Grown-Up Birthday Cake

September 23, 2010
17 Ratings
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

What You'll Need
  • yellow cake
  • 2 1/2 cups AP flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 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 vanilla
  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.
Contest Entries

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    Rosalind Paaswell
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    Ken Flanagan
  • Sarah Donegan
    Sarah Donegan

Recipe by: Midge

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.

157 Reviews

Hapgood December 12, 2022
I am decidedly not a birthday cake fan. This recipe intrigued me. I followed the recipe as written except using slightly less sugar in the batter than the recipe called for. I used a full cup of Kirkland olive oil which is decently fruity and a cup of Prosecco that I left to get flat because that’s what I had on hand. My timer accidentally got canceled so I overcooked the cake but it was still very good even so. The raspberry layer helped moisten things and saved the day. I really enjoyed the cake even though it was a bit dry (my fault) and I am excited to make the recipe again and try it when the cake is cooked properly. I will definitely add this cake to the rotation. For anyone worried, the cake did not have any strong flavors of wine or olive oil. I don’t think there’s any need to dilute the olive oil as some in the comments we’re doing.
Chocolatebabka January 21, 2022
I loved this cake. I went off book, quartering the recipe and baking it in one 6 inch springform lined with parchment for 33 min, and used dry Dolin vermouth, half extra virgin olive oil and half canola oil. I sliced the cake into two layers and spread with elderberry jam. I was nervous about the vermouth flavor but somehow the aromatics really worked here and made for a complex flavor. This was also really easy to make and was by far my best looking layer cake attempt(which says something since my previous attempts have been mediocre at best). Would definitely recommend.
Cathy F. October 10, 2021
WHAT an outstanding cake!!! In historical order: 3 years ago my daughter tasted this at a friend's house (her friend's mom is a pastry chef and loves this recipe). My daughter swooned over it, so her friend made it for her for her birthday 2 years ago. My daughter brought the recipe home and we made it 1.5 years ago. Since then it's been the cake of choice for every birthday in my house here in NY. And then my brother out in Oregon asked for a favorite yellow cake recipe, and of course I shared this. It is now the only birthday cake made in that household as well.
Outstanding. Truly outstanding. Thank you!!!
Rosalind P. October 5, 2021
And more to the point, it IS a great cake. So again thanks
Rosalind P. October 3, 2021
Here I go again! At this point, I don't understand why a site like Food52 (so darn good in every other way) posts recipes -- baking recipes -- with measurements only in volume. If I know (and I am not even a rank amateur) that measuring in weight instead of volume is the best, really should be the only, path to success in baking. No, it is no longer true that American kitchens don't have scales. So many do now. And for those who don't, just incude both weight and volume. Or let them convert the measurements. So, please all you gurus and mavens at F52 -- do the right thing? Please????
drbabs October 3, 2021
This recipe is from 2010. As someone who has a bunch of baking recipes on this site, the old recipes used volume and not weight. And really, they came out fine. There are many thousands of recipes that use volume and not weight on this site. It’s unlikely that Food52 will change them. But you can. Here’s a tutorial for measuring flour that should get you to the magical 4.5 ounces per cup. Good luck.
Matt October 5, 2021
"Or let them convert the measurements."

Go right ahead what's stopping you.
Matt October 5, 2021
Oh that's preposterous! Don't you know that Americans didn't know how to bake until just this year when they all "did the right thing" and "did what is best" and started using scales. /s
Rosalind P. October 5, 2021
Nice, Matt.
Monica B. June 21, 2020
This is what I think birthday cake ought to be. I made it twice--for other people--but I wish someone would make it for me. The second time I made it, the cake alone tasted strange, probably because I used flat champagne and a different olive oil, but with the chocolate and jam, the flavors were wonderful and complex. My kids dyed the batter pink and it actually made it even more fun and festive.
amdame1 May 10, 2020
Can't really tell that it's got wine in it, but it's got a nice tang to it when it's baked.
I used half olive oil and half vegetable oil. I also used a riesling as I tend to like sweeter wines.
Sifted the flour mixture 3 times, yet when added to wet ingredients it still clumped horribly and had to mix it instead of just fold gently - however this did not seem to affect how it rose.
I used some of my homemade strawberry freezer jam. Worked well. Nice flavor combo with the cake and dark chocolate frosting.
amdame1 May 10, 2020
OH! the most important thing! Even though buttered and floured the cake tins, they did not come out!!! Perhaps use parchment paper to line tins instead if you try this recipe.
Alicia January 30, 2019
There is a nice crunch to the sides of the cake, unexpected but tasty!
Carolina C. November 18, 2018
For anyone baking this at high altitude, I cut back the baking powder to 2 tsp and increased the baking time to 38 minutes. It turned out perfect!
Sarah E. November 4, 2018
Made this for a friend's birthday to very positive reception. Since I hadn't made it before and I wasn't sure of the quality of my olive oil, I mixed half olive oil with half vegetable oil, and used prosecco (nothing fancy but not undrinkable). Also, all I had was 8" pans, so I just filled them as much as I felt I reasonably could, and they required about 28 minutes in the oven. Also doubled the frosting recipe for the sake of decoration. Super moist, subtle olive oil flavor, not too sweet. Excellent results overall.
Ken F. November 4, 2018
Maybe I used the wrong olive oil, but this cake was a disaster. Nobody could finish a slice, and some subtly spit the first bite into their napkin. The olive oil taste was overpowering and made for an inedible cake.
FoodIsLove November 4, 2018
Ken you're absolutely right that the olive oil you use can make or break the flavor of this cake. I buy a very buttery olive oil...nothing too strong or grassy, to make this cake. The flavor is subtle so the olive oil flavor doesn't overpower the cake. Also, the wine you choose should be well balanced. I've made it with a California blend that is neither too sweet or too dry. I've made it multiple times to rave reviews. Don't write this one off just yet. I've made it multiple times to rave reviews. Don't write this one off just yet.
kraftyczap June 29, 2018
Incredible!! I used Prosecco and strawberry jam. Reduced sugar in cake to about 1.5 cups.
Sarah D. March 20, 2017
I made this cake this weekend and it was by far the very best yellow cake I've ever made. I used Sauvignon Blanc and 1/2 olive oil, 1/2 canola oil. It's incredibly moist and flavorful with a lovely, toothsome texture. I skipped the jam (not a fan of jam in cakes) and made a chocolate ganache icing. Really, just WOW.
Chelsea T. February 3, 2017
Made this last night/this morning. Will serve tonight for my mom's birthday. Baked the cake last night and let it cool out overnight. Felt a little bit crunchy to the touch, but I don't think that's a bad thing. The icing came out VERY thick. I used Hershey's Dark Choc. Cocoa Powder. I ended up using a stick and a half of butter rather than just a stick. Made the consistency a lot more spreadable and lighter. Hope that it will be a hit at the party tonight!
Melissa June 16, 2016
I made this cake and it was fantastic!!!! I used good wine (J Pinot Gris) and good olive oil and it was a huge hit :)
Jaclyn P. February 7, 2016
Really wanted this to turn out better.. I used a mild olive oil but the whole cake smells of olive oil and i trimmed some off while icing to taste and it was so strong tasting of olive oil it didnt taste much like cake.
Lily January 7, 2016
I found this cake to be way too sweet for me. I used strawberry jam instead of raspberry so that may have made the difference but overall I would cut the sugar in half at least.
Pessy H. October 7, 2015
i want to keep this dairy free. can i make that buttercream with coconut oil or would it just run all over the place? or would a ganache work just as well?
Boleyn June 1, 2015
I loved this cake! The combination of the moist, chardonnay-flavored cake, the raspberry jam and the delicious chocolate frosting were a big hit with all who had a piece. On recommendation of previous posters, I used a mild-flavored olive oil, and the taste complimented the white wine without being overpowering or even clearly discernible at all. The cake was a breeze (!) to make and assemble, but looked elegant and worthy of a formal occasion.
This will be my personal birthday cake from this day on out! Thanks for the recipe.
AM H. February 20, 2015
Made this cake with Prosecco and a bit of orange blossom water and it was delicious! The birthday girl said it was the best birthday cake that she"s ever had.