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Ultimate Birthday Cake

As a mom of two and an auntie to three kids, making birthday cakes is now less a hobby and more a vocation. Every year I ignore the pleadings of my daughter for the turquoise Little Mermaid cake with eight inches of frosting in the supermarket bakery, and I head straight to the kitchen instead. While my cakes aren’t the fanciest on the block, they taste like actual cake and won’t turn the kids’ tongues neon colors.

And now that my once vanilla-only daughter has turned into a true chocoholic, I had to perfect the chocolate cake. Chocolate cake recipes abound — ingredients from mayonnaise and sour cream to coffee and booze are often included. But my mom recommended an oldie-but-goodie: the recipe on the back of the Hershey’s unsweetened cocoa box. I was suspicious; I’m a bit of a chocolate snob, and I wasn’t sure whether Hershey’s could stand up to my Scharffen Berger obsession.

But I was amazed by the result, which was a moist, light cake that wasn’t overwhelmingly sweet. This chocolate cake recipe will be your go-to for layer cakes, sheet cakes or cupcakes. And it’s a perfect base for the imaginative baker: Fill or top cupcakes with fresh whipped cream for a homemade “Hostess” cupcake, or make three layers with a boozy mocha buttercream for a more grown-up cake. And swathed in a simple chocolate buttercream, it is the ultimate child’s birthday cake.

I knew I had found the right recipe when my niece turned to me after devouring a large piece and said very seriously, “Aunt Laura, this is the best birthday cake ever.” This from a child who spends almost every weekend at a birthday party, sampling cake.

The only surprising ingredient in this recipe is adding boiling water to the batter, which is supposed to make the cake more moist. Whether that’s the magic ingredient or not, it definitely works.

This recipe is adapted from the Hershey’s recipe; I made a couple of changes. First, I substituted cake flour for all-purpose flour for a finer crumb. I also used large eggs (the original recipe doesn’t specify size). The frosting is a chocolate buttercream, which complements the cake perfectly and doesn’t overpower it.

The Ultimate Chocolate Birthday Cake

(Adapted from Hershey’s ‘Perfectly Chocolate’ cake recipe)

Makes 10-12 servings


2 cups sugar
1¾ cups cake flour
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa (Hershey’s or any other brand)
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
½ cup vegetable or canola oil
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup boiling water


  1. Heat oven to 350 F. Grease and flour two 9-inch round baking pans (or whichever pans you are using).
  2. Stir together the sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, combine the eggs, milk, oil and vanilla.
  3. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and beat using the medium speed of a mixer for 2 minutes.
  4. Stir in the boiling water (the batter will be thin).
  5. Pour the batter into the prepared pans.
  6. Bake 25 to 30 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes; remove the cakes from pans to wire racks. Cool completely and then frost.


For a one-pan cake: Grease and flour a 13-by-9-by-2-inch baking pan. Bake 35 to 40 minutes.

For a three-layer cake: Grease and flour three 8-inch round baking pans. Bake 25 to 30 minutes.

For cupcakes: Grease and flour one 12-cup cupcake pan. Fill each tin ⅔ full of batter and bake for about 20 minutes.

Chocolate buttercream frosting

Makes enough to frost a two-layer (9-inch) cake or 12 cupcakes


½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 cups powdered sugar
5 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
¼ cup plus 1 tablespoons heavy cream (or half and half)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Pinch of salt


  1. In the work bowl of a stand mixer (or with an electric mixer), cream the butter.
  2. Sift the sugar and cocoa powder together with the salt and gradually add to the butter, mixing well after each addition.
  3. Add the cream and vanilla and beat until well blended and fluffy. If frosting is too stiff, add a little bit more cream, and if it’s too runny add a little more sugar. If you want a more intense chocolate flavor, add a tablespoon more of cocoa powder.
  4. The frosting will keep in the refrigerator in a covered container for up to 3 days.

Note: This recipe easily doubles, and it’s always preferable to have more frosting to work with than to have to make a second batch!

Zester Daily contributor Laura Holmes Haddad lives with her husband, daughter and son in Northern California, where she writes about wine and food and runs her website, Her latest collaboration is “Plats du Jour: A Journey Through the Seasons in Wine Country” with the girl & the fig restaurant in Sonoma, Calif., released in November 2011.

Photo: Ultimate chocolate birthday cake. Credit: Laura Holmes Haddad

Zester Daily contributor Laura Holmes Haddad lives with her husband, daughter and son in Northern California, where she writes about wine and food and runs her website, Her latest collaboration is "Plats du Jour: A Journey Through the Seasons in Wine Country" with the girl & the fig restaurant in Sonoma, California, released in November 2011.

  • Elle France 7·5·12

    This is indeed a wonderful cake and I have made it many times. I live in the southeast where White Lily is a regional favorite flour choice–it is a soft wheat flour that is about half way between cake flour and all-purpose flour and makes tender cakes with velvety crumb. I noticed your comment about using large eggs in the recipe. Did you know that anytime a recipe says “eggs” without specifying size–especially a professionally created recipe such as one from a company–it means to use large eggs? Large eggs are the standard and will give the intended result unless another specific size is called for by the author of the recipe. I read that years ago and now never have to wonder what size to use. Most recipes are written to use that standard and they either say to use large eggs or just say to use eggs with the assumption that the reader will know that “eggs” means large eggs. A few chefs and recipe authors use some other size routinely just to set their own stamp on their recipes. Ina Garten–aka The Barefoot Contessa–for example, seems to always specify extra-large eggs whether for an exacting recipe like a cake, a less precise recipe such as scrambled eggs, or simply instructions for making hard cooked eggs. Extra-large eggs are her signature ingredient.