Gillian gives us the definitive birthday cake recipe

Gillian came to the rescue when Annabelle had a mental breakdown in the kitchen, texting her a birthday cake recipe. Now Annabelle has turned into a baking machine - whipping up several birthday cakes using Gillian's recipe. It's the only one you need people!

Gillian came to the rescue when Annabelle had a mental breakdown in the kitchen, texting her a birthday cake recipe. Now Annabelle has turned into a baking machine - whipping up several birthday cakes using Gillian's recipe. It's the only one you need people!


by Gillian Bell

We all need a decent birthday cake recipe up our sleeve. One that we can quickly knock up from what’s in our larder and refrigerator. And one that you can use with any size cake tin you have to hand.

Whether you choose to make a modest cake, dusted with icing sugar and topped with fresh flowers or a more elaborate number with piped buttercream swags, here’s my humble offering. It’s the one that Annabelle made, very successfully,  in episode 4  of the podcast, despite the initial panic and the mix up with the ganache recipe. The photos say it all, really .

Believe me,  there are a limited number of cake types in the world and you could probably count them on your two hands. Most of the recipes you see in cookbooks are just variations on these.  Baking books are very lovely (I have hundreds) but don’t let them undermine your confidence or render you impotent. There was a time when they didn’t exist, the cake world still functioned perfectly, ordinary people baked in their kitchens with basic ovens, and children didn’t miss out. With that said, let’s get baking!

I’ve offered some ways you might like to change things around each time you bake this one – just for some variety. But your ideas are heartily encouraged. Enjoy yourself.

Here’s some general things to remember:

(1)  In  Australia  and  in  the  UK,    butter  is  generally  sold  in  either  250gm  or  500gm  blocks,  so  if  you  don’t  have  scales  (as  Annabelle  didn’t), for this recipe,  use 1  x  250gm   plus  a  ¼  of  a  250gm  block of butter.  In  the  US,  a  stick  of  butter  is  110g.  But if you like baking cakes, I encourage you to buy a cheap digital scale. You can even measure your liquids with them.

(2) the  best  result  in cake-making will  be  when  all  your  ingredients  are  at  room  temperature.  Yes,  including the  eggs  and  milk.  And softened butter doesn’t mean melted butter. Ideally, if you stuck your finger into a block of softened butter, you would be able to, easily  and the hole would remain perfectly formed when you removed it. .(I’m sounding like the late Professor Sumner-Miller)

(3) Always preheat your oven. Don’t put a cake in an oven that is still reaching the desired heat.

(4) The following quantity is based on you owning/borrowing  2  x  9”/23cm  round  tins about 4cm/2in in depth.   

If you have a deep 1 x 8”/20cm, you could bake one whole cake and you will just need to bake it longer. We’ll come to that. You’ll have some mixture left over probably, but don’t waste it. Make a little cake for next week’s morning tea in a mug.


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Line your cake tins  with  parchment  paper  or  lightly, but thoroughly  grease them with butter.  This is so the cake easily slides out of the tin when its baked.

Preheat  your  oven  to  180  degrees  celcius/350F.    


300gms  of  softened  butter.  I  usually  use  unsalted,  but  if  you  only  have  salted,  use  that:)  
6  large,  organic  eggs  
3  cups  of  sifted self-raising  (self-rising)  flour.  If  you  only  have  plain (all-purpose  flour)  you’ll need to add  6  level  teaspoons  of  baking  powder  to  3  cups  of  plain  flour  and  sift  together  at  least  3  times.  It’s really important the baking powder is evenly distributed through the cake.
½  cup  of  full  fat  milk  

Ok. Cake tins are ready, ingredients are room temperature, butter is softened, oven is hot.

Now, you can use a mixer or do this by hand.
Beat  the  butter  and  sugar  together  until  the  butter  has  turned  a  very  pale  cream/white  colour.  

Add  the  eggs,  one  at  a  time,  beating slowly  until  fully  combined before adding the next.  It will look like it doesn’t want to come together, then the lecitin in the egg yolk will work its magic and your ingredients will suddenly coe together.

Now fold  in  half  the  sifted  flour,  then  half  the  milk  (fold,  fold),  then  the  remaining  flour,  fold,  then  the  last  of  the  milk.  

Fold  it  all  together  until  it’s  one  lovely  smooth  batter.  Then  stop.   Your  batter  should  be  a  good  ‘dropping’ consistency, that is, it falls easily from the spoon.  If  not,  add  a    ¼  of  a  cup  of  milk  and  fold  that  in.  It’s not you, you’ve done nothing wrong. It’s just the different flour types in your country/region which hydrate at different levels.

Pour  equal  of  amounts  of  batter  into  each  of  your  tins.  Spread  evenly  in  tin  with  back  of  spoon.    Bake  for  about  45-50mins.  If you are doing one deep cake, you will need to bake it for about 50-55 mins, but these times will vary slightly depending on your oven.  When  the  smell  of  the  cake  fills  the  room,  it’ll  be  ready.  But  test  it  first  by  sticking  a  skewer  (Annie  used  a  twig  from  her  garden)  into  the  centre  of  the  cake.  Remove  it.  If  there  is  wet  batter  or very damp butter on  your  skewer,  return  it  to  the  oven  for  about  6-8  mins,  then  try  again.  It won’t sink at this point. If it does, call me.

Remove your cake(s) from the oven and leave them for about 10mins in their tins before turning them out, upside down, onto a wire cooling rack. These are very helpful.  If you don’t have one, I suggest you invest in a large one. Allow your cake to cool completely.

Decision time. You can wrap these up very tightly and keep them in the fridge for use later or in a few days time. Or freeze them.  They will be great months down the track. It’s the fats in cakes that makes for great keeping qualities. But when you’re ready, you can slice your cakes horizontally, if you want more layers, fill the layers, and decorate them as you wish.

Here are a few ideas for varities of this cake recipe and some fillings and frostings.

Lemon cake
Zest the rind of 3 large, unwaxed lemons into your beaten butter and sugar.
Replace ¼ cup of the milk with fresh lemon juice.

Chocolate cake
Replace ¼ cup of flour with ¼ cup of a good quality cocoa powder. If you want an even more unctuous chocolate cake, add 80gms of melted, but cool, dark chocolate to the batter. Get the best quality one you can afford. It does make a difference.

And to fill your cake, this chocolate cream you won’t be able to stop eating.

Chocolate cream
250ml milk
2 tbsp cocoa
2 tbsp cornflour
100g caster sugar
2 egg yolks
100g dark bitter chocolate, chopped
125-150ml double cream

Whisk the cold milk with the cocoa, cornflour, sugar and two egg yolks in a saucepan. Then place this mixture over a moderate heat and whisk it continuously until it is boiling and very thick. Now remove it from the heat and beat in the chocolate until it melts through evenly. Next, spoon this on to a dinner plate, cover it with cling film or another plate and leave until cold. Finally, stir in the double cream and beat with an electric whisk until thick and smooth.

If you want something simpler, quicker:

Whip together butter and icing sugar with about 250g of cream cheese. You could add some zested lemon rind for a lovely taste, or some cocoa for a chocolate frosting. Balance the ingredients to your taste.  There aren’t really any firm rules with this. Trust me.

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