Ooh that Funfetti® cake mix, the taste of nearly universal childhood nostalgia. I was very excited about this bake off and clearly you were too, with the landslide of instagram poll votes that propelled “confetti” or “sprinkle” cake as the winning nomination over plain vanilla cake. (For those of you asking if confetti cake is simply vanilla with sprinkles…I think so.) However, with this bake off, I had a burning question in mind to be answered: is my go-to sprinkle cake recipe (Milk Bar’s birthday cake) actually the best from-scratch sprinkle cake recipe out there?
In other words, have I needlessly been pouring effort into this rather time-consuming cake all these years when there existed a very easy alternative? Let’s investigate.
All cakes were baked the day of and all of the frostings were made the day before. Approximately 25 friends tasted and ranked the cakes to get the below scores. Each taster ranked each cake (ONLY) on a scale from 1-10 overall, each frosting (ONLY) overall, and then had to rearrange each cake (as a WHOLE) in order from favorite (1) to least favorite (9).
Ingredients: We used Gold Medal flour (because Stella Parks says she prefers it for cakes), Land O’ Lakes butter (because I felt like these butter-based cakes deserved a splurge and this is the brand that America’s Test Kitchen uses, as stated in their new cookbook!), McCormick artificial vanilla, McCormick real vanilla extract, Diamond kosher salt, and Kroger sugar. I also invested in some Fat Daddio pans for optimal cake baking.
Sprinkles: For confetti cake, bakers will universally advise using jimmies (or the long rainbow sprinkles) versus nonpareils, or the little balls, which are much more prone to bleeding color. I had always used Kroger brand jimmies in the past, but I purchased brand-name Betty Crocker jimmies for this bake off. However, the Betty Crocker jimmies bled color as soon they came into contact with moisture, causing streaky, unappealing greenish/grayish batter–so I ended up running to Kroger in the middle of the bake off to get my trusty Kroger jimmies.
Looking at the ingredients, the first 3 ingredients in Betty’s jimmies were sugar, palm kernel oil and corn syrup vs. sugar, cornstarch and palm oil in Kroger jimmies. My theory is that the cornstarch helps the Kroger jimmies keep their shape better while the higher ratio of oil and syrup in Betty’s jimmies cause them to melt and bleed faster. Kroger jimmies are the only brand I’ve tried and can recommend, but Sally recommends these and Deb of Smitten Kitchen recommends these!
Recipe selection: As always, it was very difficult to pick eight recipes (we added a boxed mix at the last minute!). The more I read about cake techniques, the harder it was to pick just eight–in the end, I narrowed down the options by only selecting recipes that had been specifically written in the style of a Funfetti® cake (e.g. not just a well-reviewed white cake that I would have to doctor with sprinkles). I tried to select a mix of classic internet-famous recipes as well as recipes that represented different permutations of butter/oil/shortening/eggs/egg whites and mixing methods.
Here’s a list of all the recipes with their fat + egg combinations and mixing methods for reference:
- America’s Test Kitchen (Butter + egg whites, reverse creaming)
- Baked (Butter + shortening + oil + egg + egg whites, regular creaming)
- I Am Baker (Butter + shortening + eggs, regular creaming)
- Momofuku (Butter, oil, shortening, eggs, regular creaming)
- Molly Yeh (Butter, oil, egg whites, regular creaming)
- Sally’s Baking Addiction (Butter + egg + egg whites, regular creaming)
- Sweetapolita (Butter + egg + egg whites, reverse creaming)
- The Kitchn (Butter + shortening + egg whites, reverse creaming)
And just FYI in case you aren’t familiar with the concept of reverse creaming:
- Traditional vs. reverse creaming: Traditional creaming beats butter and sugar together to incorporate air into the batter before adding eggs, then flour (at which point the protein in the flour will begin to activate once in contact with moisture). Reverse creaming generally begins by mixing together the dry ingredients, then beating in the butter so that the flour gets coated in butterfat before liquid (eggs) are added, slowing gluten formation. Here is a fascinating read (with great pics!) on reverse creaming: (I read her entire series on baking cake before the bake off)
- Speaking of eggs, during this bake off, I learned the answer to a benign question that I had never thought to ask: what is the difference between vanilla cake and white cake? According to Google, vanilla cakes can encompass both yellow cakes (generally made with whole eggs or just egg yolks) and white cakes (generally made with only egg whites).
So, I have never had such differing personal opinions from the final results. I think one factor that may have thrown off the rankings (in my opinion, which I will elaborate more on at the end, is that the frostings varied WILDLY and it was difficult for most tasters to separate the frosting from the cake when ranking both the cake-only and overall ratings. Thus, even if there was a really strong cake, a divisive frosting could cause it to tank in the overall score.
Throwing in a strong reminder that I am not a professional baker and these bake offs are done purely for fun. So take these results with a grain of salt! (Thanks Skyler for the data vizes!)
And now, for the extended cake analysis in order from #1 to #9:
Sally’s Baking Addiction’s Funfetti Layer Cake (Cake: 6.48 / Frosting: 7.44)
Sally’s all-butter cake yielded a thick, plush cake with a fairly heavy crumb with a great distribution of sprinkles and a flavor that was sort of reminiscent of a moist pound cake. It avoids being too heavy with a light and fluffy buttercream where you can just barely detect the sugar granules, a characteristic that I love in frosting. I’ve made a bunch of unsatisfying buttercreams in the past, and I think the key to Sally’s fantastic frosting is the use of heavy cream and an ideal ratio of 2 cups of powdered sugar to 1 stick of butter. Although some complained the frosting was too sweet, this will probably be my go-to buttercream in the future.
“A top contender. The cake is a little too buttery for me but the icing is stellar,” agreed one taster. “Great cake, great frosting, classic taste” sums up the general feeling on this cake. For the most part, this cake is straightforward to make–except that it requires egg whites to be whipped separately and folded into the batter. This extra step will, in all honesty, probably keep me from making the cake my go-to in the future. This wasn’t my ideal cake (the cake was just a bit too thick and heavy), but it is objectively a delicious cake.
Make this if: You want a buttery, thick and fool-proof cake with a sweet and killer frosting.
Pillsbury’s Funfetti® Cake (Cake: 6.88, Frosting: 6.32)
We added a Pillsbury boxed mix cake at the last minute as a control–and both surprisingly and unsurprisingly, it vied for top marks. Upon tasting it blind, I could immediately detect the distinctly boxed mix flavor, but even my bias couldn’t deny the dirty satisfaction of that pillowy, light-as-a-cloud boxed mix texture. Boxed Funfetti® is what most people know and love, and I think nostalgia played a key role in the cake’s high rating.
“Definitely stands out as a classic confetti,” said one taster. “I think this is the box one but I don’t care I love it. It’s got a unique tang or saltiness that just feels right,” said another taster, which pinpoints 50% of my feels about this cake. Even though the frosting tasted distinctly processed in comparison to all the others, it was still irresistible on some level. On the other hand, one taster pronounced it “processed garbage,” which is also true on another level. Bottom line: if you decide to skip the from-scratch cake, most people will be pretty happy with this shortcut. (But note the lack of color in the cake. The poor sprinkle distribution was so disappointing!)
Make this if: You’re short on time. Everyone will still love it.
Baked’s Ultimate Birthday Cake (Cake: 5.96, Frosting: 5.68)
This combination of butter and shortening batter baked up into a picture-perfect cake dense with sprinkles. The slightly shaggy crumb also made for a dense, almost melt in your mouth cake with great frosting. Like Sally’s cake, this cake called for whipping egg whites separately that get folded into the batter. Overall, this was a slightly more finicky cake to make, so it won’t be my go-to in the future, but it did bake up beautifully tall with an excellent distribution of sprinkles. When baked into the full, 3-layer recipe and all done up with a coating of sprinkles, this cake is a true showstopper. Like Sally’s cake, this cake was just a tad dense for my taste, but nonetheless a very solid cake.
Make this if: You want a picture-perfect, towering sprinkle cake for a crowd.
Sweetapolita’s Funfetti Layer Cake (Cake: 5.64, Frosting: 5.48)
Rosie of Sweetapolita uses a recipe that’s adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s white velvet cake and Baking Bites’ classic white cake recipe, which uses the reverse creaming technique. Accordingly, the resulting texture was drastically different from the conventional creaming methods–a super light and very close crumb. Rosie advises to watch the baking time very closely and I can see why–the texture was a tiny bit dry and with any overbaking, it could have been far drier.
Most found the overall cake flavor a bit bland, though it was saved by the sweet buttercream. “Buttery icing added a nice sugary balance to an otherwise slightly bland cake,” commented one taster (note that this frosting ratio was closer to a 1:1 ratio of powdered sugar to butter compared to Sally’s 2:1 ratio, and I personally far preferred Sally’s frosting). With the help of a stand mixer, this cake was actually a breeze to make, so I’m keeping it on my short list for when I want a very light, bakery-style cake.
Make this if: You like very tight-crumbed cakes that would be a dream to stack, layer-cake style.
Molly Yeh’s Funfetti Cake (Cake: 5.04, Frosting: 5.56)
Compared to the other cake recipes, Molly’s was a breeze to make! The recipe was straightforward and easy to follow, resulting in a thick and slightly bready cake with a light and sweet icing. Unfortunately, most tasters found the cake a bit unmemorable, and some noted an artificial taste (probably due to the use of clear imitation vanilla). Some enjoyed the dense texture while others found the taste a bit floury. Some didn’t enjoy the buttercream (essentially a 1:1 sugar to butter ratio), noting that it was too sweet and buttery. One taster summed up the general consensus with this comment: “Nice cake; I wouldn’t say no to it but not very memorable.”
Make this if: You love a slightly breadier (think muffin-like) cake texture and you want a fast and approachable recipe.
America’s Test Kitchen (Cake: 4.64, Frosting: 4.84)
This recipe actually won this white cake bake off, so I had high expectations. In the description of ATK’s newest cake book, The Perfect Cake, the success factors are described as reverse creaming, which helps give a close, tight crumb while maintaining moisture. Unfortunately, the first layer I baked came out with a dual layers: a dense 2-inch eggy base that was topped with a 1/2-inch layer of light and perfect cake. So I re-baked the layer (but accidentally creamed the butter and sugar for a bit too long), which led to a buttery, spongy cake that was probably denser than it should have been and a bit flavorless in some taster’s opinion. In both instances, all of the sprinkles fell to the bottom of the cake instead of being evenly distributed (probably some baker’s error on my part).
“The cake was not sweet, but the frosting compensated,” noted one taster. While the cake didn’t receive the highest of ranks, most loved the lightness of the whipped vanilla frosting, which was super smooth with a very buttery flavor (and very similar to Sally’s frosting, with just slightly less than a 2:1 sugar to butter ratio). Overall, because this cake uses egg whites only (and I hate wasting/using up leftover egg yolks), this probably will not be my go-to cake either, though I am looking forward to trying it again until I get a result like the picture perfect one in their book!!
Make this cake if: You have egg whites to use up and you want a pure white, tight-crumbed cake.
I am Baker’s Funfetti Cake (Cake: 5.56, Frosting: 4.20)
Here was a prime example of a cake being demoted due to an unpopular frosting–although this cake ranked fifth place, the frosting was ranked second to last, which dropped it to an overall 7th place finish. I am Baker’s whipped vanilla buttercream calls for a whopping 4:1 sugar to butter ratio–far more sugar than any of the other buttercreams, resulting in a VERY thick, very sweet frosting that nearly resembled cement once it dried out the next day. The cake was actually a standout for me, even though baking it made me very nervous–you pour what seems like an impossibly large amount of batter into an 8-inch cake pan and bake it until a thick brown crust develops. I was petrified I had overbaked it, but we ended up with a nicely sweet, very colorful cake (did I mention the cake uses 1.5 cups of sprinkles?) with a gorgeously crunchy crust.
Many wondered if this cake contained almond extract or even the King Arthur Flour princess flavoring–however, I think this flavor actually came from the all the sprinkles in batter. While one complained almost plasticky, one noted it tasted like a sugar cookie–I would agree more with the latter. “Tastes like Greek wedding cookies (almond oil??)” wrote one taster. While one noted that the frosting tasted a bit like marzipan, most others thought it was just too sweet, dense and heavy. Texture-wise, I thought this cake was very similar to Baked, but with a more pronounced crust and better flavor. Overall, this cake was very easy to make (and uses whole eggs!). If using part shortening is not your thing, this cake is also very similar to Love and Olive Oil’s cake, which uses all butter.
Make this if: You love a crunchy crust and tons of sprinkles! I think this is one of the best cakes for the least effort.
The Kitchn’s Funfetti Birthday Cake (Cake: 4.80, Frosting: 4.32)
Virtually no one could get past the bright yellow, margarine-hued frosting on this cake that gave off the appearance of straight butter. In fact, the color came from the egg yolks that formed the base of this cooked mousseline buttercream. A hot sugar syrup is whisked into the egg yolks before adding a boatload of softened butter. “Looks like butter, tastes like butter,” said one taster, and I had to agree. I was not a fan of this frosting at all, and unfortunately the cake didn’t fare much better. Like Sweetapolita, this cake was adapted from Rose Levy Berenbaum’s white velvet cake recipe, but shortening was added to ensure a very white and tender cake. The resulting cake was indeed white and had an almost cottony close crumb that was a bit dry and vaguely pound cake like, all with a very neutral flavor. “I actually don’t mind the egg yolk icing…but I don’t like the combo,” said one taster. I preferred Sweetapolita’s cake over this one, but overall most were not too impressed.
Unfortunately, I would not make this again.
Momofuku Milk Bar’s Birthday Cake (Cake: 4.12, Frosting: 2.88)
I’ve made Milk Bar’s birthday cake probably just shy of 10 times, but this was the only time I’ve followed the recipe exactly to the letter (grapeseed oil, citric acid, glucose and all)–and somehow, everyone HATED it! “This icing was salty or sour, it tastes like old yogurt or Greek yogurt, “frosting overwhelmed cake, why is it so salty,” and “frosting tasted like nail polish” were just a few of the comments we got on the frosting.
The frosting did indeed taste tangy and almost a bit lemony, which makes me think I may have overdone the “pinch” of citric acid. People remarked that the cake was perfectly moist but the frosting was simply too salty, which ruined the cake. I used Diamond Crystal kosher salt; next time, I will either use my larger-grained kosher salt or cut this amount in half. I still think this cake crumb and flavor was the best overall (I really don’t know why the cake rating was so low)–it was definitely the closest to Pillsbury’s soft and moist crumb out of all the cakes. Of course, it’s still kind of a pain in the butt to make, but I think it’s worth it. Make this and tell me if I’m crazy!
Make this if: do you really need a reason?
Even though it goes completely against the spirit of these bake offs, my honest favorite was still the Momofuku cake! I think had people separated the cake from the frosting, the cake would have been scored much higher. Getting to taste all the cakes side by side made me realize that Christina Tosi has indeed done something special with her strange, high-fat combo of butter, oil and shortening, resulting in a cake crumb that was distinctly unique from all the rest–not as finely crumbed as the reverse-creamed cake, but not as bready and heavy as some of the regular creamed cakes. So, my ultimate confetti cake based on the ones we tried would be the Momofuku cake paired with Sally’s Baking Addiction’s frosting. My close second place cake would be I am Baker’s cake with Sally’s frosting.
In closing, I would like to thank Serious Eats/Stella Parks and Baking Sense for some seriously helpful cake tips that helped me avoid a ton of cake mistakes that I probably would have made. Highly recommend checking out their tips!
The tl;dr Awards:
Most universally crowd-pleasing cake: Sally’s Baking Addiction
Best cake for the least effort: I am Baker
Fastest cake to make: Molly Yeh (okay UGH fine, Pillsbury if we’re being technical)
Most effort for best payoff: Momofuku (but don’t bother with the finicky frosting if you don’t want to)