For every birthday in our family, my mom bakes a cake. Not just any cake — a decadent chocolate-on-chocolate affair.

The presentation has changed with our family over the decades. Twenty years ago, the chocolate cake made a splash as a whale for my sister’s 8th birthday. Fifteen years ago, it transformed into a Pikachu for my brother’s 9th. Just last month, for my 31st, the cake was an artistic vision in ripe raspberries and colorful cosmos, all circling a long violet candle.

So yes, creativity is a key ingredient in birthday cake. But flavor reins supreme once the candles are out, and this cake has it by the forkful.

Like many of the best recipes, it is simple: the cockeyed cake. My mom improved the classic by doubling the quantities for a festive two-layered treat and substituting the richest, highest quality version of the main ingredients — whole-wheat flour for white, extra virgin olive oil for canola, dark-roast coffee for water and so on. She still has a recipe card complete with her edits and with my chocolatey fingerprints from the days when I was her sous chef/resident taster.

Today is my mom’s birthday, so I am baking her the only cake our family recognizes. I can only hope to channel her creativity in the decoration department. Wish me luck — and wish my mom happy birthday!


Betsy’s Cockeyed Cake
Recipe modified by Betsy Pearson

3 cups whole-wheat flour
6 tablespoons dark cocoa
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 cups brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for greasing
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups cold coffee

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease two 8- by 8-inch pans.* 

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, sugar and salt. (Mom’s tip: Forget about sifting.)

Make 3 holes in the mixture. Pour the olive oil in one, the balsamic vinegar in the next and vanilla in the last. Pour cold coffee over all.

Beat until nearly smooth and no flour shows. (My inner 7-year-old’s tip: Lick the spoon! [My requisite adult warning: Salmonella is found in raw flour.])

Divide the batter evenly into the two prepared pans, and bake for 30 minutes.

When a knife or toothpick comes out cleanly from the center of the cakes, remove from the oven and set on a rack. Let cool, then remove from the pans.

Top with your favorite frosting (Betsy is partial to chocolate) and decoration theme (spoiler: I am going with “The Universe”). Pair with singing, ice cream, family and friends.

Because really, the secret to birthday cake is baking it for someone you love.


*Author’s note: Since the recipe was published in print, my mom shared another cake tip with me. Always use parchment paper! So I suggest lining the two pans with parchment paper to ensure the cake layers come cleanly out of the pans.