the pans; if using a digital scale to measure out layers, note that this recipe makes around 72 ounces (2041 grams) of batter—pour 24 ounces (680 grams) of batter into each cake pan.
Bake and cool the cakes. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes. When done, the top of the cake should bounce back when gently pressed and a skewer inserted into the center of the cake should come out with a few crumbs attached. Cool completely in the pans on a wire rack before frosting.
Make the frosting. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the butter, cream cheese, and vanilla. Beat on medium-low until soft and creamy, about 1 minute. Scrape down the bottom and sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.
With the mixer on low, add the cocoa powder and corn syrup. Beat on medium until combined.
Scrape down the bottom and sides of the bowl. With the mixer on low, gradually add the confectioners' sugar and salt. Beat until combined, then add the milk and beat until just incorporated.
Scrape down the bottom and sides of the bowl once more, then beat on medium-high until the frosting is creamy and smooth, 2 to 3 minutes. Use immediately.
Prep the cake layers for assembly. If necessary, level the top of the cakes. Place one of the cake layers on a cake board or serving platter in the center of a rotating cake stand. This will be the first layer of the cake.
Build the layers. Use a rubber spatula or cookie dough scoop to drop a slightly heaping ½ cup of the frosting in the middle of the first cake layer. Use an offset spatula to spread it evenly all over the top, just like you would spread butter on toast.
Place the second cake on top of this frosting, stacking it evenly on top of the first layer. Use the rubber spatula or cookie dough scoop to drop another ½ cup of the frosting in the middle of this cake layer. Spread it evenly all over the top.
Finally, place the third cake on top of this layer, stacking it evenly on top of the first two cakes.
Next, crumb coat the cake. Use the offset spatula to cover the surface of the entire layer cake with a thin layer of frosting. Use just enough frosting to cover the entire cake completely. Refrigerate, uncovered, for 10 to 15 minutes to stiffen and "set" the frosting.
After the crumb coat sets, finish frosting the cake. Transfer about ¼ to ⅓ cup of the remaining frosting to a piping bag fitted with a star tip. Use the offset spatula to cover the cake with the remaining frosting. Once the cake is completely covered, hold the twines of a fork against the frosting as you rotate the cake stand to smoothen it. Alternatively, you can use the offset spatula to create swirls or patterned lines in the frosting.
Decorate the cake. Use the piping bag to pipe a border around the top edge of the cake—doing so results in an empty circle in the middle of the frosting. Fill the circle with sprinkles.
Serve and store. Serve immediately. The assembled chocolate birthday cake can be stored at room temperature, under a cake dome or a large bowl turned upside down, for up to 1 day. Press a sheet of plastic wrap against any cut surfaces to prevent the cake from drying out. After that, cover the entire cake loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 3 days.
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Over the past several years of running Hummingbird High, I kept a crucial aspect of my life hidden from my readers: I had a full-time, extremely demanding job in the tech world. In my debut cookbook, Weeknight Baking, I finally reveal the secrets to baking delicious desserts on a tight schedule.