Deep in the heart of Park Slope, my family and I sat at my sister's wedding rehearsal dinner, eating and drinking merrily, as a wedding party does. Up until that point, my day had been spent in my small Brooklyn kitchen, baking cakes in five of my sister's favorite flavors (pistachio, black sesame, lemon, chocolate, red velvet) for what would be my very first wedding cake. It was epic — enough for a wedding four times the size of my sister's — and I was a very proud maid of honor.
But at the end of the night, I was a very annoyed maid of honor when the bridezilla demanded that she would like a sprinkle birthday cake at her wedding. To her credit, I'm exaggerating when I say "demanded," but still, I couldn't believe that it hadn't occurred to either of us until then that her cake should have been studded with sprinkles. Every bride who grew up in the '90s should have a sprinkle birthday cake, or something.
Although I told her that I would absolutely not be making any more cake that day, I knew I had no choice. I swung by the Key Foods on my way home and wrote my speech as I whisked the oil and eggs into a boxed mix. To her delight, as signified by the top-of-her-lungs shriek in the middle of a jam-packed Dressler, the top layer of her cake was sprinkle birthday and all was right in the world.
So consider it my revenge that for my wedding this year, I will be having my sister make a three-tiered sprinkle birthday extravaganza — and no, cake from a box is not allowed this time. I've given my sis a head start though, with days and days of recipe testing. Here is my tried-and-true method for making sprinkle birthday cake (also known as confetti cake, sprinkle cake, or straight up birthday cake), straight from one very tired maid of honor.
What is sprinkle birthday cake?
Allow me to let you in on a little secret: Sprinkle birthday cake is the best cake! There's a reason why both my sister and I requested it for our wedding day. A day of eternal love should have an epilogue dessert course that we both love too: sprinkle birthday. Traditionally, sprinkle birthday cake is made with white cake mix (something close to angel food cake is ideal) and lots and lots of rainbow sprinkles. It shouldn't taste like vanilla cake with sprinkles. It should taste like, well, sprinkle birthday cake, which is in a league of its own. Of course, during the holidays you'll probably find sprinkle birthday cake mix made with red and green sprinkles.
The key to a true sprinkle birthday cake is a light and fluffy cake batter, baked, and frosted with vanilla buttercream. Using cake flour and egg whites will help you achieve a cloudlike cake with a fine crumb. I'll chat more about vanilla extract shortly, but it's also an important ingredient for homemade sprinkle birthday cake.
Aside from the colorful sprinkles, I believe the thing that everyone loves about sprinkle birthday cake so much is that it's not *too* artificial tasting. The boxed cake mix, that is. It tastes like everyone's childhood and the fact that it's so airy means you can eat a big wedge of it and then another and then another.
How to make sprinkle birthday cake from scratch
At first thought, a homemade sprinkle birthday cake seems like an easy task: Just fold a bunch of sprinkles into a vanilla cake and wham bam, you're done. Wrong. Sprinkle birthday cake is not that simple. Sprinkle birthday cake is a complex being who has issues because when anyone tells him to just act natural, he fails. The secret to sprinkle birthday is that sprinkle birthday in its most natural element is, in fact, slightly artificial. Here's why:
1. Artificial sprinkles and vanilla work best.
Natural sprinkles (in my experience) aren't bright enough. Naturally colored nonpareils, naturally colored sprinkles, homemade sprinkles made with natural food dye, and a series of found objects including chopped mint leaves, bachelor's buttons, dried mango, and cranberries were just not bright enough after baking. The best and brightest results came from artificially colored sprinkles, artificially colored nonpareils, and artificially colored homemade sprinkles. And forget about using any type of sanding sugar. Sorry not sorry — I don't make the rules. (Well I guess in this case I am making the rules, but trust me. This is how it has to be).
Artificial vanilla works best. This is a tip I picked up from Marian Bull, who learned at a Momofuku Milk Bar cake class that McCormick's clear imitation vanilla is way closer than an all-natural vanilla extract to achieving that nostalgic flavor we get from boxed cakes. Try it and you'll understand.
2. Not every vanilla cake will work for sprinkle birthday cake.
The batter needs to be thick enough to suspend the sprinkles so that they don't all fall to the bottom when the cake is baking. One-hundred percent oil-based cakes need not apply. We need the volume and structure from the creamed butter and sugar to suspend our sprinkles. We also need that *tiny amount* of water present in butter to encourage a *tiny amount* of gluten formation — structure is a good thing to have in a many-tiered wedding cake, after all. I did include some oil to help ensure an even crumb that stays tender and moist.
Egg yolks are not welcome here, since we want the cake to be light enough in color that the sprinkles really shine. Hence, only egg whites in the batter.
How important is the cake flour, you ask? Very good question. To answer that, we need a bit of cake science, so bear with me. Cake flour is ground from soft winter wheat, to all-purpose flour's *hard* winter wheat. Soft wheats have less gluten — and thus, less protein — than hard wheats. Think of cake (*yum, cake*) and its ideal texture: soft, tender, moist, and crumbly almost. You're not going for the chewy texture you get from the "strong* gluten networks in sourdough breads or pizza doughs.
Cake flour is also bleached with chlorine. This bleaching process not only makes for a whiter cake (remember, we need a light, neutral backdrop to really let the sprinkles shine), but makes the starch in the flour more absorbent, and the gluten even weaker. In cake, water and milk-holding starch translates as "moist," and the weak gluten structure translates as "tender."
3. Choose your frosting wisely.
I decided to go with a simple, quick American-style buttercream, for the sake of ease and time (and my sanity). American-style buttercream requires just four ingredients, and whips up rather quickly. But, if you want to swipe a colored icing over your sprinkle birthday cake, go for a glossy white meringue-based icing, like Italian or Swiss buttercream, instead. If coloring doesn't matter to you, and you want a richer-tasting frosting, go for French-style. In addition to butter and sugar, French-style buttercream calls for whipped whole eggs and egg yolks. This makes for a custardy, lovely, pale yellow frosting.
Alright, got all that? Good. Go have fun!
Recipe: Sprinkle Birthday Cake
For the cake
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 4 large egg whites
- 2 tablespoons clear imitation vanilla (I use McCormick's)
- 6 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 1/2 cups cake flour
- 2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup whole milk
- 2/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon sprinkles
For the frosting
- 2 cups (or 4 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 3 cups powdered sugar, or to taste
- 2 teaspoons clear imitation vanilla
- 1 pinch salt
- Preheat oven to 350° F. Grease two 8-inch cake pans. Cut out circles of parchment paper and line the bottom of the pans. Lightly spray the parchment.
- With an electric mixer or in the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the egg whites, one at a time, mixing well after each one. Mix in the vanilla and oil.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. With your mixer running on low, add this to the butter mixture in three additions, alternating with the milk. Once you have a smooth batter, fold in the 2/3 cup of sprinkles.
- Divide the batter evenly between the pans. Sprinkle the remaining tablespoon of sprinkles over the top and bake the cakes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Begin checking for doneness at around 25 minutes.
- Let the cakes cool for a few minutes in the pans and then flip them onto a cooling rack to cool completely before frosting.
- To make the colorful bunting, knead food coloring (liquid or gel) into marzipan, cut out triangles, and stick them onto the cake.
- Beat together the butter and sugar until creamy. Add the vanilla and salt and mix to combine. Taste and add more sugar, if desired.
- Frost your cake and enjoy!