Yellow Birthday Cake

By Chef Megan Joy / March 25, 2012

It’s a common story. Sometimes we forget we live at altitude. Then it’s our friend’s birthday, and we decide to bake him or her a cake. And…it fails.

Oh yeah. Stuff doesn’t bake the same up here. And you never want to try baking again.

Well it’s time to get birthdays back. In a world of vanilla and chocolate, sometimes yellow falls out of the mix and gets overlooked.

One taste and you’ll wonder why you wandered so far. It’s yellow butter cake. Moist and tender, with a nice crumb. The perfect partner for a fudge frosting. Universally appealing.

These layers bake up tall and even, thanks to a little extra insurance from whipped egg whites that get folded into the batter at the end. All-purpose flour fills in for part of the cake flour originally called for to provide more support in the batter.

Stack it with some fudge frosting and adorn a few candles on top, and you’re back in the game.

How to make yellow birthday cake:


Yellow Cake (adapted from Martha Stewart)

1 1/2 sticks (6 oz) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 eggs, separated
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup cake flour
1/2 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups half and half or whole milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and line two 8-inch round pans with parchment paper. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the soft butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.

Add the egg yolks, gradually, beating well after each addition. In another bowl, combine the flours, baking powder, and salt. Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture in three additions alternately with the half and half, starting and ending with the flour.

Transfer the batter to a large bowl and clean the mixer bowl. Once cleaned, add the egg whites and whip to soft peaks, they will look like “beer foam”. It’s important to slightly under-whip egg whites at altitude so they don’t over-expand your baked good.

Fold the whipped egg whites into the batter in two additions. Portion the batter into the two pans and bake until the tops are golden brown and the centers spring back when lightly touched, about 20-25 minutes. Cool the cakes in the pans for about 10 minutes, then invert and cool completely. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least a few hours before using. Chilling the cakes makes them easier to handle for assembling a layer cake.

“All I know is that there is somebody in my house, eating my birthday cake, with my family, and it’s not me!” -Arnold Schwarzenegger, The 6th Day

About the author

Chef Megan Joy

46comments
Emily McMurray - January 31, 2013

I’m thinking about making this for our Super Bowl party…what is your recipe for fudge frosting? Thank you!

Reply
    Chef Megan Joy - February 1, 2013

    Hi Emily. A good recipe for fudge frosting: 2 sticks softened butter, pinch of salt, 1/2 cup cocoa powder. Cream until smoooth, then add 1/2 cup hot water and a tablespoon of corn syrup. It will slowly incorporate. Beat in 2-3 cups of powdered sugar until the frosting is the consistency you like. The longer you beat it the fluffier it will get. Add some vanilla. If it’s too sweet, add a little cocoa powder. If it’s too bitter, add more powdered sugar. If it’s too thick, add a little more hot water.

    Reply
      Kessa Poole - June 15, 2013

      this is why you are wonderful chef megan. i wish i could just watch you all day. and i want to thank you. how awesome that you take the time to answer each of our individual questions even about frosting! 🙂 rock on girl

      Reply
Sarah - February 18, 2013

Megan,
I am in love with your blog! I am an avid baker and just moved to Denver from Seattle. Your blog has allowed me to continue baking at a high altitude and inspired me to work on morphing my favorite recipes that worked at sea-level. I was wondering if I could do this recipe in 9″ pans? If so what would I need to change to the recipe or bake time? Thanks!

Reply
    Chef Megan Joy - February 19, 2013

    Hi Sarah! Welcome to the Rockies! You can definitely do this recipe in 9″ pans, your cake layers will come out a little thinner and they will bake for about 5-10 minutes less.

    Reply
Jen - February 19, 2013

Thanks for the great recipe! I’m curious if you’ve used this recipe for cupcakes? If so, did you adjust the oven temp? Any ideas on baking time adjusting? Thanks!

Reply
    Chef Megan Joy - February 19, 2013

    Jen- This will probably work fine converted to cupcakes. I would fill the cups about 2/3 full with batter. Baking time for cupcakes I’d say maybe 12-15 minutes. You’ll look for risen cakes with a hint of golden brown and tops that spring back when lightly poked.

    Reply
      Susan - July 17, 2013

      Hi Megan,
      My cupcakes still fell in the middle:-( any ideas? I am at 8640ft, Silverthorne, CO. Is there an additional adjustment needed?

      Reply
Jamie - April 18, 2013

I just wanted to say that first attempt at a cake in Durango, CO was a total failure. I whipped this one up with no problems, and it tastes delicious, and cooked perfectly. I think I left mine in the oven for about 35 minutes. Thank you for the blog post. I will be using this site for many more recipes.

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Marcia - May 2, 2013

Have all ingredients out and ready to make this but realize there’s no time stated. ??

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    Marcia - May 2, 2013

    Okay, I see Jamie’s took about 35 min. I’ll go with that.

    Reply
Joseph - June 5, 2013

Tried this recipe in Kunming, China (6000 ft.). Worked perfectly. Best high altitude cake recipe i’ve found yet. I used 2 cups all purpose flour, no cake flour.

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Joseph - June 5, 2013

Used the same recipe for cupcakes too. Perfect.

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Angie - June 20, 2013

I’m so excited to find this! I live in Mexico City and recently found out my daughter is allergic to soy. I can’t use any box mixes and don’t have any high altitude recipes. I can’t wait to make this for my son’s 2nd birthday next week!

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Shantavia - July 12, 2013

Hi Megan,

Thank you for your blog and recipes! I’ve recently moved to Quito, Ecuador in the Andes mountains and baking here . . .well. . . is a giant FAIL! I want to try this yellow cake recipe, but cake flour (among many many other things) is not available here. Can I substitute regular flour? Suggestions???

Reply
    Chef Megan Joy - July 12, 2013

    Hi Shantavia- You can certainly use all regular flour if cake flour is not available. You could also make your own by mixing 7/8 cup all-purpose flour with 2 tablespoons cornstarch to equal 1 cup.

    Reply
Holly - July 29, 2013

Can I add some cocoa powder to make it a chocolate-y cake? Or will it mess with the recipe moist to dry ingredients ratio? I am trying to make a birthday cake with a peanut butter frosting and a thick chocolate ganache – do you think chocolate cake would be better? Or would the yellow cake taste good as well!?
Thanks Megan,

Holly (Telluride)

Reply
    Chef Megan Joy - July 29, 2013

    Hi Holly! For a great chocolatey cake I would use the Chocolate Stout Cake recipe. The stout beer is very subtle and lends a slight malt flavor that compliments the chocolate. It will go excellent with peanut butter and chocolate gananche.

    Reply
Jen - February 9, 2014

Awesome cake!! I live at roughly 9500 ft. I did lower the baking powder to 1 1/4 tsp and 1TB less sugar and it’s soft and fluffy!

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Edis - May 31, 2014

It says 1 and 1 half sticks which is 12 oz but 6oz in parentheses. I think you mean 12 but I’m not sure, thanks!

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Shannon - June 8, 2014

GREAT site. Wow! Question, though, on this cake: I am in Frisco at 9097 ft and I followed this recipe with your suggestion to change ap flour to cake flour ratio (1.5 to .5 is what I used) only to pull out a rubbery, flat cake (did it in rounds). Ideas? Thank you.

Reply
    Chef Megan Joy - June 10, 2014

    Thanks Shannon. I’m sorry your cake came out flat and rubbery. A few things could have caused this. 1.) How much did you whip the egg whites? They should be foamy and fluffy, but not stiff and curdled-looking. 2.) Chemical leaveners. Most times at altitude, when cakes don’t rise like they should, reduce the baking powder slightly. 3.) Mixing. While it’s important to incorporate all of the ingredients evenly, you also want to take care not to over-mix your batter- this activates the gluten in the flour and makes tough, dense cakes rather than fluffy ones. I hope this helps! Happy Baking Shannon 🙂

    Reply
Margaret E. - August 4, 2014

Chef Megan do you think I could do this is a 12 cup bundt pan? I have used this recipe (and love it) in the standard 9″ pans, but didn’t know how a conversion to bundt would work. Thoughts? Thanks so much!

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    Chef Megan Joy - August 10, 2014

    Hi Margaret, I wouldn’t recommend it, but like most things, it could be worth a try! The batter for this recipe is so light from the egg whites, versus a pound cake batter (typically baked in bundt or loaf pans) and I worry that at several inches deep it wouldn’t be able to support the cake as it bakes and collapse.

    Reply
Amber - August 18, 2014

Hi, I’m in Denver and want to make a larger version of this cake, probably 2 layers of 8″ on top of two layers of 10″. I’d also like to use food coloring for the cake. Do you think the batter would triple well and whatever is left I can use for cupcakes? I just moved here and baking at altitude seems so complicated! It’s for my daughter’s birthday so I really want it to turn out well!

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    Chef Megan Joy - August 19, 2014

    Hi Amber, yes, the batter should triple fine and leftovers will probably work for cupcakes, though they may be more of a ‘flat-topped’ cupcake than a ‘domed’ one. Happy birthday to your daughter!

    Reply
Michi - September 26, 2014

Can I sub the milk with buttermilk??

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Luna H. - October 5, 2014

First off I want to say that i absoulutley love your blog! I also want to thank you, because Ive been using your recipes as bases for my own cakes and cupcakes that im baking constantly for work at 7200 ft, when i used to be a valley girl! My best friends birthday is in a few days and Im going to add some candied ginger into the batter, do you think it will do okay?

Reply
    Chef Megan Joy - October 14, 2014

    Hi Luna, thank you! Candied ginger will work great in this batter. You could also use it in the frosting if you don’t want to add it to the cake. Happy birthday!

    Reply
Samuel Chaves - November 5, 2014

Hi Chef Megan…I live at almost 8,600 ft. would you make any changes to this recipe? Also, I’ve been using a yellow cake recipe that has produced adequate results but it asks to sift the flour before measuring it. Would you sift the cake and all-purpose flour for this recipe as well?
Thanks so much!
Love the awesome recipes you have on your website!

Reply
    Chef Megan Joy - November 5, 2014

    Hi Samuel, I don’t think you’ll need to make any adjustments for 8,600 ft. Sifting the flours makes for a lighter, more delicate-crumbed cake, which you may certainly do for this recipe as well. Happy baking!

    Reply
DeeDee - November 24, 2014

I just made this cake at 5300 feet and it didn’t rise nearly as much as I expected. Could it be because I didn’t whip the egg whites enough? (I thought they were fully whipped and realized that was not the case when I poured them into the batter.)

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    Chef Megan Joy - November 26, 2014

    Hi DeeDee, that could very well be the culprit. For 5,300 feet I would also recommend using more baking powder than called for in my adaptation. Try 1/2 tablespoon plus 1/4 tablespoon, with whipped egg whites next time. Happy baking!

    Reply
Ann - January 18, 2015

We LOVE this recipe. Our altitude is 7000 feet & this is amazing!

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Rachel - August 13, 2015

Megan, can I switch cake flour for all-purpose flour? I live in Mexico City, and I’m not sure I can find cake flour. I used it all the time in the US, but I haven’t looked here.

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    Chef Megan Joy - October 2, 2015

    Hi Rachel, yes, you can use all-purpose flour in place of cake flour. It will not be quite as tender-crumbed, but still delicious!

    Reply
Rita Leydon - September 17, 2015

I am at 8500 ft elevation in Colorado. I didn’t have the courage to put in the whole 1/2 tbsp. baking powder. I used 1/2 tsp. instead. That worked fine. Is it a typo?

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    Chef Megan Joy - October 2, 2015

    Hi Rita, no that is not a typo. The saving grace in this cake recipe is the whipped egg whites that get folded in at the end. These are kind of like an insurance for the batter and give the cake plenty of lift. Sometimes recipes won’t have any chemical leaveners in them, instead relying solely on the eggs, and these almost always work at any altitude. Glad to hear it came out great!

    Reply
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