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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Burnard

Chocolate Birthday Cake!

Updated: Oct 4, 2021

A Thing That Should Have Been Fun and Easy That I Instead Overcomplicated and Made Difficult for Myself, or: A Metaphor for My Existence

A two tiered cake covered in swirls of thick chocolate buttercream frosting rosettes and stars, decorated with tons of rainbow dot sprinkles. It is sitting on a low white platter that is on a rounded wooden table.

Here we are again. After another not-so-brief hiatus, we’ve come to this, my second birthday in relative isolation. Well, isolation that isn’t by choice. You know I’m not a party person. But I did have a dream last night about a big dinner at a restaurant, complete with giant sparklers on a cake and everyone singing, which is basically my worst birthday nightmare in reality. So that should tell you how badly I want to get out and do things.

Because let me tell you- the things I’ve been able to get out and do lately? They haven’t been too fun. Not terrible! But not great. I got my third Covid vaccine dose (yay! Get vaccinated if you can and haven’t already!), saw a new cardiologist who decided it’d be a good idea to do some genetic testing, got some occipital nerve blocks, got a whole lot of perineural injection therapy, and went to physical therapy a bunch. So most Going Out Occasions involved a lot of needles, and I don’t like to knock anyone’s idea of a good time, but that is not for me.

A closeup overhead shot of the same cake, showing three prominent rosettes on the very top.

So maybe it’s nostalgia, maybe it’s the forced isolation, maybe it’s Maybelline, but I was really in the mood for a classic chocolate cake with chocolate frosting this year. That combo hasn’t been my thing for a long time, but this year I couldn’t get past it. So instead of fighting it and making something more “grown up” (screw that concept anyway), I decided to lean all the way in and bake a rich chocolate layer cake, cover it with as much chocolate buttercream as childhood me would have wanted, and then decorate it with rainbow sprinkles. It’s my non-party and I’ll excessively decorate if I want to.

A photo of the ingredients on a speckled countertop.

To be honest, the cake itself was supposed to be easy, but it gave me a little bit of trouble. I think that was due to the reliability or lack thereof of the oven temperature, though, mostly (almost entirely). That and the pans. They’re extremely cute! I just haven’t quite gotten used to working with 4x4” or 6x3” yet.

Two round cake pans (a 6x3 in the background and a 4x4 in front), prepped to be baked with butter and cocoa powder lining the inside.

Preheat your oven and prep your cake pans. If you’re using standard 8” or 9” round or square pans, you can go with 325ºF or 350ºF, but if you’re using anything smaller, stay between 300ºF and 325ºF. Otherwise you run the risk of burning the outside before the inside is fully cooked. Prep your pans however you normally would. Instead of using flour for chocolate cake, I go with cocoa powder.

The dry ingredients mixed together in a silver mixing bowl. The mixture is a light chocolate color and there is a rubberized red whisk with a silver handle resting in the bowl.

It’s easy enough to put together. All of the dry ingredients (including the sugar) get mixed together in a large bowl. I was able to do all of the mixing with just a whisk and a spatula, no hand or stand mixer.

All of the wet ingredients except for the hot water get mixed in another bowl. You might find it beneficial to to this in a large liquid measuring cup or a bowl with some sort of spout, because it’ll all be poured out soon.

Mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients with a spoon or spatula (or whatever implement you want, I’m not your boss). Don’t worry if you can’t get it all the way incorporated, that’s what the water is for. You can use vegetable oil if you want, but I opted for olive oil, which gives baked goods a sort of floral undertone and adds a lot of moisture. Very carefully pour the boiling water into the batter and mix until everything forms a silky chocolaty smooth delicious homogenized concoction.

Also, everything can be substituted for whatever vegan or allergy friendly products you use. I used oat milk, for example, but you can use any nondairy or full-of-dairy product your little cake desiring heart desires.

The yellowish mixture of wet ingredients has been added to the surface of the mixture in the last photo (it is otherwise the same)

Pour into cake pans and bake for…awhile. For standard pan sizes, probably 30-35 minutes. Mine baked for more than an hour, but like…they’re not the best example. Yes, I’m using them for a blog post anyway. Sorry, I guess? If you’re having trouble telling whether or not they’re done, you can try a couple of things:

  • Jostle them a little. If they jiggle, they’re not done.

  • See if they’ve begun to pull away from the interior of the pans. If they have, they’re closer to being done than not.

  • Do the toothpick test. Put a toothpick into the center of the cake. If it comes out with more than a couple of crumbs on it, it’s not done yet.

Two dark chocolate cakes in their pans, right out of the oven. They are resting on the stovetop and the 4x4 cake is in front. The 6x3 cake is slightly out of focus.

When they’re done, let them cool for about 10 minutes before taking them out of the pans and putting them on a wire rack to cool the rest of the way.

Buttercream frosting ingredients on a speckled countertop.

The chocolate buttercream is just as easy. Possibly easier!

All of the buttercream ingredients in a clear mixing bowl/ the powdered sugar is on top. There is a wooden and silicon spatula printed with the Eiffel Tower to the left of the bowl.

Put all of the ingredients into a big bowl and mix them together. Just like the cake, this works with dairy or nondairy in a simple 1:1 substitution that requires no math on your part. That’s it. There’s no specific order of operations or trick to it. Just make sure your mixer isn't set too high or else the various powders will go everywhere and no one wants that kind of cleanup. Especially not on their birthday.

(Or, if you’re me, realize at the very beginning that your butter is too soft and your frosting definitely is not going to set, and then proceed to go through the whole process anyway, and then find that yes, your butter was too soft and your frosting won’t set, so you have to put it in the fridge for seemingly forever, and then realize it’s too far gone and you have to go to further lengths to fix it because you live in Southern California and the fridge is no match for the heat, but it’s okay because the cakes are also taking forever to bake, and you’re just glad you’re only messing up your own birthday cake and not anyone else’s…)

A failed first attempt at buttercream. It is a dark brown melted looking liquid. The hand mixer is slightly to the right-front of the bowl.

Want a couple of buttercream tips? It’s good news, I promise.


It’s really, really hard to mess up buttercream beyond repair, as long as you still have some of the same ingredients left over. You don’t need to throw it away and start over. I managed to go through too many of these steps this time around. Like, multiple times. It was not my finest moment. But it still tastes amazing! If you look carefully at the finished cake, you’ll see that there are varying shades of brown in the frosting. It’s all the same batch, just at varying temperatures and consistencies.

  1. Don’t be like me and try to make it with butter that’s too soft. Your sheer force of will can’t change the laws of physics. If the butter is super soft and oily, put it back in the fridge until it’s firmed back up a bit. It needs to be soft, but not melty. Kind of like wet play dough?

  2. If your finished frosting is too clumpy, it’s probably too cold. Just keep it out at room temp for a few minutes. Keep checking it, though, because you don’t want it to heat up too much.

  3. If your finished frosting is too liquid-y, it’s probably too warm. You can try to put it in the fridge to see if that helps. Honestly, if you don’t want to make a layer cake or do any piping, it’ll probably be fine as long as you keep it cold. Otherwise, all you need to do is add more softened butter and powdered sugar (if it’s chocolate you can also add more cocoa powder).

  4. If your finished frosting has broken (separated) and you’re seeing little clumps of solids and some oily liquid, don’t panic. It usually means there’s some sort of temperature discrepancy. Try out step 2! And then step 3 if step 2 doesn’t work. And then just keep going back and forth until it eventually gives up and recognizes you as its lord and master.

  5. You can also make buttercream with shortening in it, and you’re much less likely to have any of these problems. It’s a lot more stable. I don’t have any specific amounts for you because it’s not really my thing, but the internet is full of excellent recipes for shortening-laced buttercream, I’m positive you’ll find something great.

The same bowl and mixer, but now the frosting is lighter brown and fluffy.

So that was A Lot for what should have been a very simple project. But it really is delicious. And I’m eating some right now, in bed, after a long weekend of reading a murder mystery by a private pool and nightly hot tubbing at a fully isolated Airbnb with my wonderful partner! I’ll take it. Happy birthday to me.

A wedge of cake in the foreground. The rest of the cake is out of focus in the background. There are four dark chocolate locale layers separated by lighter chocolate layers of buttercream.

An extreme closeup of the frosting and sprinkles decorations on the cake. There is a slight color difference in various areas of frosting.

A closeup of the slice of cake so show how moist it is.


For the Cake:

🥄🥄; makes approximately two 8” round cakes (probably)

  • 2 cups flour

  • 2 cups sugar

  • 3/4 cups unsweetened cocoa powder

  • 2 tsp baking soda

  • 1 tsp baking powder

  • 1 tsp salt

  • 1 cup milk (any kind of dairy or nondairy)

  • 1 cup vegetable or olive oil

  • 2 eggs (or equivalent vegan egg substitute or 1 cup unsweetened applesauce)

  • 2 tsp vanilla

  • 1 cup boiling water

1. Preheat oven to desired temperature. 350º if using standard sized cake pans. 300º-325º if using smaller sized cake pans.

2. Prep your pans.

3. Combine all dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl.

4. Combine all wet ingredients (EXCEPT water) in a bowl. It’s okay if they don’t fully incorporate.

5. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix.

6. Once the dry ingredients have been hydrated, carefully pour the boiling water into the mixture and stir until everything is fully homogenized and glossy.

7. Pour into prepared cake pans and bake. 30-35 minutes if using standard cake pans. Anywhere from 40-70 minutes if using smaller cake pans (after 40 minutes, begin checking doneness with a toothpick every 10-15 minutes)

For the Chocolate Buttercream:

🥄; makes enough for 1 large layer cake

  • 1 cup room temperature butter (or vegan butter substitute)

  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

  • 3/4 cup milk (any kind of milk, cream, or nondairy milk)

  • 1/2 tsp salt

  • 2 tsp vanilla

  • at least 2 cups confectioners sugar

1. Make sure your ingredients are at room temperature.

2. Mix everything in a large mixing bowl. If using a stand mixer or hand mixer, begin on a low speed to avoid cocoa powder and sugar going everywhere.

3. Continue to add powdered sugar and milk until you achieve your desired consistency.

4. Refer to above notes for troubleshooting advice!

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