Fourth of July

American Flag Cake

May  6, 2021
4 Ratings
Photo by Mark Weinberg
Author Notes

There's no better way to celebrate an American holiday than with a flag cake—a simple white cake with a patriotic surprise inside.

First thing's first, you need five 9-inch cakes: two white, two red, and one blue. You can use the recipe here, or any favorite white cake recipe that you have. After making a large amount of cake, the rest is pie (or at least easy as pie). Just watch the video above to see how it's done.

**Please note that the recipe makes one single cake, so to make the flag cake you'll need to make it 5 times. A standard KitchenAid mixer comfortably handles 1 batch of batter.**

This recipe will have some cake and buttercream left over. With those extras you could make: cake pops/cake truffles, a trifle with freshly whipped cream and sliced berries, or toasted cake croutons to go on top of pudding or to serve alongside coffee. —Erin Jeanne McDowell

Test Kitchen Notes

“It looks really unassuming on the outside, but on the inside it’s a big surprise,” says Erin McDowell, Resident Baking BFF and the developer of this flag cake recipe. It looks super-complicated, but it’s actually just a matter of following the instructions. After baking and trimming the cakes, you’ll cut them into a few circles and rings, then layer them—sandwiched with American buttercream, of course—to create a sliceable flag-wedge, just waiting to be eaten. Cue the fireworks! But maybe you’re wondering, why is flag cake a thing? Who started this? I’ll tell you! I don’t know.

“Ina Garten thinks that she invented flag cake,” writes Sarah Jampel in a deep-dive into the subject published on this very site in 2016. (Within the story, you’ll find that Martha Stewart of course also thinks she was the first to make one.) Both Garten’s and Stewart’s versions are a bit more Pinterest than professional: they’re sheet cakes with white frosting-stripes and stars piped between red and blue berries—the cake is the flag, eat it, be merry. Apparently neither were actually the first, though: there’s evidence of petit fours painted with blue and red dye dating back to the early 1900s, and iterations made for decades following. There have been flag cakes made of Jello, ice cream flag cakes, and flag cakes made of red, white, and blue cake balls arranged into a flag shape. Does it really matter why this became a thing, or which is a true flag cake? Like most wacky traditions, they’re probably best just enjoyed. —The Editors

Watch This Recipe
American Flag Cake
  • Prep time 1 hour
  • Cook time 45 minutes
  • Makes one 9-inch cake
Ingredients
  • For the cake:
  • 8 tablespoons butter, room temperature
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 2 eggs, room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups cake flour, sifted
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • Salt
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk, room temperature
  • For the frosting:
  • 4 sticks softened unsalted butter
  • 8 cups sifted powdered sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
In This Recipe
Directions
  1. For the cake:
  2. Preheat the oven to 350° F. Grease and flour a 9-inch cake pan.
  3. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, 4-5 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, scraping well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla.
  4. In a large bowl, whisk the sifted flour, baking powder, and a pinch of salt to combine. Add 1/3 of the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and mix just until incorporated. Follow with 1/3 of the buttermilk and mix to combine. Repeat until all of the wet and dry ingredients are added, scrape well to ensure the batter is smooth.
  5. For the white cakes: do nothing! The batter can be baked as is. For the red cakes: add about 25 drops of liquid food coloring (or more if it looks too pale). For the blue cake: add about 20 drops of liquid food coloring (or more if it looks too pale).
  6. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pans and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 35 to 45 minutes. Cool in the pans for 15 minutes, then invert onto a wire rack and cool completely. If you don't have 5 separate cake pans, you can continue to use the cake pans you have over and over again until you have 5 cakes.
  7. To assemble the cake, you'll need the frosting (recipe below). Cut the white and red cakes into even layers, between 3/4- to 1-inch thick. Now you should have 6 layers. Use a 5-inch circle cookie cutter (or trace around a 5-inch plate) to cut one of the white layers and one of the red layers into a smaller circle.
  8. Use the 5-inch cutter to remove the center of the thicker blue cake. This cake will remain in one thick layer.
  9. To build the cake, start with a large red layer and spread a thin coating of buttercream on top. Top with a white layer, and spread buttercream thinly on top. (The recipe is below.) Repeat with another red and another white layer—you should have four layers total.
  10. Top this white layer with the thick blue layer (center removed). Spread a thin amount of frosting on the 5-inch red layer, and top it with the 5-inch white layer. Now push and pat the 5-inch layers inside the hole of the blue layer. Now the cake has been assembled!
  11. Frost the cake with the remaining frosting, using a small offset spatula to make it swirly. All that’s left to do is eat it!
  1. For the frosting:
  2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, 5 to 6 minutes. Beat in the vanilla. Add the cream gradually, mixing until a smooth, creamy texture.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Sasha Anderson
    Sasha Anderson
  • melissa y
    melissa y
  • Andrea Del Conte
    Andrea Del Conte
  • Alice Swenson
    Alice Swenson
  • Adrienne
    Adrienne
I always have three kinds of hot sauce in my purse. I have a soft spot for making people their favorite dessert, especially if it's wrapped in a pastry crust. My newest cookbook, The Book on Pie, is out on November 10th, 2020.

109 Reviews

kathy July 4, 2019
I made this cake and it definitely had the wow factor. However, as others have said, it was quite dense, not the fluffy layers depicted in the picture. It was also impossible to get a good red using food coloring drops- it was still light pink after 70+ drops or so. Maybe a gel color might have worked better? There was also a ton of extra cake with the non-used layers- almost a second cake.
 
Sasha A. July 2, 2018
Made this cake this weekend. It generally worked according to directions but it was a) pretty dense, I like a more fluffy cake b) way too sweet. Like sickeningly, inedibly sweet.
 
trvlnsandy July 2, 2018
Different strokes for different folks - I love dense. Just re-read the next comment and I would use the 'leftover' to make a reverse cake. Only one level of red and white - but the blue is on the opposite side (depending how you do the original). I cut my blue and the red/white layers - and then just fit what is taken out of one into what is left of the other, if that makes sense. One full sized cake and one smaller.
 
Kat December 21, 2017
For some of you wondering what to do with the leftover cake and frosting - MAKE CAKE POPS!! They look really pretty and festive placed jauntily around the cake. Perfect for any guests with small appetites.
 
alicechen2 July 7, 2017
I just made this cake this week as a combined 50th Birthday & July 4th celebration. As I prepared I wished that all the necessary ingredients had been added up and listed as they would be purchased, such as, by the pound, oz, etc. Also, for people using a Kitchen Aide Mixer it would be very helpful to have a cheat sheet of times and settings. Unfortunately Kitchen Aide does not provide that for their VERY expensive mixers. Then I wished that there had been step by step photos or a video.After I was done putting the cake together I had a open hole in the top center of the cake. My blue was not at top, instead 2/3rds of the way down. Those instructions were very confusing.Especially since it said to cut the red & white cakes across the center & you would have 6 layers..HOW? there were two of each cake, would that not produce 8 layers? I cook a lot. The cake was a hit. We took lots of pictures. The flavor was awesome. The frosting the best, and not any problems.NOTE: I started at making this cake at 8:30 in the morning and finished at 3:30 pm. And driving it across town...now that was another challenge, but it made it.
 
FromAway July 4, 2017
Lovely presentation but SICKLY SWEET. For all the effort, no one could eat more than a few bites. Will follow the assembly instructions again, using different recipes!
 
melissa Y. July 3, 2017
For those of you using a 6Q kitchenaid mixer, it can easily accommodate 3x this recipe. I added the food coloring to the buttermilk, which prevented over-mixing and some of the "leaden" comments about the food coloring layers. The cake layer batter weighs about 775 grams for each layer if you'd like to measure batter when dividing after making multiple batches. This is so easy and such a fun presentation! And it does taste as great as everyone says! (I've made it both with almond and with vanilla flavoring and both are fantastic!) Thank you Erin!
 
trvlnsandy June 29, 2017
I made this and used the leftovers to make a 'reverse' cake. Bottom not as tall, but....
 
zenith5 June 26, 2017
I made this a few years ago and plan to make it again. But this isn't a white cake since it uses the egg yolks. I omitted the yolk when I made this. Also I used all the layers I could instead of discarding the "leftovers" so mine was 8 layers high. I sprinkled the icing with red and blue star "sprinkles) to add to the festiveness. I wish I could upload a picture. Turned out beautifully and easy to make. (Took time but not difficult). (My daughter enjoyed eating the the middle of the red and white rings). The icing is plenty, might try cutting in half this next round. I come from a long line of bakers and even my family was impressed. Can't wait to make it for my co-workers.
 
Nat June 27, 2017
8 layers.. great idea. I, too, made this awesome cake in 2014 and it was a hit! Making it again this 4th of July as well. Thanks Erin for a rocking recipe. Happy Baking!
 
zenith5 June 27, 2017
Made a mistake in that I said my daughter ate the middle of the re and white rings. Obviously not the case since I used those for the cake. She ate the RINGS!
 
Pia May 25, 2017
I don't think the picture depicts this recipe. As you can see there's no blue cake in this one. Where can I get the correct recipe?
 
Author Comment
Erin J. May 25, 2017
You can find instructions for the blue cake layer in step 4, and then again in the assembly of the cake!
 
Andrea D. July 6, 2016
I made this over the weekend for my family's 4th of July party - needless to say, it was a hit! I'm an amateur baker, and have never made a layered cake before, but this recipe was easy to follow and also so delicious!! Thank you for the tasty recipe, Erin!
 
Alice S. July 2, 2016
I made this once before but I either lost or never had 9" pans. Assuming I reduce the amount if batter for each cake, will this turn out ok with 8" pans?
 
Harry June 16, 2016
I refrigerated the cake, and brought it to room temp before serving. I also froze pieces and when defrosted, they were great. I also froze the extra fragments of cake produced from cutting, and made a german chocolate cake icing for them when defrosted--great snacks
 
Amanda G. June 15, 2016
How should this cake (and, more specifically, the frosting) be stored? Can the frosted cake be left out overnight, or does it need to be refrigerated?
 
Rebecca K. June 16, 2016
It can be left out overnight, unless you have a very warm kitchen. The frosting isn't "gooey". Since the cake has no preservatives it won't stay fresh more than a couple of days, but I think cake is always much better at room temperature.
 
Adrienne June 9, 2016
I made this last Indepence day and not only is it a very cleaver design but the cake and butter cream is the best I've ever tasted. The cake is dense and easy to work with. We got great results.
 
Michelle E. December 25, 2015
This is a wonderful white cake recipe! My 14 year old made the flag cake for July 4th and my husband decided he wanted the same cake recipe for his birthday (Dec 25th). Said it was like eating a homemade Twinkie. Thanks for the recipe!
 
ZD September 28, 2015
Hi Erin,
I love this cake and I've made it 3 times with huge success. Normally I'm not a fan of white cake but this one is pretty awesome. How would I turn this white cake recipe into a chocolate cake recipe?
 
jackhutton July 5, 2015
Made this over the fourth weekend at altitude., 6250 ft.
Turned out very good - after reading up alittle on high altitude baking I decided to use all-purpose flour & a slight slight bit more, used slightly less sugar because of its effects on leavening, slightly more buttermilk — about a cup vs 3/4 cup & generally added 1/2 egg to each layer batch.
Made each layer individually - sequentially . I used a food color 'gel' which we bought by mistake. We'd have rather used standard drops - oh well.
We used all of the frosting w none to spare . It was a fun monster of a cake to present after dinner. And yes, it's not a cake for those on a diet :)
 
Adrienne July 4, 2015
My daughter and I made this today. So fun! Both the cake and icing were easy to work with and tasted great.
 
Foxdog July 3, 2015
If using a cake mix. Use 8" pans. And, let dry some to help handling.
 
MarZig July 3, 2015
i agree i used the 9" and felt that the 8" is better/thicker for better sliceing the layers 1/2.
 
MarZig July 3, 2015
would help if I spelled correctly :)
 
Lindsey L. June 29, 2015
Does the frosting recipe cover enough frosting for the entire cake, layers included?
 
Rebecca K. June 29, 2015
There is PLENTY of frosting - enough to frost the cake heavily plus some left over.