9 Cake, Filling, and Frosting Recipes to Help You Build Your Perfect Birthday Cake

Because homemade birthday cake is the best birthday cake
October 25, 2019 Updated: October 25, 2019

Following is a selection of different recipes for popular layer cakes, fillings, and frostings. Mix and match as you wish.

Red Velvet Cake

This cake has been my birthday favorite for more years than I care to discuss.

To make a five-layer red-and-white cake, divide 3/4 of the recipe among the three pans and pour the remaining batter into a small loaf or cupcake pan for another use. (Yes, “another use” means that you should dab leftover frosting on top and sample the cake to make sure it’s “good enough” for your guests.) 

Makes one three-layer 9-inch cake

  • 1/2 cup shortening
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups cake flour, sifted
  • 1 tablespoon cocoa
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 2 ounces liquid red food coloring
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine the shortening, sugar, and eggs in a large bowl. Beat on medium speed until light and creamy. Combine the cake flour and cocoa in another bowl. Add to the egg mixture, alternating with the buttermilk, beating well after each addition.

Add the almond extract and food coloring. Beat well. Dissolve the baking soda in the vinegar and add to the mixture. Stir until combined. 

Divide the batter between three buttered or sprayed 9-inch cake pans. Bake 30 minutes, or until a tester inserted in the center of a layer comes out clean. Set baked layers aside, preferably on wire racks, to cool.

Place one completely cooled cake layer on a cake plate and top with coconut filling (recipe follows). Top with another layer, followed by another portion of coconut filling and the final layer. Frost the cake with either vanilla buttercream or cream cheese frosting.

yellow cake with vanilla frosting
Yellow cake with vanilla frosting. (Shutterstock)

Basic 1, 2, 3, 4 Cake 

This recipe for rich, from-scratch yellow cake figures prominently in my childhood; however, the truth is that the recipe can be found on the box of Swans Down Cake Flour. When you’re in a hurry, yellow layers from a cake mix work just fine. But if you have a moment to spare, this recipe makes a beautiful, fine-textured, balanced cake. 

This makes a three-layer 9-inch cake. To use as two alternating layers for a five-layer cake, either cut the recipe in half and divide over two pans, or use excess batter for cupcakes. For thin layers, reduce the baking time.

Makes one three-layer 9-inch cake

  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 3 cups cake flour
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 cup milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a large mixing bowl, combine butter and sugar. Beat on medium speed until well blended. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat after each addition. Continue beating at least 10 minutes. Add vanilla and almond extracts.

Sift the cake flour and baking powder together. Add dry mixture to the creamed mixture in stages, alternating with the milk. Mix until smooth. 

Divide the batter over three buttered or sprayed 9-inch cake pans. Bake for 25–30 minutes or until a tester comes out clean. Place layers on racks to cool completely. 

Place one completely cooled cake layer on a cake plate and top with your preferred filling. Top with another layer, followed by another portion of filling and the final layer. Frost the cake with either vanilla or chocolate buttercream or cream cheese frosting.

Chocolate food devil's cake
Devil’s food cake. (Shutterstock)

Devil’s Food Cake

The counterpart to light and airy Angel Food Cake, this rich cake is a favorite of chocolate lovers. It’s a bit darker than ordinary chocolate cake, and much denser than German chocolate layers. Some cooks fill and frost these cakes with fluffy white frosting for contrast, while others embrace the all-chocolate-all-the-time effect by applying a fudgy chocolate filling and frosting. 

Makes one three-layer 9-inch cake

  • 3/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 scant cup cocoa powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 cup boiling water or hot coffee

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a large bowl, combine butter, oil, eggs, and egg yolk. Beat on medium speed until thickened. Add sugar and vanilla and beat until mixture is fluffy. 

Mix together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl. Whisk until combined and lump-free. Add dry mixture to creamed mixture in three stages, alternating with sour cream. Beat thoroughly, then continue beating on low speed and slowly add boiling water or coffee while the mixer is running.

Pour the mixture into three buttered or sprayed 9-inch cake pans. Bake for 30–35 minutes or until a tester comes out clean. Remove from oven and place on racks to cool.

Place one completely cooled cake layer on a cake plate and top with your preferred filling. Top with another layer, followed by another portion of filling and the final layer. Frost the cake with either vanilla or chocolate buttercream or cream cheese frosting.

German chocolate cake
German chocolate cake. (Shutterstock)

Fillings

Many people just make extra frosting and let the frosting do double duty as a cake filling. This approach saves time and, well, very few people complain about too much buttercream. But if you enjoy a more complex cake experience, here are three filling recipes to try.

Coconut-Pecan Filling 

This is the traditional German chocolate cake filling. For a coconut filling, omit the pecans and add another cup of shredded coconut.

  • 1 cup evaporated milk
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup vanilla
  • 1 2/3 cups shredded coconut
  • 1 cup chopped pecans

In a saucepan, combine milk, sugar, egg yolks, and butter. Whisk together until well blended. Cook over medium heat until thickened, about 12–15 minutes, stirring often. Stir in coconut and pecans. Remove from heat. 

Cool, stirring occasionally. Use to fill your favorite cake.

Lemon Filling 

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 2 egg yolks, beaten
  • 4 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon butter

Combine sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a heavy saucepan. Whisk in water, egg yolks, and lemon juice. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thick and bubbly, about three minutes. Stir in lemon zest and butter. Remove from heat. 

Cool completely and spread between cake layers.

Easy Chocolate Fudge Filling

  • 1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine chips and condensed milk in a saucepan. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring, until mixture is bubbly and all the chips are melted. Add vanilla and remove from heat. 

Cool completely and spread between cake layers.

Variations: Substitute some of the semi-sweet chocolate chips with milk chocolate or peanut butter chips, or use other flavorings or liqueurs in place of the vanilla extract. You can also add 1/2 teaspoon instant espresso powder to make a mocha fudge, or stir in chopped nuts.

Frostings

Some folks will tell you that cake is merely the conduit by which it’s socially acceptable to gorge on frosting. Whether you call it frosting or icing, there’s no denying the stuff is enticing. 

Most North American home cooks opt for a simple, uncooked buttercream frosting, which can be colored and flavored to taste. European buttercreams offer less sugar and more richness, including eggs and a process that involves using a double boiler. There are also recipes that try to approximate whipped cream, but add other ingredients for stability. Here are few options, but by all means experiment.

Fluffy American Buttercream

  • 1 cup softened butter
  • 1 16-ounce box confectioners’ sugar, sifted
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons half-and-half
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

In a large bowl, beat butter at medium speed until light and fluffy. Add confectioners’ sugar, a little at a time, beating to incorporate after each addition. Add one tablespoon of half-and-half and vanilla. Mix well. If mixture is desired consistency, use to frost cakes or cupcakes. If it seems stiff, beat in remaining half-and-half.

Variations: To make chocolate buttercream, simply add 1/2 cup cocoa powder to the confectioners’ sugar when sifting. Increase the half-and-half (adding a tablespoon at a time) to get the right consistency.

To make marshmallow buttercream, skip the half-and-half and add a 7-ounce container of marshmallow fluff to the butter and confectioners’ sugar. 

Cream Cheese Frosting

  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1 8-ounce brick cream cheese, softened
  • 1 16-ounce box confectioners’ sugar, sifted
  • 1 tablespoon half-and-half
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla

In a large bowl, beat butter and cream cheese at medium speed until light and fluffy. Add confectioners’ sugar, a little at a time, beating to incorporate after each addition. Add half-and-half and vanilla. Mix well. Cream cheese frosting is excellent on red velvet cake, chocolate cakes and carrot cake.

Variations: For a more delicate frosting, substitute mascarpone cheese for the cream cheese and flavor with a nut or fruit-based liqueur.

Seven-Minute Icing

This frosting goes very well with a basic yellow or white layer cake with lemon filling.

  • 2 egg whites
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 5 tablespoons cold water
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract

Place egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar, water, and salt in the top of a double boiler. With mixer on medium-low speed, beat briefly. Bring water in the lower half of a double boiler to a boil. (Make sure the water will not touch the bottom of the top insert.) Place the top of the double boiler over the simmering water and beat continually on high speed for seven minutes or until stiff peaks form. Add vanilla and remove from heat. 

Use immediately to frost cake. As the frosting cools, it hardens slightly. 

All recipes by Belinda Hulin Crissman

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