A Smashing First Birthday Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Buttercream

The “It takes a village to raise a child” philosophy has never felt truer to me than the past year. As working parents, Cameron and I could not have cared so well for our baby without the help and support of her grandparents, childcare workers, and friends. While I still struggle with guilt about needing to work full-time, Alice’s big smile and overall happy personality remind me that she’s well loved by all the people who spend time with her and that we’re incredibly lucky as a family.

A few weeks ago, we celebrated Alice’s first birthday with plenty of autumn woodland animals inspiration. With the help of family and friends, we were able to string up handmade felt autumn leaves, decorate with plenty of woodland animal toys, and chow down on a homemade woodland-themed birthday cake to celebrate this first year of Alice’s life.

About six weeks prior to Alice’s party, I began experimenting with chocolate cake recipes to find one that was both moist and adequately decadent. I also wanted a recipe that would allow me to apply white frosting without lots of chocolate cake crumbs getting stuck on the frosting. I learned this was not an easy order to fill. After two baking sessions yielded disappointing results, my coworker and friend Jane came to the rescue with her foolproof chocolate cake recipe. (Thanks, Jane!)

I was skeptical of the recipe at first because it calls for shortening instead of butter (my go-to fat in cakes and pastries), but I’m glad I took a leap of faith. Unlike the butter cake recipes I’d tried on this quest for a stellar birthday cake, this recipe crates a moist cake with fewer loose crumbs, key components in reducing chocolate speckles on the frosting. Since I was making a regular two-layer, nine-inch cake and a two-layer, four-inch cake, I doubled the recipe and froze leftover layers. After reading through a few pro cake baker articles, I learned some pro frosting tips I recommend and will use for every frosted cake in my future. You can find these tips at the end of the frosting recipe.

Happy first year of life, sweet Alice. And thanks again to the many people who helped make her birthday memorable.

Woodland Birthday Cake
Smash Cake and Birthday Cake. Image by author.

Chocolate Cake
(a Jane R.’s foolproof cake recipe)
Makes Two 8″, Two 6″, and three “4 cakes

Ingredients
– 1 1/3 cup soft shortening
– 3 1/3 cups granulated sugar
– 6 large eggs
– 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
– 1 1/3 cups baking cocoa
– 2 1/2 tsp baking soda
– 1/2 tsp baking powder
– 1 tsp salt
– 2 2/3 cups water
– 4 tsp vanilla extract

Directions
1. Grease and flour your pans. I used nonstick cooking spray and baking cocoa (to prevent a white dust on the cake). I then line the cake pans with rounds of parchment paper to prevent the bottom from sticking to the pan. Set aside, and preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

2. In your large mixing bowl (use your stand mixer if you have one), cream together the shortening, sugar, and eggs until fluffy. Set aside. In another large bowl, sift/stir together the flour, baking cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Set aside. In a medium bowl, combine the water and vanilla.

3. Add the flour and water mixtures to the sugar mixture alternately–beginning and ending with flour mixture.

4. Pour into greased and floured pans. Tap pans on counter to eliminate air bubbles. Bake until knife or toothpick comes out clean.

5. Place layer pans on racks for 10-15 minutes before removing and cooling completely. At this point I wrap each layer carefully with plastic wrap and place in large freezer storage bags to freeze the cakes until needed.

Vanilla Buttercream
Makes 9 cups frosting

Ingredients
– 2 cups unsalted butter (1 pound of the good stuff)
– 7 to 8 cups confectioner’s sugar
– 1 TBS and 1 tsp vanilla extract
– 1/4 tsp salt
– 6 TBS heavy cream or half-and-half

Directions
1. Cut your softened butter into smaller chunks and dump into your stand mixer bowl. Be sure to fit your mixer with the paddle attachment. Cream the butter on medium speed until smooth, about 3 minutes.

2. Add confectioner’s sugar, 1/2 a cup at a time. After each cup has been incorporated, switch the mixer onto the highest speed setting for about 10 seconds to lighten the frosting.

3. Add vanilla and salt and combine until smooth, and then add heavy cream until the frosting has reached the consistency you want for your cake frosting experiment. To frost a chocolate cake, I wanted a softer frosting to lower the amount of chocolate crumbs.

How to Frost a Chocolate Cake with White Frosting without Screaming in Frustration
In the quest to make my daughter’s birthday cake look as profesh as my amateur cake baking skills allow, I allotted cake decorating time several weeks prior to the party since I have so little free time these days and didn’t want to lose my cool when it came to assembling the cake and frosting. If you’ve been discouraged from frosting a chocolate cake with white frosting, take heart. With a few thoughtful steps to prep your frosting and your cake, you can end up with a nicely white frosted cake with nary a chocolate crumb trailing over the frosting.

  1. Freeze your cakes (seal well in freezer wrap and freezer bags).
  2. Make more frosting than you imagine you’ll need. You will need more white frosting on a chocolate cake because you’ll be frosting the cake twice.
  3. The first frosting is a thin base layer. If you’ve painted a room, you know to apply a primer coat over the existing wall paint to even out the wall. Be sure that your frosting is soft to avoid creating crumbs when frosting.
  4. After that frosting layer firms up, sealing cake crumbs to the cake surface, apply another thicker layer of frosting as the final decorative coat.

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