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Today I’m talking about one of my favorite subjects- birthday cake! It’s birthday season in our house and I’ve been in the kitchen a lot lately baking cakes, treats for school, etc. I was thinking the other day how I much I enjoy making their cakes myself but how intimidating I used to find the thought of it. And so this post was born. I’m going to share all my easy tips and I promise when you are done reading, you absolutely can do it yourself too. I’m going to break this down into two parts – today’s post will be all about baking the cakes. Next week in part 2, I will share my easy tips to decorate them.
Growing up, my aunt always made all of my birthday cakes. I’m pretty sure I asked for a Barbie birthday cake (you know the kind with the actual doll in the middle of a dress made of cake) for at least 5 years in a row. I remember being so excited to see it and watching out the window for her to arrive at my party with my cake.I never even realized that was something special that she did for me until I was in college. I somehow thought that everyone had an aunt that liked to decorate cakes. 😉
Years later, I found out that my grandma used to decorate cakes and sell them out of her home when my mom and my aunt were little. She would of course make their birthday cakes too and taught my aunt how to bake and decorate them. My grandma died when I was really little so I don’t have very many memories of her. I had always loved to bake and hearing that she did too made me feel connected to her in a way that I hadn’t before. I have always made my kid’s birthday cakes myself because I want to but also because it makes me feel close to her. I love that I come from a line of cake bakers and I like to think this is in my genes. (That’s a thing, right?)
PLUS it’s way cheaper than store bought, it can look exactly how I want it and the look in my boy’s eyes when they come down on their birthday party morning and see the cake I made is priceless.
When I had my own kids, I started making their birthday cakes and learned a lot from my aunt and A LOT from trial and error. If you have ever wanted to bake your child’s birthday cake but were too intimidated to try, follow these easy steps. I promise you. It’s way easier than you think it is!
I love baking half sheet cakes (12 x 18) for their birthday parties which is what I did in the pictures here. I love half sheet cakes because they feed a ton (30-40+ people in my experience), have an easy flat surface for decorating and are thick enough that they look great without needing to have layers stacked. However, you can follow these steps for any size cake pans. I included notes in each step for how I bake 8 inch, 9 inch and 10 inch round double layer cakes.
Things you need:
Cake pan – Wilton cake pans are always my choice (These are the ones I have for half sheet cake, 8 inch, 9 inch and 10 inch round.)
Baking strips – see below in step 2 for my cheater version
Cooking spray (like Pam)
3 cake mixes + eggs, oil and water per the mix instructions – I like to use 2 of one flavor and 1 of another but you can always use 3 of the same! **See my notes below in Step 3 for amount of cake mix needed for other size cakes**
Cake board (Half sheet cake size, 8 and 9 inch round or 10 inch round)
Step 1: Prepare your cake pan
Take your cake pan and lay it on a sheet of parchment paper. Use a pencil to trace the outline of your pan and cut it out with scissors. Place it in the bottom of your pan. I usually don’t line the sides of my pans but I do spray them with cooking spray. You absolutely can line the sides if you want to, and it’s fine to let parchment paper stick out over the sides of the pans.
It’s tempting, but don’t skip this step. Especially with larger cakes, sometimes pieces of your cake do stick in the pan even when you spray it well. And that SUCKS.
TIP: If you are having trouble with the parchment paper curling and not staying flat in your pan, spray your pan with cooking spray so it has something to stick to. It’s not necessary, but I always do this so that my paper lays where I want it to. The last thing I want is the paper moving while I pour the batter and having half of my cake stick to the pan.
Step 2: Wet and wrap your baking strips
Baking strips are like a hidden secret that I discovered years ago. If you’ve ever baked a cake before, you’ve probably seen how the middle of the cake commonly domes up when it bakes. That’s fine for cakes you are planning to spread with frosting and leave in your 9 x 13 pan. It’s not good though when you need to remove your cake from the pan, stack it with another and decorate it. You can try to trim off the dome, but you lose a good chunk of your cake and your edges are funky and crispy from baking unevenly.
Wetting these baking strips with cool water and placing them around your pan helps the cake cook more evenly. They get rid of the dome and the crispy edges. You can buy these strips OR you can be cheap like me. I use cut up strips of old (clean!) bath towel that I wet and safety pin around my cake pan. It does the same thing and costs nothing but is a little more work without that Velcro of the baking strips.
Step 3: Mix up your cake
A half sheet cake needs 3 cake mixes to fill for a nice, thick cake. I like to use 2 cake mixes of one flavor (here that is the funfetti) and 1 of another (here that is the chocolate) so that we can have two kinds of cake for the party. If you dump both your mixes into the pan at the same time, the bigger mix will fill approximately 2/3 of the pan and the other the remaining 1/3. It’s funny because people always love the line of pieces that are a mix between the two! Use a small spatula to smooth out the cake mixes to fill the corners of the pan.
I use 1 cake mix divided into two pans for 8 and 9 inch double layer cakes. When I do 10 inch double layer cakes, I use 1 full cake mix for each layer.
I don’t even attempt to make my own cake from scratch when I bake a half sheet cake because I know exactly 3 mixes fill it nicely and I don’t know how much a homemade batch would fill. I have made my own cake when baking 8, 9 or 10 inch round cakes. I’ve tried several different recipes and I’m going to be honest. They didn’t taste as good as the box mix so I hardly ever do it anymore. Because why do more work for something that doesn’t taste as good. #just saying
I have ‘doctored’ the cake mix though before with good results. Although absolutely not necessary, adding 1 extra egg to each cake mix and/or replacing the amount of vegetable oil called for with melted butter makes a more rich cake.
Step 4: Bake cake
Bake your cake according to package directions for 8 and 9 inch cakes. For 10 inch cakes, also bake at 350 degrees but for approximately 10 minutes longer than it says for the 9 inch cake. Keep an eye on your cakes! For the half sheet cake, I bake at 325 degrees for 50-60 minutes.
Here’s a pro tip from my aunt: The general rule of thumb is to bake a cake until a fork inserted in the center comes out clean. That is actually too long. Once a fork comes out clean, the cake is already overbaked and too dry. Once the top of the cake is set and if you gently push down in the center with your finger and it springs back, then the cake is done. That’s the secret to a delicious moist – not dry – cake!
As a general rule, I always set a kitchen timer for at least 5 minutes less than the box recommends and keep a close eye on it so it doesn’t over bake.
Step 5: Dump and cool
Once you pull it out of the oven, set your half sheet cake still in the pan on top of the oven for 30 minutes to let it cool. Then carefully place the cake board on top of your pan and quickly flip it over to dump it onto the board. Let it cool the rest of the way before decorating which is probably at least an hour.
If you are using 8, 9 or 10 round layer cakes, let your cakes sit in the pan for 15-20 minutes and then dump onto a cooling rack to finish cooling.
5 easy steps and your cake is baked. And it’s delicious! I’ll be back here next Wednesday with part 2 – How to decorate a birthday cake!
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