Birthday Cake Recipe & Buttercream Icing Notes

Fuzz had a happy birthday, but her cake wasn’t the hit I’d hoped it would be. Fuzz ate two bites, while her friend took one bite and said she didn’t like it. Next time, I’m buying bakery cupcakes! Or maybe that’s the problem. Maybe kids are so used to packaged bakery items that they don’t appreciate homemade. The adults loved the cake. I used a recipe recommended by Katy which I’ve pasted it below. It was tender, rich, and dense and pretty much everything I like in a chocolate cake.

cut birthday cake

Whole Birthday Cake

The icing, however, was a Swiss Meringue Buttercream and I’m not sure I’d use it on a chocolate layer cake again because while it was smooth, creamy, and light, it had a rich and slick buttery mouth-feel to it that I didn’t like. It was delicious, but too buttery and rich to be spread 1/2 inch thick over and in between layers of a cake. I think it would be great on cupcakes or used in small amounts, but the joke I had in my mind when I cut this cake was the one about having a cardiologist on speed dial.

But I learned something new. I’ve been resistant to making a true buttercream, but now I can say I’ve done it at least once. I think I’m going to devotes some time to learning how to make really good vanilla/butter icing.

Here are some notes from my personal home schooling on the subject.

American Buttercream – Usually made with butter and/or shortening, powdered sugar, vanilla and a little milk. I don’t like it because it tastes too starchy, but I do use it for decorating. The green icing on my cake is American Buttercream.

Swiss Meringue Buttercream – Egg whites and sugar are whisked over a bowl of water until sugar is dissolved (140-160). Mixture is beaten until it holds its shape, then butter and flavorings are slowly added and mixture is beaten until creamy and smooth.

Italian Meringue – Hot sugar syrup is slowly added to beaten egg whites. If you add butter, it becomes Italian Meringue Buttercream.

French Buttercream – Hot sugar syrup is slowly added to beaten whole eggs.

Seven Minute Icing – Egg whites and sugar beaten with a hand mixer in a bowl set over simmering water; slightly less dangerous to make in terms of syrup burns and very reliable. My grandmother’s favorite!

Boiled Icing – aka “Depression Icing”. Flour and milk are whisked together in a saucepan to make a thick paste. Paste is cooled, then whipped with shortening, granulated sugar and flavors. Must be beaten for a long time to dissolve sugar granules. This icing sounds gross, but it’s actually pretty good. It tastes like the inside of a Hostess cupcake. A mixture of butter and shortening can be used in place of all shortening.

UPDATE: I’m feeling a little better about the fact I don’t love Swiss Buttercream. I just checked Chery’s blog (Cupcake Bakeshop — About Frosting) and under the section on Buttercream, she mentions she doesn’t care for Swiss or Italian Buttercream because of the filmy quailty. I’m glad it’s not just me.

Very Good Chocolate Cake

1 cup boiling hot water
3/4 cup (75g) natural cocoa (Scharffen Berger)
2 cups (260g) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup (200g) superfine sugar**
1 cup (240g) golden brown sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cool room temp cool room temp
4 wholes eggs (large), cool room temp, lightly beaten cool room temp
3/4 cup (6 1/4oz) buttermilk, cool room temp cool room temp
2 teaspoons fancy vanilla extract
1 teaspoon chocolate extract (optional) optional

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line 2 9” pans with parchment.

Combine water and cocoa in a bowl and stir until smooth. Reserve. Sift together dry ingredients. Reserve. In large bowl of an electric mixer, cream butter and sugars. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Stir buttermilk into cocoa mixture. Add alternately with dry ingredients in 3 additions. Pour into pans. Bake about 25 minutes, until toothpick comes out barely clean.

**Grind granulated sugar in food processor to make superfine

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  1. says

    “Maybe kids are so used to pre-packaged bakery items that they don’t appreciate homemade.” I blame Sandra Lee for this one!!! 😉

  2. Sue says

    Fuzz did a great job decorating her cake!

    Too bad she didn’t like her b’day cake better. Maybe she was full, or maybe she was excited, or maybe she just didn’t want to sit and eat cake.

    I appreciate your comments about different frostings. I’m not much of a frosting fan myself, but I do love the chocolate fudge frosting that is with my go to cake in the reader’s favorites that you posted the link to.

    Today I’m going to make the beet cake. I have leftover beets from the Copy Cat Houston’s burgers, and we’re having company tomorrow, so there will people to eat it! I’m glad it doesn’t require frosting!

  3. says

    I wanted to make cute decorated cakes for my kids each year, until I realized it mostly got wasted. Now I will make cupcakes, which for some reason kids will eat, but they won’t eat a piece of cake. But our big b-day bash treat lately has been ice cream sundaes. We just let the kids pile on the toppings, (they LOVE sprinkles!)and they have fun and tend to eat the ice cream over cake. I think my kids like the idea of a cool decorated cake more than they like to eat it. My husband won’t eat cake at all, which means we end up with a whole cake for me. Not good. So we do the ice cream thing.
    Fuzz’ cake looks yummy to me!

  4. Sue says

    Hi Veggie Girl! Don’t blame Sandra Lee. ;-0 This is a problem that’s been a long time in the making. Long before Sandra Lee. She does perpetuate the phenomenon though. 🙁

  5. says

    How interesting that the kids didn’t like the cake – my husband and I were just discussing this today – many, many kids we’ve come across just don’t like cake. They either lick off the frosting, or take one/two bites and throw it away.

    I did a racetrack cake for a child’s birthday, and provided several dozen cookies on the side. What do you think disappeared first? Yep – all the cookies were gone.

    Many kids are so accustomed to store-bought they won’t eat anything else, but the adults in the group sure appreciate homemade!

  6. says

    VG,I like Sandra Lee! I actually like cake mix too — just doctored up a bit.

    Sue, I can’t wait to see your beet cake.

    Trace, thanks for the Smitten Kitchen link. Aside from quantity, the icing she made is almost identical to the one I made. It was good, just not my style. I guess I like a slightly sugary (but not cloying) whipped icing more than a super buttery slick icing.

    Katrina, Fuzz probably would have liked and ice cream cake better. We almost got one, actually.

    Megan, thanks! That made me feel a little better. At least my kid is not a freak ;). Well, not for that reason. Heh.

    The last cake I made that was really a huge hit with the under 10 crowd was this batch of cupcakes. It’s a doctored cake mix recipe.

    White Cupcakes Kids Love

    1 (18 oz) box white cake mix
    1 cup all purpose flour
    1 cup granulated sugar
    3/4 teaspoons salt
    1 1/3 cup water
    2 tablespoons vegetable oil
    1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
    1 cup sour cream
    4 large egg whites

    Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Line 2 (12 cup each) cupcake tins with paper liners.

    Whisk all dry ingredients together in a large mixing bowl.

    Add the remaining ingredients and beat on medium speed of an electric mixer for 2 minutes.

    Pour batter into cupcake tins and bake for 22 minutes or until cakes are set.

    Makes 24

  7. Sophia says

    Actually I think cake mix is part of the problem too. Cake mix makes cakes that are ‘lighter’ than homemade and a lot of kids are used to that too.
    Personally I find bakery frosting disgusting and plastic-y, but everyone else seems to love the stuff.
    Howver, do not give up hope! Among my friends (we’re all in our mid/late teens; another generation lost to commercial baking) almost everyone agrees that homemade cakes are better and prefer to make our own for birthdays.

    P.S. Anna- the Peanut Butter Pinwheels are cooling in the fridge and I should be baking them sometime this afternoon!

  8. Therese B. says


    Your cake looks DELISH!! From birthday party experiences I think the kids are so excited about the birthday party/presents/games that they forget about the cake. Those kids just get plum tuckerd out!
    Is this cake similar to the HERSHEY recipe on the cocoa can?
    Have you ever made the Hellman’s Mayo Cake?
    That is a good chocolate cake recipe!
    Yes…a cardiac “1” cup of mayo in it! But..we could make Paula Deen PROUD!!!

  9. says

    When I first made Swiss Meringue Buttercream, it was like a life-changing experience. I love it! I’ve only tried it on white cake though.

    What about the French Buttercream, huh? I bet that’s good, with the whole eggs. Maybe it’s really custardy.

  10. says

    Hi Anna! I think you’re right, kids must be used to cake mixes or from bakeries. I’m so glad I grew up on scratch cakes!
    My favourite buttercream is french style one, but with just yolks! It’s so rich, it’s almost like a extra light mousse! Swiss buttercream is also great but depending on the recipe when it gets hard in the fridge gets a soup kind of texture… Tell Fuzz she did a great job with the decorating!

  11. HeartofGlass says

    Alas, not liking cake was not a problem as a child for me–my mother was concerned that I liked cake too much!
    But most of my friends preferred candy–Sweetarts, wax paper dots, pixie sticks, Starbursts–and Rice Krispie treats–I think children tend to have a sweeter palate than adults and cake can have a more complex flavor than some other desserts.

    I adore the cake/icing combo to this day, but I’m not sure if I have ever had Swiss Buttercream, nor have I made it!

  12. says

    I just made white cupcakes! I wish I would have seen your recipe posted above (in the comment section) I would have loved to try it, maybe next time!
    Confession: I have never made a buttercream frosting recipe! I really should try!

  13. says

    Sorry that Fuzz and her friend weren’t fans of the cake. I’m with you on the buttercream…I’m not a big fan, though the last one that I made a TINY bit of I did like. I left you an award on my blog, so check it out.

  14. Accountant By Day says

    You know, I’ve just never had any luck with any of the egg white icings – which is funny because I like meringues and other fluffed egg white concoctions. Not that I have tried specifically the Swiss Meringue buttercream. When I was testing recipes for my wedding reception (we just did a simple dessert reception), one of the first things I tested out was a coconut cake with an egg white icing. I had the same problem as you – it had that sort of thick, slick feeling that just really turned out to be unappetizing to me. It might just be a personal taste thing – I considered the recipe a failure, but I took it to work and abandoned it in the breakroom and people there said they liked it. In fact, someone left a note saying they finished it off.

    I completely changed tacks and dumped both the cake and the frosting. I’m sorry to say, I wound up going with a doctored cake mix and it was well received by all.

    I also don’t care much for commercial icing, but I love that tacky pudding and cool whip icing. A while back I needed to take off some extra pounds, and since I have a tremendous sweet tooth, I decided I’d rather go with lighter versions of my beloved treats than go without. So I made that for my coconut cake with vanilla pudding mix, coconut milk, and Cool Whip. Then I pressed dried coconut into it. It was actually quite good – and for some reason a lot of people mistook the filling for being made of real whipped cream. I would never make that mistake (the real deal is far too good not to recognize), but it made me happy that someone else did!

  15. trojan says

    Hey Anna,

    I picked up some smaples of Alexandra’s Dream Cookies…OMG! Wow…they were a complete hit at our party too. Thanks for posting about another great homegrown Austin product!

    They taste like you JUST baked them.


    Happy B-Day to Fuzz as well..:)


  16. Rachel B. says

    I know what you mean about the peculiarly greasy mouthfeel of many buttercreams. Ick. Alas that the cake did not go over better. I always opted for chocolate frosting once I was old enough, and perhaps that’s why: It’s so hard to find a good white icing! The standard decorating kind is icky (shortening + powdered sugar = sweet grease), though some recipes are definitely better than others. Grocery store frostings are yucky overall, but some bakeries seem to have the magic touch. Mike’s Pastry in Boston has my favorite white frosting in the world.

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