recipe image

Grown-Up Birthday Cake

Photo by Bobbi Lin
  • Prep time
    20 minutes
  • Cook time
    30 minutes
  • Serves
    a birthday party
Author Notes

I had already started to make my mom’s go-to birthday cake—a yellow cake made with white wine that she cribbed from the Chicago Tribune eons ago—when I realized I didn’t have the 1 cup of vegetable oil the recipe called for. So, hello olive oil substitute! I did worry that it would overwhelm the delicate taste, but This adult birthday cake is a yellow cake with wine and olive oil substituted for the vegetable oil. The recipe turned out beautifully—rich and very moist. —Midge

Test Kitchen Notes

“We’ve wanted to award this beauty a Wildcard win for some time but Jenny beat us to it. Olive oil and wine make the cake fruity and complex (do use good ones, as you will taste all of their delicious nuances); the jam layer swings in with a little flash and tartness; and the thin coat of creamy chocolate icing seals the deal. It’s altogether very grown-up, but with all the pleasure of a sweet, spongy cake. Tips: Line your cake pans with parchment circles to make sure the layers turn out without a hitch. And if you run into any trouble with lumps in the frosting, just whisk like mad till it smooths out.” –A&M

“For weeks, I have been eyeing Midge’s Grown-Up Birthday Cake, trying to come up with an excuse to make it. There were no birthdays in my house, and the holidays were so full of cookies, toffee, and brittle that I didn’t see where it would fit in. I couldn’t even justify it for this blog, as suggesting cake-making on a weeknight seemed a stretch.

So I clicked. I longed. I moved on.

But then, things began happening all around me. First, MrsWheelbarrow randomly stopped by with some delicious homemade raspberry jam. Then my friend Daniel generously sent me a bottle of McEvoy Ranch olive oil, which is the elixir of the gods. Next, my mother-in-law finally gave me her mother’s Foley sifter, which I have been eyeing for the better part of a decade, because it is 100 times better than modern sifters with their sticky, mercurial and ultimately maddening arms.

In short, the universe seemed to be telling me: make grown-up birthday cake right this second!

Of course, this is the same universe that told me I should take advice about a $200 pair of jeans from a 19-year-old sales girl at Fred Segal, even though my behind was giving me quite a different narrative, the same universe that told me that it would be a good idea to tell the incipient pescatarian and bacon girl if they did not stop bickering in the back seat of the car, “I will take you with me to the Virginia quilt museum!” I mean, good people don’t demonize quilts.

But anyway, I could no longer resist, and so this cake came to being in my kitchen recently, with all those aforementioned ingredients and a fairly nice bottle of white wine and four eggs. Olive oil! White wine! No butter! I giggled madly as I mixed it all up, and when I tasted the batter I was quite excited, barely able to wait for it to finish baking.

I think you should treat this cake like a savory dish, because you truly taste every ingredient, and the jam does a fruit dance with the wine and olive oil, which you will want to be something closer to a waltz than a two step, if that makes sense. The chocolate icing pulls it all together: chocolate + fruit + depth – cloying sweetness = delicious adult dessert that children will actually find divine, as well.

Here were my two bads: I had a hard time turning my layers out, even though I gave the pans a nice greasing, which may have to do with the fact that my nine-inchers are not as high quality as I would like; I might use buttered parchment next time just to make life easier. Also, I under-mixed the frosting–perhaps in my almost unhealthy haste to get this confection into my pie hole–so it was not as smooth looking as that in lovely photo posted by Midge. So don’t do that. (Amanda noted that when they made the cake for the photo, the food52er’s icing looked curdled. But once she hand whisked the hell out of it, it turned smooth. It’s such a small amount that Amanda thinks the mixer whisk just didn’t reach it enough. So do what she did. Okay?)

Finally, is this a classic weeknight recipe? Not really. But it is actually easier and quicker than many birthday cakes that require lots of butter beating, some of them less worthy of praise than this one. You can always leave work a little early, declaring a cake emergency.” –Jestei

—The Editors

  • Test Kitchen-Approved

  • yellow cake

  • 2 1/2 cups

    AP flour

  • 1/2 teaspoon


  • 2 1/4 teaspoons

    baking powder

  • 2 cups

    granulated sugar

  • 4


  • 1 teaspoon


  • 1 cup

    white wine

  • 1 cup

    olive oil

  • 7 ounces

    raspberry jam, preferably homemade, but I used Bonne Maman

  • bittersweet chocolate buttercream icing

  • 1/2 cup

    unsalted butter, softened

  • 1 cup

    confectioners sugar

  • 1/2 cup

    Dutch processed cocoa

  • 1/4 cup

    whole milk

  • 1 teaspoon


  1. yellow cake
  2. Preheat oven to 350° F.
  3. Butter and lightly flour 2 nine-inch cake pans.
  4. Sift together flour, salt, and baking powder. Set aside.
  5. In a standing mixer, blend sugar and eggs on med-high for a minute. Slowly mix in vanilla, wine, and oil.
  6. Gently fold dry ingredients into cake batter until smooth.
  7. Pour batter into prepared pans and bake for 25-30 minutes until cake tester comes out clean. Cool on wire racks.
  8. Spread jam on one layer; then top with the other. Frost top layer with icing (recipe below).
  1. bittersweet chocolate buttercream icing
  2. Blend butter and sugar. Fold in cocoa and gradually add milk until it starts to look like icing. Mix in vanilla.

I’m a journalist who’s covered everything from illegal logging in Central America to merit pay for teachers, but these days I write mostly about travel. I’ve been lucky enough to find myself in some far-flung locales, where poking around markets and grocery stores is my favorite thing to do. Cooking, especially baking, is my way of winding down after a long day; there’s nothing like kneading bread dough to bring you back to earth.

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