How to Make Sprinkle Birthday Cake, According to Molly Yeh

Sometimes artificial is best.

December 22, 2021
Photo by Molly Yeh

It's always more fun (and fulfilling!) to DIY. Today, we're making an artificially delicious childhood treat a little bit more authentic. Molly Yeh from My Name is Yeh shows us how.

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.

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More: A beautiful cake stand for your beautiful creation.

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. 100 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!

Sprinkle Birthday Cake

Serves 10 to 14

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, then lightly spray the parchment with nonstick baking spray.

With an electric mixer or in the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until the mixture is fluffy. Add the egg whites, one at a time, mixing well after each one. Mix in the vanilla and oil.

More: Customize your cake's color scheme by making your own sprinkles—just don't use natural dyes!

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. With your mixer running on low speed, 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 of the batter, then 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, then flip them onto a cooling rack and allow them to cool completely before frosting.

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! 

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2014. But the internet's currently abuzz with excitement about the Cheesecake Factory's sprinkle birthday cake-inspired cheesecake, so it's as good a time as any to remind you that there's a way to create a sprinkle birthday cake on your own, from scratch, in the comforts of your kitchen. We can't all live close to a Cheesecake Factory, after all.

Photos of pans by Catherine Lamb; all others by Molly Yeh.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Marissa Calcagno Ennis
    Marissa Calcagno Ennis
  • Andrea6446
  • Melissa Noland
    Melissa Noland
  • Jennifer
  • jpriddy
molly yeh recently moved from brooklyn to a farm outside of grand forks, north dakota, where her husband is a fifth generation farmer. she writes the blog my name is yeh.


Marissa C. October 20, 2020
I'm really hoping this comes together and/or enough buttercream can save it, but I'm bummed and nervous now... they cakes looked BEAUTIFUL in the oven. I used cake strips (for the first time) and the cakes were rising completely evenly across the top. I got to 25 minutes and the cake was still jiggly. Added 5 minutes, not done. 5 more. Then 5 more. Then FINALLY when my 8" cakes were done (based on toothpick) at just over 45 minutes total (yikes), the tops were a little more golden than they should be... Let them cool in pans on wire racks for about 15 minutes. Ran butter knife around edge so I could turn them out and they clearly were not done. They're in the oven now - and now with foil across the top in a probably futile attempt to salvage them at this point. Luckily I was planning to freeze these for a couple days and use for my daughter's bday on the weekend, so now I have plenty of time to make a new cake. Really hoping these work, though. They looked amazing (minus the overcooked tops - which could be cut off, I realize, but I fear the cakes will be super dry at this point).
Andrea6446 May 17, 2020
My daughter has requested sprinkles cupcakes for her 3rd birthday. I’m thinking of doing this recipe and cooking as cupcakes. Think that would work (just with much shorter cooking time?).
Melissa N. April 7, 2020
Can I substitute the cake flour for AP flour? Would the measurements change?
Jennifer January 23, 2020
Attention Moms: Artificial vanilla and artificial colors are made with PETROLEUM!!!! Look it up!

Do you really want to feed your children a cancer cake filled with PETROLEUM that causes diseases?

Perhaps Molly Yeh does not know this (she should).

As Oprah says, "When we know better, we do better."

Molly, we must do better than influence Moms and home bakers to make cancer cakes filled with PETROLEUM! There are delicious organic options. It's surprising that Food 52 would promote this too. How about a fun organic cake that is PETROLEUM-free, please?
Barry B. January 29, 2020
wOn’T soMEBoDy tHINk oF tHe CHILDREN?!?!?!? 😂
Marta L. February 5, 2020
Oh get off it! My mom gave me Tastykakes for breakfast as a kid, and i'm SURE there was plenty of cancer-causing ingredients in it, but I wouldn't take it back for the world. And that didn't make her a bad mom. It's hard enough to be a mom, so save your demonization of mothers who give their kids fun food.
elyze July 4, 2020
This is false.
jpriddy January 23, 2020
Did you try margarine? Pure hydrogenated vegetable shortening? Lard? Am I truly the only person left who does not have any nostalgia about boxed cake mixes?
Vida January 27, 2019
I have made a wide variety of birthday cakes for many, many parties (my three girls are 17, 16 and 10). But this is the first time I have cleared cake plates away and found not a single one with any cake left on them. This recipe is easy and a true crowd pleaser -- the adults liked it just as much as the kids.
Athena H. March 21, 2018
any suggestions for dividing the recipe for a smaller cake?
Liana K. February 13, 2018
I finally chose this recipe after scrounging the Internet for funfetti cake that didn’t require a whole carton’s worth of egg whites. However, I found it strange that the egg whites are added straight in. I was going for a cake with height, and noticing the pictures of the cake in this article were on the flat side, I whipped the eggs to soft peaks. I followed the recipe as written, but then added the whipped egg whites at the end, folding to keep the lightness. They came out beautifully! Very high and fluffy - but definitely needed more time in the oven than 25 min. Also worth noting that I only put two teaspoons of white vanilla, as other recipes had similar amounts.

Call this blasphemy but I also threw in some Meyer lemon zest (gasp) but a lemon cake was requested and at the same time a funfetti one. I also squeezed in a little lemon juice to help the egg whites whip along. Meyer lemons worked great with the artificial vanilla flavor, I feel like regular lemons might not produce the same results.
Emily October 6, 2017
I made this cake today and it was a heartbreaker. As I was reading the ingredients, I was surprised to read "2 Tablespoons vanilla extract." That seems like an awful lot. Reading through the comments, I saw an identical concern that was not addressed by the writer.
I mixed the cake batter as instructed, poured it into 2 identical round metal cake pans, and baked it for 25 minutes. It still wasn't done, so I baked it for 5 more minutes, when they tested done. I took the pans out of the oven to cool, and removed the cakes from the pans. One was baked through, and one was not. I followed the writer's instructions to put the cake back in the oven, but was unable to get it back in the pan. Also, the center of the unbaked cake fell in. I could've gotten around this and just used the fully-baked cake, but this cake was to have been for my son's birthday party. So, due to time and scheduling constraints, he gets a cake from a box mix for his big day. He'll never know the difference, but it breaks my heart.
Gwendolyn D. September 14, 2017
This is by far the most impressive looking and tasting homemade funfetti! I appreciate all of the R&D, so I didn't have to! Thank you.
Genius to add cornstarch and clear vanilla really does have its place! I am a huge Momofoku fan and the tidbit about sprinkles on top of the batter is an ice add. I am glad I found this and hank you for your hard work!
cherylnewcomb January 12, 2020
Allison S. August 20, 2017
Is there a gluten free flour you recommend for this recipe? I have yet to find a GF cake flour!
Elizabeth S. July 8, 2017
This is one of my all time favorite cake recipes! So much fun and as always, Molly's writing is just as entertaining.
VRich January 4, 2016
I went to two stores and could only find imitation vanilla at one of them and it has caramel color added. Does this make a difference in taste or just the color of the cake?
Ruth M. September 20, 2015
Molly is 2 Tbsp of imitation vanilla correct? It seems like a lot of vanilla.
Ocala Cake Lady
fanaledrinks August 13, 2015
This was always my favorite cake as a kid. I miss the 90's.
TxMel December 31, 2014
Any idea if this same recipe (maybe doubled) would work in a larger cake, like a 9x13 or a half sheet cake? Gathering my ideas for a nephew's 1st bday party but there will be about 20 guests. Also, read about cake strips on a different baking site, would those help with the previous comments about baking faster on the outside (for round cakes)? Thanks so much, I love the idea of homemade sprinkles! Will do this if I find the time!
karahelena May 1, 2019
Did you try the sheet cake? Any suggestions, appreciated <3
Joan H. November 15, 2014
My cakes came out of the oven a little while ago, but I had one problem--I used 8" pans and the cake rose way over the top--didn't spill out, but looked like the pans were too small. Was it really 8" not 9? I used appropriately artificial sprinkles, but realized after I bought the clear vanilla that I hate cake mix taste, so I used real vanilla. So mine isn't going to be quite real...except it is...or not
marios November 6, 2014
Hi there looks perfect
i tried to follow the instructions but
When i added the colour sprinkles
The butter changed colour :(
Any way to avoid that
samantha June 6, 2015
Molly's blog link to her sprinkle experiment
AnimalSaver September 24, 2014
Where are those sprinkles for the batter from? I am making this in a few hours for my future in law's birthday!
Chelsea June 13, 2017
Did it work out? Are they still your in law's?
alison B. September 18, 2014
Making this right now for my little one who is turning 2 next Monday! Excited to see how it turns out...the BATTER tastes AMAZING.