There comes a time in every parent’s life when love must be expressed through buttercream, food dye, and sprinkles; I just didn’t know it would be so soon this time. For my daughter’s second birthday, I planned, as I had as had on her first and her brother’s 7 birthdays to date,* to do my best to heed the siren call of sugar and red dye 40 and then, you know, translate that into something that’s both tasty but not fully plastic. (This is all of parenting, by the way.) My plan had been to make a party-sized Swedish Princess Cake because have you had this buttery cake with custard, jam, whipped cream and a marzipan dome with a single pink rose in the middle? Nothing could be more fitting for our curly-haired wildling. But then Elmo happened.
A little sidebar: If you’ve thus spent most of your time free of toddlers, can I tell you something? It doesn’t matter whether you allow screen time, it doesn’t matter whether your precious clean slate of a human being has ever seen Sesame Street, whether you’ve bought the books or sung the songs, when children turn 18 months old, they all wake up one day obsessed with Elmo. It seems to come out of thin air. My daughter spotted this game of her brother’s out of the corner of her eye and cried EHLMA! EHMLA! until we let her walk around hugging and kissing the box. She sees a red splat of paint on the sidewalk and says “Ehlma?” My mother, witnessing this behavior in the wild, told me my daughter didn’t know or care the first thing about Swedish Princesses, but if I really wanted to put my efforts somewhere heroic, I’d make her an Elmo cake.
The problem is that I do not know how to draw Elmo. The problem is that Muppets are not splats of paint with eyes, and a line even a degree or two off goes instantly from the sweetest most heartwarming thing to Holy Creepsville. We’re talking Times Square Elmos, so close but also so unsettlingly off. In the end, though, I think things went much better than I’d expected.
You might ask, by the way, why I didn’t just draw Elmo on top of a Swedish Princess Cake since I claim to be committed to happy mediums. But I just think once you’re piping Muppets on top of a cake, you might as well grind some extra up inside it. (Shh, don’t tell the children.) You might as well go full funfetti.
So let’s talk confetti cakes. The best ones are white cakes — white cakes have no egg yolks to keep them as stark of a blank canvas as possible to show of their technicolor speckles of splendor within. They’re traditional for wedding cakes too. The problem with them is that they can be a little firm and dry. If I wanted a dry cake with a poorly drawn Elmo on top, well, I could outsource that to any grocery store bakery, right? So I began tweaking the white cake recipe I’d used previously and found that reducing the flour, the baking powder (I know!) and increasing the butter, I got a white cake as plush and perfect as the best yellow cake. I couldn’t believe it so I made it again, and then again, yielding what has to be the happiest cake I know how to make. It’s one-bowl, lit from within (with the help of some edible confetti) and basically pure joy — butter, sugar, buttermilk, vanilla.
From here, today’s cake program bifurcates. If you’re looking for a one-bowl, easy frosting, buttery, joyous birthday cake you can put together in very little time, you should make the 8×8 or 9-inch round party cake. It’s one thin layer with frosting on top. It is never unwelcome; it makes everyone happy. [Oh and please forgive the shameless self-promotion but I’d be remiss to not mention that if you’re into these kind of dead-simple, never-fail party cakes, that little cookbook I wrote that comes out this fall? Party Cake Heaven.]
But if you plan to celebrate with 2 to 3 dozen of your nearest and dearest, as we did this weekend, you will need a sheet cake. Mine was two thin layers with additional buttercream between them. It will make your dentist — and also everyone who is a kid on the inside or outside — very happy.
* Kid birthdays, previously: There have been monkey cakes (banana layers, fudge filling and frosting), bunny cakes (peaches, cream, vanilla), s’more cakes (in the first smitten kitchen cookbook, a graham cracker cake with fudge filling and marshmallow frosting), subway cakes (roasted apple chunks in a spice cake, cream cheese frosting and filling), airplane cakes (chocolate, chocolate), a rocket ship oreo cake I’ve been keeping from you because it is still too much of a pain to make as written and I don’t want you to yell at me), and a Baked Alaska.
Confetti Party Cake
For the sheet cake version of this, see notes at the end.
If you are fanatical about keeping this cake as white as possible, to best show off the sprinkles within, you might use clear imitation vanilla extract, but I couldn’t bring myself to because I love this stuff too much. Another option, and I did this in one version I tested, is to use the seeds scraped from an inch or two of a fresh vanilla bean, rubbed right into the sugar. Sure, you’ll have tiny black specks, but they’re barely noticeable and of course the vanilla flavor is exceptional. Or you can do as I did below, just use a little of the pure stuff, not enough that it will beige the cake in any significant way.
Finally, thanks to Molly Yeh’s tireless funfetti research — which helped set this cake off in the right direction, yay, even if I ultimately used my own recipe — we know that cakes like this work best with artificially colored sprinkles. I used a mix of 1/3 nonpareils-style (this bottle has great color range) and 2/3 long ones (the colors here look good but, um, do note the size of the jar) that two very nice readers given me. But, the nonpareils are actually not ideal here — they run very quickly, as soon as you mix them in — but I loved the dots of color throughout and used them anyway. Long rainbow sprinkles are best.
- 1/2 cup (115 grams or 4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2/3 cups (130 grams) granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 large egg whites
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup (120 ml) buttermilk
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 tablespoons (16 grams) cornstarch
- 1 cup (130 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup rainbow sprinkles
- 1/2 cup (115 grams or 4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 1/4 cups (150 grams) powdered sugar, sifted if lumpy
- Pinch of fine salt
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, plus more to taste
- 1 tablespoon milk or cream
- Rainbow sprinkles for decoration
Make cake: Beat butter, sugar, and salt together in a medium bowl. Add egg whites, one at a time, beating until combined and slightly fluffy. Add vanilla and buttermilk and beat to combine. The mixture will instantly look like cottage cheese and you will be sure it’s ruined but I promise it is not. Add baking powder and cornstarch and beat very well to combine. Scrape down sides of bowl and beat one second more. Add flour and mix just until it disappears. Use a rubber scraper to gently fold in sprinkles.
Bake cake: Spread batter in prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake for 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out batter-free. Let cool in pan on cooling rack for 5 minutes, then run a knife around the side to loosen the cake, flip it out onto the cooling rack, and slide the cooling rack into the freezer until cake is cool, about 10 to 15 minutes.
Frost and serve: While the cake cools, beat butter, sugar, salt and vanilla until fluffy, then add milk or cream and beat until smooth. Once cake is fully cool, transfer it to a serving plate. Spread frosting on top — you’ll have more than enough, so if you need to set some aside for small decorations or tinting and writing on the cake, this won’t be a problem. Finish with sprinkles. Share with friends.
How to Make a Confetti Sheet Cake: For the sheet cake version of this, triple the cake recipe and divide the batter between two 9×13-inch cake pans (mine were 935 grams of batter each). They bake for 18 to 20 minutes and yield two skinny cake layers that once frosted and filled make a 2-inch tall cake. I don’t know how to tell you this, I almost want to warn you to cover your ears, but if you want to fill and frost them the way I did, you’ll need to make five times the amount of frosting written. I actually made a 6x batch (1-pound boxes of powdered sugar hold 3 3/4 cups, so I used two in full), but it was too much (thank goodness). If your design is more elaborate, however, and you want more room for frosting error, just do the 6x. It feels a little late in this recipe for butter/sugar austerity, don’t you think?
How to “Elmo” Your Sheet Cake: My method was to copy some Muppet pictures from the web (I found looking for coloring pages yielded more linear pics), resize them, print them, and cut them out into stencils. Once the cake’s white frosting was set (in the fridge so it gets cold and firm), I briefly laid them over the cake and used a toothpick to make a light outline. I then cut the stencils further into eyes, noses, etc. and traced these on too. From there, it was just tinting tiny amounts of frosting the right colors and piping them on, like you were coloring in with a crayon. I used a Wilton #5 round tip for every part of the Muppets and the dots around the edges of the cake, and then a Wilton #2 for the corners of the mouths and eyeballs, but if you only had the #5, or even a #4, you’ll be just fine.