When it comes to birthdays, few foods hold as much meaning and anticipation as a piece of cake. After all, who wouldn’t want to spend their special day eating a treat that is uniquely their own—and getting a chance to make a wish as they blow out the candles? While many different kinds of cakes exist—chocolate, carrot, red velvet, angel food, etc.—the current birthday cake flavor craze is built on a particular combination of elements and ingredients: vanilla-forward white cake with multicolored sprinkles, sometimes called Funfetti, or even just a few brightly colored sprinkles. The flavor is unique, not polarizing to mainstream consumers, and for many people it brings back childhood memories of the scrumptious treat they enjoyed on their own special day.
To understand the appeal of this particular flavor, it’s important to recognize the historical context and evolution of birthday cakes themselves. In the 1700’s, when the tradition of birthday cakes with multiple layers, detailed icing, and decorations first originated in Germany, they were very expensive—so much so that only the wealthy could afford them. But as materials and production became more widespread with the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, it allowed bakeries to offer pre-made cakes at a much lower price point.
Today, the birthday cake is a staple in many cultures around the world. However, the round shape of the cake with candles started in Ancient Greece, not for birthdays, but to honor Artemis, the goddess of the moon and the hunt. Worshippers brought cakes in the shape of the moon to the temple, and when they were lit the resulting smoke represented a gift to the gods above. This practice has remained for thousands of years, and perhaps this is the origin of our modern “make a wish” tradition as we blow out the candles on our birthday cake.
When you think about it, there are few flavors more distinct than vanilla-forward white cake with a hint of sweetness and a sprinkle of fun. That’s why it’s such a classic and beloved dish.
But while the flavor itself is fairly universal, how it’s created has been more of a matter of fashion than a culinary tradition. According to Flavor Science, birthday cake flavor isn’t necessarily the same as traditional vanilla extract; it can have more of a powdery and artificial taste than a straight vanilla product. And while there are a few theories about what provides the birthday cake flavor, most agree that it’s primarily a result of the color and texture of the sprinkles used on a cake.
When choosing the sprinkles to use on your cake, it’s important to look for ones that are sealed in a coating of confectioner’s sugar or edible wax (also known as candy melts), so they won’t bleed into the batter or frosting and alter the overall flavor. These coatings also prevent the sprinkles from clumping together and creating a hard, uneven surface on the finished cake.