When I was a little girl and my birthday was around the corner, my family would ask me what kind of birthday cake I would like.

A lot of my friends would ask for a dairy queen ice cream cake or a cake from the supermarket with multicoloured icing. But I've always been a bit of a plain Jane.

"Yellow cake with chocolate icing," was my usual response.

Now, when I was a kid, I felt there were few people who could make a yellow cake as good as the one you'd make from a box. My aunt Joan was one of those people - her cakes were always just so good. Nothing fancy, but always delicious.

In Ireland, birthday cakes are usually sponge, jam and cream or chocolate biscuit cake. I love those cakes too, but sometimes I just crave a basic yellow cake, like the one I would eat when I was a kid in Canada.

It may look simple, but the flavour of this cake is really special. / Janine Kennedy

This recipe is adapted from Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen. Smitten Kitchen is one of the original food blogs from long ago and one which is still going strong.

Deb, like me, wanted to make "the best" yellow cake because she was going to have a baby and, as a mom, she felt like she needed to be able to make a really good yellow cake for birthdays. I totally get it.

In North America, you can buy special cake flour - it has less gluten which makes for nicer cakes. We don't really have cake flour in Ireland (correct me if I'm wrong).

However, we make up for that with the best-quality eggs, butter and buttermilk, which are the three ingredients which make a yellow cake A) yellow and B) deliciously dense.

Basic yellow cake

This yellow cake is a common birthday cake flavour in North America. / Janine Kennedy

Makes 15-20 portions


500g plain flour

2 tsp baking powder

1 1/2 tsp bread soda

1/2 tsp salt

225g soft butter

200g caster sugar

200g light brown sugar

2 tsp vanilla

4 eggs

475ml buttermilk

For the icing:

100g dark chocolate, melted and cooled

200g icing sugar

2 tsp vanilla

60g soft butter

Splash of milk, if needed


1 Line a rectangular baking tray with parchment and set aside. Preheat the oven to 180°C.

2 In a large bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, soda and salt. Set aside.

3 In another large bowl, cream the brown sugar, caster sugar and butter until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and mix to incorporate.

4 Add the eggs one at a time; mixing well after each addition. The batter should be pale and fluffy.

5 Add the buttermilk and mix to combine (it will look curdled).

6 Add the dry ingredients a bit at a time until completely mixed in. Pour the batter into the prepared tin and bake for approximately 60 minutes (or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean).

7 Remove the cake from the oven and cool in the tin for 20 minutes. Then, gently remove the cake from the tin (keeping the parchment paper attached) and let cool completely.

8 Make the frosting: in a bowl, combine the icing sugar, butter and vanilla. Add the melted chocolate and, using an electric hand mixer, beat on high until light and fluffy. If the mixture is too thick and not spreadable, add a splash of milk and mix again until the desired consistency is reached.

9 Spread the icing all over the top of the cooled cake and then top with multicoloured sprinkles. Keep in an airtight container for up to four days.

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