Vanilla Birthday Cake with Old-Fashioned Vanilla Buttercream

vanilla-birthday-cake

My daughter is turning eight years old this week, and for months she’s been begging me for two things: a puppy and her favorite vanilla birthday cake. The puppy is definitely not going to happen — I already have my hands full with this big guy.

But the cake’s easy. I’ve made this simple vanilla cake every year on her birthday since she was two. The cake recipe is adapted from one of my favorite baking books, Perfect Cakes by Nick Malgieri, and the frosting recipe was handed down to me from my great-grandmother.

I know baking a cake from scratch can be intimidating, and I won’t lie: it can be tricky. But it doesn’t have to be. The key – as long as you have a solid recipe like this one – is to follow the instructions carefully. If the recipe says the eggs should be at room temperature, make sure they are; if the recipe calls for adding flour in four separate additions and scraping down the bowl in between, make sure you do it. Without getting into the science of it — which, in all honesty, makes my head spin — I can tell you that all these little steps are important to ensure your cake bakes up tender and delicious. Once you get the hang of it, it’s easy and a good homemade cake puts all those boxed mixes and canned frostings to shame.

To begin, whisk the dry ingredients together in a bowl.

Next, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk together the egg whites and milk. Be sure the eggs are at room temperature, otherwise your batter may curdle. To warm them up quickly, place them in a bowl of hot water before cracking them.

When the butter and sugar are creamed, beat in the vanilla and almond extract, then add one-quarter of the flour mixture and beat on low speed.

Then add one-third of the milk mixture.

Continue alternating adding the flour and milk mixtures, scraping down the bowl as necessary, then pour the batter into the prepared cake pans and smooth the tops. Note that this cake can be made in either 8 or 9-inch cake pans; the former will be higher and the latter will flatter.

Bake the layers for 30-35 minutes, until they are well risen and firm. Cool the layers in the pans for five minutes, then unmold onto racks to finish cooling.

While the cake cools, make the frosting. It’s easy: just cream the butter and cream cheese together, then add the vanilla and confectioners’ sugar and beat until smooth.

When the layers are cool, frost the cake.

You can spread the frosting smooth, or swirl it casually with a butter knife like I do. Since it’s an all white cake, I like to scatter some festive nonpareils or confetti sprinkles on top for color. For a change, if you like coconut, try topping the cake with heaps of shredded sweetened coconut — it’s amazing.

That’s all there is to it. Enjoy!

Vanilla Birthday Cake with Old-Fashioned Vanilla Buttercream

Print Recipe
Servings: Makes one 8-inch layer cake, or 24 cupcakes
Total Time: 1 Hour

Ingredients

For the Cake Layers

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, spooned into measuring cup and leveled-off with back edge of knife
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 12 tablespoons (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 6 large egg whites, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup whole milk, at room temperature
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract

For the Buttercream

  • 12 tablespoons (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup plus one tablespoon cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 6 cups confectioners' sugar
  • 3 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • Pinch salt

Instructions

For the Cake

  1. Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Spray two 8 or 9-inch cake pans with nonstick cooking spray (note: 8-inch cake pans will give you a much higher cake). Cut two 8 or 9-inch rounds of parchment or wax paper and line the bottom of each pan; spray the paper with nonstick spray. (To measure the parchment paper, just trace the bottom of the pan.)
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.
  3. Place the butter and sugar in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium speed for about 5 minutes, or until very soft and light. Beat in the vanilla and almond extracts.
  4. Meanwhile, whisk together the egg whites and milk by hand in a medium bowl until just combined.
  5. Reduce the mixer speed to low and beat in one-quarter of the flour mixture, then one-third of the milk mixture, stopping and scraping down the bowl and beater after each addition. Beat in another quarter of the flour, then another third of the milk mixture. Scrape again. Repeat with another quarter of the flour and the remaining milk mixture; scrape. Finally, beat in the remaining flour mixture.
  6. Scrape the bowl with a large rubber spatula. Don't worry if the the batter looks a little grainy. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pans and smooth the tops.
  7. Bake the cakes for 30-35 minutes, until they are well risen and firm and a toothpick inserted into the center emerges clean. Cool the cakes in the pans on rack for 5 minutes, then unmold onto rack to finish cooling right side up (keep parchment paper underneath cake layers so they don't stick to rack).

For the Vanilla Buttercream

  1. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and cream cheese until creamy and well combined.
  2. Gradually add the confectioners' sugar, then beat in the vanilla and salt. If the frosting is too thick, add 1-2 tablespoons of milk or cream.
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  • Liz Castellano

    This cake sounds amazing. My daughters Birthday is coming up and I will try this recipe. I would like to try this with a chocolate frosting in place of the vanilla frosting since my daughter like this better. Do you have a chocolate frosting recipe I can use in place of the vanilla?

    • Jenn

      Hi Liz, Here’s my favorite foolproof chocolate frosting (from Cook’s Illustrated):

      Ingredients

      20 tablespoons (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter , softened but still cool
      1 cup confectioners’ sugar
      3/4 cup dutch processed cocoa powder
      Pinch salt
      3/4 cup light corn syrup
      1 teaspoon vanilla extract
      8 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips, chopped into small pieces, melted and slightly cooled*

      *The easiest way to melt chocolate is in the microwave, but you have to be careful not to scorch it. Place chopped chocolate in microwave-safe bowl, and cook in 20 second intervals, stopping to stir in between each bout of heat, until chocolate is melted.

      Directions

      In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment, mix butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt until smooth, about 30 seconds. Add corn syrup and vanilla and mix until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Scrape sides of bowl, then add chocolate and pulse until smooth and creamy, 10 to 15 seconds. Set aside until ready to frost cake.

      • Liz Castellano

        Thank you. I will give this a try.

  • Cathy Jennings

    2 questions.
    1.) How many ounces of cream cheese is 9 Tbsps?
    2.) Can I substitute evaporated milk for whole milk?

    • Jenn

      Hi Cathy, Not sure exactly how many ounces but I’m guessing a little over 4 ounces — it’s 1/2 cup plus one tablespoon, so the small 8 oz. container should be enough. Definitely do not use evaporated milk — if necessary, you can substitute low fat milk, but the cake won’t be as moist.

  • Hope

    I cannot wait to make this!

    I don’t have a stand mixer, so no paddle attachment! Will this cake still come out okay if I use my handy dandy 20-year-old electric mixer?

    • Jenn

      Hope, it should work just fine – just up the speed on your mixer as it isn’t as powerful as a stand mixer.

  • Berit

    Wonderful! My Mom just told me how much she likes white cakes and this will be perfect for 81st Birthday celebration next week. Thanks

  • Beautiful cake and happy birthday to your daughter. My son has always requested a vanilla/vanilla birthday cake, too. I’m going to save your recipe and bake it up for his next one!

  • This sounds gorgeously simple! I usually pick chocolate cake when I have a choice, but it’s great to have options when the mood strikes.

  • Nancy

    There is a very easy chocolate frosting recipe on the back of the Hershey’s Cocoa can that I have been using for many years. Delicious!

  • Liz

    Cake looks amazing! Your mom is the best baker, happy b-day! I am going to try to bake this cake because I love cakes for any days.
    I was wondering, I would like to use this recipe for cup cakes. Would it work? Or how long in the oven to bake?

    Thanks Jenn

    • Jenn

      Hi Liz, I’ve used this recipe many times for cupcakes. Bake at 350 for 18-20 minutes, and be sure to spray the paper liners w/ nonstick cooking spray. Makes 24. Hope you enjoy!

  • Liz

    What a lovely posting: wonderful photos of your beautiful family, the dog, and the most delicious looking cake! No birthdays coming up, but I will have to try that recipe very soon. PS/ You are creating such special memories for your children. What a great mom!

  • Karen

    Jennifer, I have a technical question. I have a stand mixer and mainly use it to mix batter, as you do. I usually whip cream with my hand mixer. I noticed in your pictures when making your pumpkin spice cookies that you used your whisk attachment, and when you did the vanilla cake you used the paddle attachment. Besides whipping eggs or cream, how do you decide when the whisk attachment should be used on the stand mixer. I know this is a picky question. Perhaps it is the nature of the pumpkin cookie batter being more light and “cake like” that made the whisk attachment being doable. Thank you.

    • Jenn

      Hi Karen, You are very observant! In most cases, I use the paddle attachment and only use the whisk attachment for cream and eggs. For those pumpkin cookies, I actually used the whisk by accident. By the time I realized it, the batter was done so I figured I’d bake the cookies and see how they came out. They were perfect so I left the photos and recipe as is. It worked because the batter was very light and cake-like; most cookie doughs would get stuck in the whisk. That said, I have also made those pumpkin cookies using the paddle attachment and it works just as well.

  • Dawn

    I made the cupcakes yesterday for no particular reason and they are out of this world! My dessert of choice is typically something chocolate, but this is worth every non-chocolate bite. The cake and frosting by themselves are truly awesome; put them together and they are magical. Thanks so much.

  • Elke

    What’s a paddle attachment? The spiral for heavy dough?

    • Jenn

      The paddle attachment is the flat beater with a triangular shape.

  • Carmen

    I just made this for my son’s 5th birthday party and everyone really liked it. I did have a lot more frosting than needed, but that’s OK.

  • Lori

    Hi Jennifer,
    I just made your cake and came out delicious. I was wondering how long the frosting can stay outside of the refrigerator? I would like to serve the cupcakes tomorrow for Hanukkah.

    Also curious if there is an easier way to measure the confectioners sugar, like is it 2 boxes? I kind of winged it but it came out fine.

    I dipped the frosting in coconut and they look really cute. Thanks for the great website!

    • Jenn

      Hi Lori, So glad you enjoyed! I think the frosting is about a box and a half, but it’s fine to wing it since it really is a matter of taste as to how sweet and thick you want it. As for refrigeration, it’s fine to leave it out for several days. If you want to refrigerate, that’s fine too; just be sure to take them out in time to warm up before serving.

      • Erin

        Hi – I want to use this recipe to make a little smash cake for my daughter’s first birthday. If I’m using a six-inch cake pan, what do you recommend for baking time? Also, what do you recommend for cupcakes? I will make some of those for our guests. Thank you!

        • Jenn

          Hi Erin, I had to look up “smash” cake; never heard of it but what a cute idea! I’d start checking the cake at about 20 minutes and see from there. As for cupcakes, bake them at 350 for 18-20 minutes, and be sure to spray the paper liners w/ nonstick cooking spray (makes 24).

  • ariel

    this turned out perfectly…light, fluffy, moist, and soft but still seems to have a certain sturdiness and most of all delicious. everything a good cake should be. the only thing i really changed was used vanilla bean and cut back on the almond extract (only used 2-3 drops). i frosted mine with swiss meringue buttercream.

  • Liesel

    Hi, Jenn: I plan to make this cake as cupcakes this afternoon. Just wondering what suggestions you have for using up the leftover egg yolks?

    • Jenn

      Hi Liesel, Save them for Creme Anglaise (link to foodandwine.com). I’m posting Molten Chocolate Cakes this coming week, which would be perfect with it.

      • Liesel

        Follow-up: Thank you for the suggestion to make creme anglaise with the leftover yolks. ( I ended up making some lemon curd to go with another dessert., but will try the creme when I make your molten chocolate cakes!!) The cupcakes turned out beautifully and the frosting is the perfect complement. Since I was baking for a “winter” party I decorated with white pearly sprinkles – love the white on white effect. Will try this recipe again as a whole cake. Thanks, Jenn.

        • Jenn

          Sounds pretty, Liesel. So glad you enjoyed the cupcakes!

  • Helen

    Do you have to have a mixer?

    • Jenn

      Hi Helen, You at least need a hand-held electric mixer — just increase the speed a bit as it’s not as powerful as the stand mixer.

  • Susan

    Hi! The cake look so scrumptious! I’m definitely going to try and bake this for my mum (: As I’m a very unexperienced baker, may I ask what “spooned into measuring cup and leveled-off with back edge of knifed” mean?

    • Jenn

      Hi Susan, Of course! It’s just the proper way to measure flour — you spoon it into a measuring cup (instead of scooping it) until it is overflowing, then you level it off with a straight edge. I know it seems nit picky but it actually makes a big difference. You get a lot more flour in the measuring cup by scooping it, and this would make the cake dry.

  • Amy

    I made these as cupcakes for my son’s second birthday. They were great! Thanks!

  • carolyn

    Jenn,

    We have a tree nut allergy in our house. I’m assuming you can make the cake without the almond extract but please confirm. Is there something else that should be substituted instead of the almond extract? Thanks.

    • Jenn

      Hi Carolyn, It is totally fine to leave it out. You can use lemon extract instead if you like.

  • Natasha

    Hi I bought a 24 cm springform pan to bake this recipe in. Will that work with this batter? Do you have any tips? Thank you! The cake looks so good, I will be baking it for my sons 3rd birthday :)

    • Jenn

      Hi Natasha, I believe that’s 9 inches, so you’ll definitely need two pans. If you pour all the batter in one pan, it will not bake properly and may overflow and make a big mess in your oven.

  • MichelleM

    I made this for my dad’s birthday yesterday and it was SO YUMMY!!! Everyone loved it! The cake was moist and the frosting was amazing! I will be using that frosting recipe a lot. Thank you so much for sharing! This will be my go-to birthday cake recipe for sure. :)

  • Natalie B

    Hi there, are the measurements Australian Metric or US Metric? Thanks

    • Jenn

      US

  • Dina

    Hi ! Silly question but I’m wondering if the frosting in the middle is the same as the one on the outside of the cake? And also will the frosting work if I want to pipe it? I really want to make a rose swirl cake but not sure if the frosting will pipe well :)

    • Jenn

      Hi Dina, Yes the frosting is the same in the middle and on the outside. It’s not a great frosting for piping as it’s pretty soft…it may work but you’ll have to make sure it’s cool.

  • Jackie

    Hi I would love to make the white birthday cake with almond for myy daughter’s birthday Sunday. Can I use food coloring to color the cake or does it need to stay white?
    Thank you

    • Jenn

      Hi Jackie, It’s fine to use food coloring.

  • Jackie

    If I use food coloring do I still need to use egg whites only?

    • Jenn

      Hi Jackie, Yes, it shouldn’t make a difference.

  • Henry

    Hi Jenn, I just wanted to knoe if you could just grease the baking pan with magarine anf flour instead of using the parchment paper and non-stick cooking spray.
    Thanks

    • Jenn

      Hi Henry,To be honest I’ve never tried it but this is a delicate cake so I’d stick with the parchment. I always err on the side of caution with cakes anyway…Nothing worse than putting all that effort in only to have the cake fall apart when you release it from the pan. Hope that helps!

  • Ali

    As an avid baker, I have been searching for a white cake recipe that is light, moist and flavorful. After years of searching, I have found it! I made this for my daughter’s 10th birthday party, and it was amazing. Thank you, Jenn (and Yummly) for this perfect recipe that will be my new go to!

  • Kayla

    I was wondering if you could incorporate sour cream into this recipe? Thanks.

    • Jenn

      I’m afraid not, Kayla. Sorry!

  • Liz

    This cake is as delicious as it is beautiful. I made it for my daughter’s bridal shower and decorated it with white spray roses. Everyone LOVED the cake. I baked it again recently, just because :), and it is a wonderful recipe. Thanks, Jenn!

  • Alexia

    How long would you cook these if making cupcakes? Thanks!

    • Jenn

      Alexia, Bake cupcakes at 350 for 18-20 minutes, and be sure to spray the paper liners w/ nonstick cooking spray. Makes 24. Hope you enjoy!

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