Classic Birthday Cake


Cake Magic!

Published by Workman Publishing Company

This image courtesy of Ken Carlson

Makes1 one 8- or 9-inch two-layer cake

Cooking MethodBaking



Total TimeUnder 2 Hours

Make Ahead RecipeYes

Kid FriendlyYes


Recipe CourseDessert

Type of DishCake


  • For the Cake:
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon table salt (see Note)
  • 3/4 cup full-fat plain yogurt (preferably not Greek yogurt)
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled, or 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • For the Syrup:
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract, or the seeds scraped from 1 split vanilla bean
  • For the Frosting:
  • 1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 4 cups (16-ounce box) confectioners’ sugar
  • 4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled


To Make the Cake

  1. Place all of the dry ingredients in a large bowl and whisk together well to combine.

  2. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter the bottom and side of the pan(s). Dust with flour to coat, then invert and tap out any excess. (If making cupcakes, use liners instead of greasing and coating the tins.)

  3. Place the cake mix in a large bowl. Stir in the yogurt, butter, water, vanilla, and eggs until moistened and no lumps remain (be careful not to overmix). Divide the batter between the prepared pans.

  4. Bake until the layers are domed and golden brown, and a few moist crumbs cling to a skewer inserted in the center of the cake, 35 to 40 minutes (40 to 50 minutes for a Bundt, 25 to 30 minutes for a 13 by 9-inch cake, and 20 to 25 minutes for cupcakes). (At this point, coat the layers with syrup and let them cool completely in the pans.)

To Make the Syrup

Combine the sugar, water, and salt in a small saucepan, bring to a boil over medium-high heat, and boil for about 5 minutes. Stir to dissolve the sugar, then stir in the vanilla and remove from the heat. Set aside to cool. Use the syrup warm or let it stand, covered, until it reaches room temperature.

To Make the Frosting

Combine the butter, unsweetened cocoa powder, salt, and 2 cups of the sugar in a large bowl and beat with an electric mixer on low speed until incorporated, about 1 minute. Add the remaining sugar and beat on medium speed until the frosting is pale and no longer grainy, about 2 minutes. In a slow, steady stream, drizzle in the melted chocolate and beat until the frosting is very light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.


  1. It’s important to use table salt in the cake mix; other types will eventually settle out of the mix.

  2. Vanilla Syrup will keep, in an airtight container in the refrigerator, for up to 1 week. Reheat it in a small saucepan over low heat before using.

  3. Bittersweet Chocolate Frosting will keep, in an airtight container in the refrigerator, for 1 week. Before using, bring it back to room temperature and stir it vigorously or beat it again for best results.

Cake Variations

  1. Buttermilk Cake: Substitute buttermilk for the yogurt.

  2. Vanilla Cinnamon Cake: Whisk 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon into the cake mix before adding the remaining ingredients.

  3. Confetti Cake: Stir 1/2 cup rainbow sprinkles into the batter just before pouring it into the pans.

  4. Pineapple Upside-Down Cake: Toss together 2 cups chopped fresh pineapple and 1/2 cup sugar in a small bowl. Divide the fruit mixture between the prepared pans, along with any accumulated juices. Prepare the batter and pour it over the fruit.

  5. Vanilla–Olive Oil Cake: Substitute olive oil for the melted butter.

  6. Gluten-Free Vanilla Cake: Dust the pan(s) with white rice flour. Use Gluten-Free Cake Magic! Cake Mix for the cake mix.

  7. Vegan Vanilla Cake: Grease the pan(s) with non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening and dust with flour. Whisk together the dry ingredients as directed. In a blender, combine 4 ounces firm tofu (crumbled and packed into 1/2 cup), 1 1/2 cups water, 1 teaspoon cider vinegar or distilled white vinegar, 1 cup vegetable oil (instead of the melted butter), and vanilla. Blend until smooth and the texture of heavy cream, 30 seconds to 1 minute. (Omit the yogurt, eggs, and 3/4 cup water.) Add the tofu mixture to the dry ingredients in Step 2 and proceed as directed.

Syrup Variations

  1. Chocolate Syrup: Substitute 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder for the vanilla.

  2. Maple Syrup: Reduce the sugar to 1/3 cup and substitute 1/4 cup maple syrup for the vanilla.

Frosting Variations

  1. Gluten-Free Bittersweet Chocolate Frosting: Use certified gluten-free chocolate.

  2. Vegan Bittersweet Chocolate Frosting: Substitute 1 1/2 cups non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening for the butter.

  3. Bittersweet Chocolate Glaze for Bundt Cakes: Combine 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder, a pinch of salt, and 2 cups confectioners’ sugar in a medium-size saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil and let boil, without stirring, 1 minute. Remove from the heat, add 2 ounces chopped unsweetened chocolate, and stir until melted.

  4. Bittersweet Chocolate Frosting for Sheet Cakes: Use 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature; 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder; a pinch of salt; 2 cups confectioners’ sugar; and 2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled. Proceed as directed in the original recipe.

  5. Food styled by Jennifer Peterson.


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